Friday, September 16, 2005

Finnish music lovers discover Tallinn

Helsingin Sanomat (International Edition - Culture), September 9, 2005
By Vesa Sirén

The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra is playing its "end of summer" concert to a full house in Tallinn’s Methodist Church.

Olari Elts, who won the Sibelius Conductors’ Competition five years ago, brandishes the baton. He has again found the time to pop into his home town in the midst of all of his busy travel schedule, which increasingly takes him to Germany, the Nordic Countries, Australia, and more recently, to the United States.

The 34-year-old Elts is not the only Estonian music professional making an international career for himself. Famous conductors include Neeme Järvi, who is rapidly approaching retirement age, his rising son Paavo Järvi, as well as Eri Klas, who has also worked a good deal in Finland.

As it happens, Klas, and the international mezzo star Annely Peebo are scheduled to perform at the opening concert of another important Tallinn orchestra, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, on September 24th.

"Tallinn’s concert life is quite lively", Elts sighs. "In the summer it actually seems a bit too lively."

Tallinn could prove to be a viable alternative for Finnish music lovers as well. Weather permitting, the fast catamarans and hydrofoils bring Helsinki residents to Tallinn as fast as they could get to Turku, Lahti, or Tampere by train.

When they get there, they can expect more than just a state-financed national symphony orchestra, or the Tallinn Chamber Music Orchestra; there are also the extensive offerings of the Estonian National Opera, for instance.

"In addition to that, we have a large state-run concert office, which brings foreign ensembles to Estonian cities, and which runs extensive concert activities", Elts points out.

This month alone, the Eestikontsert office has arranged a series of concerts around Estonia to mark the 70th birthday of composer Arvo Pärt.

So what is the financial basis for all of this musical activity?

The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra operates on a budget of just EUR 1.6 million, whereas the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra is spending EUR 7.5 million this year.

"The musicians get EUR 450 after taxes, while in Helsinki they would get much more", admits Andres Siitan. He is right. Musicians playing with the Helsinki Philharmonic earn an average EUR 2,700 a month in gross income. "But wages here are rising 12-15 percent a year", Siitan observes.

The situation in Tallinn is much better than it was soon after independence, in the early 1990s.

"At that time the borders were opened, and 40 of the best musicians joined foreign orchestras - many of them went to Finland", Siitan recalls.


The National Symphony Orchestra hired about 40 young musicians, and Arvo Volmer, the head conductor at the time, trained them intensively.

"Now we have an orchestra with potential for development, which won a Grammy last year! Admittedly it was for choral music, but anyway..."

The Grammy was for a recording of the cantatas of Jean Sibelius, conducted by Paavo Järvi.

"Paavo is our artistic advisor, and he has the time to conduct us every year, and even with these salaries, it is possible to live so well with the price level that prevails in Tallinn, that some musicians have started to return from abroad", Siitan says.


What about the quality? The concert that I heard comprised some Haydn, which showed the intonation of the orchestra was quite clean. However, the instrumental culture was not particularly united.

"Haydn is the most revealing of music", Olari Elts concedes. "We have made the best progress with the woodwinds. And the Brahms went better."

The Haydn Variations of Brahms sounded full and clean indeed, and the choral works of Haydn and Brahms, which were part of the programme, showed why Estonia has a reputation as a nation of choral music.

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Music Choir appears to be young, but the voice range is fuller and the tone rounder than one might imagine on the basis of Finnish experience.

"Much also depends on acoustics", Siitan says. "Generally we perform in the Estonia Hall, whose acoustics are more of a help for us than that of the Finlandia Hall is for orchestras and choirs in Helsinki."

Last year Risto Nieminen, the executive director of the Helsinki Festival, dropped Estonian orchestras from the Baltic Sea theme programme, because he felt that "with respect to orchestras, the Estonians are not yet at the same level" as those of Stockholm and St. Petersburg, which were last year’s guests.

Would Siitan and Elts, for their part, like to make comparisons between Finnish and Estonian orchestras?

"Which Finnish orchestras?" Elts asks. "There are great differences in quality among Finnish orchestras, but I will not make comparisons between countries, especially as it is important for Estonian orchestras to become more international, and to get more foreign players to join them."

"Estonian orchestras are at a level comparable to that of Finnish ones", Siitan says.
"Some Finnish orchestras can be further along in some areas, but we are at the same comparative level."

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