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Nation-wide celebration of Finland’s international star

General rehearsal of the concert. Credits: Saara Autere

Helsinki Festival 2018 that took place in the end of summer 2018 included a wide range of top class concerts, theatre and dance performances and was one of the events that attracted lots of visitors, international artists and Finnish audiences alike. It was complemented by installations and exhibitions in main museums of the city and indeed made Helsinki the focal point of cultural buzz. The highlights of its classical music programme were the visit of Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony (extraordinary in its scale and efforts needed for its realization) conducted by Hannu Lintu and featuring Finland’s finest soloists (including Camilla Nylund, Anu Komsi, Helena Juntunen and Lilli Paasikivi) lined up on stage along with representatives of best Finnish choirs and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It also had a wonderful programme of music mixed with dance where the renowned Tero Saarinen Company presented its choreographically complex Zimmermann Trio based on the music of Bernd Alois Zimmermann, with Susanna Mälkki conducting Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. The Festival indeed showcased its most famous classical musicians, and it started with the concert that celebrated Finland’s probably most well-known international star – Esa-Pekka Salonen.

It was quite a revelation to see the level at which the country celebrates Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 60th birthday. His birth date is actually 30th June and was already marked by three consecutive birthday concerts in Europe: Schoenberg’s magnificent, rarely heard Gurrelieder were hand-picked by Salonen himself for this occasion and were performed twice – in London and Paris, while Ravello Festival opened its programme with another celebration of the artist. However, Finnish concert was a special one, and was the occasion to celebrate Salonen's jubilee in his own country, among his long-time admirers and supporters and with long-term collaborators and colleagues. The tickets were sold out in a few days, and the event became a highly sought-for occasion. It proceeded in a beautiful new building of Finnish National Opera near the lake in the centre of Helsinki and was named the event of the year, being streamed online and broadcast on Yle TV, increasing its audiences to several millions in Finland and even more in other countries. In parallel with this broadcast, two documentary films about Esa-Pekka Salonen were re-transmitted, one showing a young adult in his 20s coping with sudden fame while still keeping connections with his normal life in Helsinki, the other ('Miehes Tie' which is translated as 'The Man's Way') jumping in time to show an international star based in Los Angeles describing his leadership of LA PHIl orchestra, his philosophy of life, work and creating music.

Considering the scale of the event and its transmission to international audiences, it is a pity that English subtitles were not introduced neither on stage nor in the broadcast, making it slightly difficult for international music critics to get their bearings amongst witty Finnish jokes and comments exchanged in abundance between the host of the evening, a singer and composer Paula Vesala, and Esa-Pekka Salonen himself. However, the atmosphere was radiant and sparkling from the very beginning, when beautifully dressed men and women started to fill the hall of the National Opera. It continued to be so until the very late hours of the night, as an afterparty with two young bands Tölölab and Elifantree performing their own music and inviting other young musicians to play Salonen’s solo pieces was also part of this event that developed into a symbolic connection between two generations of Finnish classical music.

Rehearsal of the concert. Credits: Saara Autere

The concert featured a refined programme curated by Salonen himself where he chose a suprising variety of pieces for himself to conduct and invited several other friends (including a singer Paula Vesala, conductor Alan Gilbert and a collective Korvat Auki) to participate in the evening with their own choices of musical material. It also involved many semi-improvised discussions between its host Paula Vesala and Salonen that were funny and sometimes even interactive, as audiences were invited to sing along at certain moments. Due to such format it felt like an intimate birthday evening the scale of which was amplified due to many guests wishing to attend the party. I felt that in countries like Finland one indeed builds up more personal connections with people due to its relatively close-knit community of classical music artists and because of the country cherishing its international stars almost like relatives of the family. In the case of Salonen one could speak of a prodigal son who had been away in Stockholm, Los Angeles and London before returning to be actively involved in Finnish musical life, planning to conduct Debussy’s 'Pélleas et Mélisande' in the Finnish National Opera in May 2019 and stage the whole Wagner ring through the following years.

After a symbolic countdown appearing on the walls of the magnificent opera building, the evening started with a composition 'Massahumu' that was envisioned collectively by five young composers (Niilo Tarnanen, Touko Niemi, Matilda Seppälä, Lauri Supponen and Joel Järventausta) from the Korvat Auki collective that kept the connection with the initial one organized by Salonen and friends (Lindberg, Saariaho) in the 1970s. That was a very extravagant piece with musicians positioned on stage and at different levels of the building, forming rays of the sun with a conductor’s box being the centre, and texts including congratulatory phrases for Salonen posted by people around the world on various social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook). It was almost impossible for non-Finnish person to understand, and one just enjoyed the atmosphere of a happening, with a video of Esa-Pekka appearing like deus ex machina in the projected lift leading to his actual appearance to conduct the end of creation that was enhanced by changes of light supervised by Thomas Freundlich.

Concert's host Paula Vesala during the rehearsal. Credits: Saara Autere

Then, after a birthday cake was given to Salonen to taste by Paula Vesala who was dressed in a very elegant dress resembling a Japanese kimono, an unusual piece by Heinrich Biber – Battalia (1673) – was played by the musicians of Finnish National Opera orchestra. It is a piece beloved by Salonen – it has been performed in several of his programmes – and consists of 8 seemingly disconnected pieces that present music as a joyous, humorous battle with some instruments seemingly running astray and sounding off tune and then coming back to tender, melancholic harmonies. 14 musicians (mainly string) stand on stage, surrounding the conductor, and sometimes even tap the rhythm with their feet, with the bass player using cooking paper to distort the sound. The piece represented Salonen’s attitude to music making and perception voiced by him many times before. We should not be in awe with the music we hear, but rather should digest it physically, almost like food and drink, making it part of our daily routine and not something ephemeral listened to once in a month.

The evening continued with the theme of physicality and latent power of music influencing audiences in a real time and changing their levels of energy. After an exchange between Vesala and Salonen joking about social realism and its legacy in the modern world, a piece of Russian musical modernism was heard. It was 'Iron Foundry' (1927) composed by Alexander Mosolov at the time when composers in Soviet Russia and abroad experimented with representing the sounds of real everyday life (including the sounds of mechanisms and factories) in music. One could recall mind-blowing 'Ameriques' by Edgard Varèse (written between 1918 and 1921 and revised at the same time – in 1927) performed in the Barbican Hall during LA Phil residency in May 2018.

In this short piece lasting only four minutes one gets immersed in the life of a factory, hearing its metallic lathes at work while Moloch suppresses individual instrumental voices to merge them into one body. This piece somehow reflects Salonen’s tastes as a composer, as he even calls some parts of his compositions ‘machines’ as opposed to ‘chorales’, and likes to build his music up to dense seas of orchestral sounds driven by muscular inner sources of energy, never letting the listener rest or calm down. The first part of the evening finished with Alan Gilbert coming up to a conductor’s box to perform Suite No 1 from Ravel’s 'Daphnis et Chloé' (1911). A long-term friend of Salonen, Alan Gilbert, while choosing his own tempi for Ravel’s masterpiece and containing its sounds in refined accuracy and tenderness, never let the evening lose its vitality and energy bursting from every musician and every sound, as though even musical instruments themselves paid homage to the never-ending energy of Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Words from colleague and friends. Credits: Saara Autere

The next part of the concert started with the solo piece by Paula Vesala – 'Olin kerran täällä' (2018) which was very atmospheric, with lights dimmed and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting his own orchestration of Vesala’s song. She was full of charisma, drawing audiences into her own world which was very complementary to that of Salonen on the evening. Then the video designer Jaakko Manninen made a new video surprise for the audiences – a collage of kind words from Esa-Pekka Salonen’s colleagues and friends whose participation marked important milestones in his career: Leila Josefowicz, Peter Sellars, Kaija Saariaho. Their faces and words were appearing gradually on the backdrop of backstage pictures, with Salonen intently listening to what they had to say about him, and audiences getting new insights about the artist. Then, following the logic of the evening, Salonen conducted his own brand new piece Pollux (2018), with its orchestral palitre reminding us of his beloved Debussy and leading us into dreamy, translucent, but still intense spheres from where one did not want to exit. Here Salonen explored new pathways opening for him as he was celebrating his 60th birthday – that of philosophy in music, and possibility of meditation through sounds – the area still new to him as a composer, although he has been called by many colleagues a philosopher on the musical podium.

The evening finished with another Russian piece (the presence of Russia through music and history is never too far in Finland as one can feel in Helsinki) – a coronation scene from Modest Musorgski’s opera ‘Boris Godunov’ (1869) was performed by Finnish National opera choir and the renowned soloist Matti Salminen. It was interesting to hear a famous Russian aria about the inner fears and tribulations of Godunov during his coronation, and there was something in it that turned the evening into a different vein – that of anticipation and introspection amid the festivities. One might think of Salonen himself feeling sligthly weary amongst the celebratory events, as the innuendos and uncertainty of future are still unavoidable even for an established artist like him. But the tune of Happy Birthday (sung in Finnish, English, Russian and many other languages) dismissed that melancholic tone, with all the soloists, the host Paula Vesala and Salonen himself appearing to take the final bow of the evening.

Credits: Saara Autere

This wonderful event proceeded with an afterparty where Salonen’s solo piece for cello 'Knock, Breath, Shine' was performed masterfully by young Senja Rummukainen, while his other composition for solo violin 'Lachen verlernt' also drew attention of the public for its virtuosity. Young musicians entertained the guests who found time to stay till midnight, and one had an opportunity to talk to all the soloits and guests of the evening in a very democratic atmosphere of drinks and snacks purchased at the bar, friendly pictures made and shared, handshakes and hugs exchanged. Esa-Pekka Salonen was one of the last to leave the room, and generously encouraged young composers from Korvat Auki to continue with their endeavours and be brave and confident in creating new sounds out of silence even if the orchestras are sometimes hesitant in accepting them. One hopes that the 65th and 70th birthday of the Finnish international star will be celebrated with the same mix of democracy, familial intimacy, interactive fun and daring programme-making as it was on August 17, 2018. And hopefully, Salonen himself will again lead the evening both as a programmer and a conductor, as his presence on both sides - receiving and giving - indeed proved most effective during a wonderful evening of a late summer day in Helsinki. May be in future, though, a stadium could be booked to let all the admirers and connoisseurs (potentially multiplying in thousands by that time) to be part of the fun.

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