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Finnish on a High Note

Finland's extraordinary musical heritage comes into focus as Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the charge of his countrymen at Ojai.

May 30, 1999|JOSEF WOODARD | Josef Woodard writes frequently about music for Sunday Calendar

"The Finnish are coming," screams the Ojai Festival advertising campaign. It's an irresistible marketing hook for the annual musical event: Esa-Pekka Salonen has taken the reins as the 1999 guest music director and liberally stocked the program with artists and works from his home country.

"I've always felt that it's important to, once and for all, do something to let people outside Finland know the immensity of Finnish musical talent," says Ernest Fleischmann, Salonen's recently retired boss at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and now the artistic director at Ojai.

The Finnish roster for the festival--which has been expanded to five days rather than the usual three--includes Magnus Lindberg as composer in residence, cellist Anssi Kartunnen, the renegade Toimii Ensemble (among whose members are Salonen, Lindberg and Kartunnen) and pianist Olli Mustonen.

With Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, they'll offer up, among other composers, the work of Lindberg (including two U.S. premieres), Kaija Saariaho (a Finn now based at IRCAM in Paris), Sibelius (Symphony No. 1) and a certain other binational composer-conductor. On Friday, Salonen's "Giro" will get its U.S. premiere, along with the world premiere of his song cycle "Sappho Fragments."

Despite the concentration of Finnish musical energies, Salonen makes clear that the festival is not a survey. "This is a very narrow and specific segment of Finnish music," he said, "which involves a few composers of my own generation." He started designing the program, in fact, around the U.S. premiere of his longtime ally Lindberg's elaborate orchestra plus solo-ensemble piece "Kraft."

"My first thought was that it would be wonderful to do 'Kraft' in the beautiful landscape of Ojai," Salonen recalls. "Then, the rest of the program sort of grew around that. The Finnish 'invasion' happened almost automatically, because, if you do 'Kraft,' you need the [Toimii] ensemble in addition to the orchestra."

The result is that the real star at Ojai will be the Finnish music machine. Consider the numbers: This 80-year-old country, with a population of 5 million (just over half that of L.A. County), boasts 30 orchestras, 15 of which are full-time professional ensembles. Each year, its 50-plus arts festivals--which emphasize music, especially classical music--attract more than a million visitors.

Finland has produced a passel of young star conductors--from Salonen to Jukka-Pekka Saraste in Toronto, and the latest, Sakari Oramo, who made an auspicious local debut with the Philharmonic a few weeks ago and is following Simon Rattle as leader of England's City of Birmingham Symphony. Finland has produced Grammy nominees (Salonen as a conductor, composer Einojuhani Rautavarra, for "Angel of Light," a top-selling 1994 CD in the minimalist mode of Arvo Part or Henryk Gorecki) and such internationally known solo performers as Mustonen and singers Jorma Hynninen, Monica Groop and Matti Salminen.

"On a per capita basis," claims Fleischmann, "there are more people involved in music in Finland than anywhere else, and probably more practicing musicians of international caliber than anywhere else."

It's "an amazing phenomenon," he continues. "We're just seeing the tip of an immense iceberg at Ojai."

Any examination of the Finnish music boom leads back to Jean Sibelius, born in 1865, the first Finnish composer to gain international renown. Identified with the Finnish independence

movement (Finland became a nation in 1919) and championed at home and abroad for such works as "Finlandia" and his First and Second symphonies, Sibelius was Finland, in much the same way that Churchill came to be identified with Great Britain, according to biographer Robert Layton.

The impact on Finnish culture has been profound. As Fleischmann says: "If a composer can become a national hero, then music must be something important."

Pekka Hako, who has headed the Finnish Musical Information Center for 10 years, points to Finland's elaborate public education system, which includes programs to identify young talent and nurture it in music institutes and conservatories, and at the highest level, the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.

The Sibelius Academy groomed Salonen and practically every other Finnish musician of international note. It started as a private conservatory in 1882 (Sibelius attended from 1885-1890) but became a state school in 1966, supported by the ministry of education and offering free tuition.

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