Conducting is Finland’s soft superpower

Since the 1800s, Finns have turned to music as an expression of national identity and defiance — today that expression has come full circle.

Jean Sibelius, Finnish composer, photographed in his country retreat outside Helsinki. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Jean Sibelius, Finnish composer, photographed in his country retreat outside Helsinki. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

On Friday, the Oslo Philharmonic will perform at the Proms, the world’s largest classical musical festival, joined by star pianist Yuja Wang for Franz Liszt’s First Piano Concerto in a programme that also includes Jean Sibelius’s Tapiola and Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. But the evening’s biggest draw is the conductor. Twenty-six-year-old Klaus Mäkelä is the Oslo Philharmonic’s chief conductor, the music director of the Orchestre de Paris — and the venerable Concertgebouw Orchestra’s chief conductor-designate. Mäkelä is the latest Finnish conductor to conquer the world stage. In the middle of the Second World War, with the country fighting a desperate battle against the Soviet Union, Helsinki launched a conductor programme. Today its graduates project ever-increasing Finnish soft power around the world.

Orchestral conducting as a specialised profession took off in the 1800s, and by the end of the century France, Italy, and especially Germany, had established themselves as places where aspiring orchestral conductors from all over the world came to study. Young Finns, too, made the pilgrimage to the world’s leading musical nations. Their own country, by contrast, was struggling in countless ways. In 1917 it had gained independence from Russia, but the much-desired departure was followed by a searing civil war. Then, in 1939, Finland was invaded by the Soviet Union, and two years later the so-called Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union erupted.

But the Finns had their music. Most especially, they had Sibelius, whose works were being performed all over the world. And while Sibelius’s majestic Finlandia delighted international audiences, at home it was a source of national fortitude. Writing the tone poem for the Finland Press Pension Celebration in 1899, Sibelius had made it a musical protest against Russian rule. When the Soviets attacked Finland in 1939, the poet V.A. Koskenniemi added Finnish words to Finlandia’s closing hymn: ‘Finland, behold, thy daylight now is dawning/the threat of night has now been driven away. […] Thy daylight dawns, O Finland of ours!’ The same year, in another musical act of defiance, the Helsinki Conservatory of Music renamed itself the Sibelius Academy.

During the Winter War and the Continuation War, Finns fortified themselves by listening to Finlandia, and in 1948 Sibelius adapted the hymn into a stand-alone choral piece that quickly became the country’s unofficial national anthem. Indeed, despite the Winter War and the Continuation War, which required unfathomable efforts from all parts of Finnish society, music-making continued. And in 1943, the Sibelius Academy’s leadership seems to have concluded that it was neither practicable nor desirable to continue to send aspiring conductors to Germany, France or Italy. The Academy established a conducting programme of its own.

Today its success is famous. Thank Jorma Panula, who began teaching at the Academy in 1969. By his retirement in 1993 he had launched the careers of a staggering number of Finnish super-maestri. (He’s launched quite a few Finnish careers since then, too, by taking on private students). Esa-Pekka Salonen, Mikko Franck, Sakari Oramo, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, John Storgårds (who just did a star turn at the Proms), Susanna Mälkki, Hannu Lintu and Osmo Vänskä are all disciples of Panula. Indeed, it was when 25-year-old Salonen, in 1983, conducted an electrifying performance of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra that a global audience discovered the miracle happening in Helsinki. Another disciple is Atso Almila, who himself began teaching the Academy’s conducting students in 1991. Among the latest names to emerge from the Sibelius Academy’s rehearsal halls: 21-year-old Tarmo Peltokoski, recently appointed principal guest conductor of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. And, of course, Mäkelä, who has so impressed famously cynical orchestral musicians that he’s the youngest person ever appointed chief conductor by the Concertgebouw, one the world’s top ensembles. (Watch him conduct Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with the Orchestre de Paris here.)

Finnish music-making has come full circle. In the difficult period under Russian domination in the 1800s, Finns led by Sibelius turned to music as an expression of national identity and defiance. Music led the country through the extraordinarily painful years of the Second World War and the Cold War, when the Soviets imposed themselves on their small neighbour through a ‘friendship treaty’ that limited Helsinki’s ability to steer its own course. All the while, Finns of all ages and abilities sang and listened to Finlandia. And today, the training programme established during the darkest days of the Second World War —when it was uncertain that Finland would even survive as an independent nation —is spreading Finnish soft power around the globe. The chief conductor of South Korea’s KBS Symphony Orchestra is the Sibelius alumnus Pietari Inkinen, for example. Such is the Sibelius Academy’s success that international students now work hard to be accepted to one of its prestigious places. What a reversal from just a century ago when Finns made journeys in the opposite direction.

Finnish conducting’s success should also prompt some thinking in other countries. Classical music is often considered an elite taste, and many Western countries are cutting funding for it. But for the small expense of training young people in the borderless world of classical music, a country can extend its presence in the most benign of ways. Tapiola, for example, — which Mäkelä will conduct at the Royal Albert Hall this Friday — is based on Finland’s national epos, the Kalevala.


Elisabeth Braw