This summer I had the great pleasure of visiting the peaceful, beautiful, and musical Nordic country of Finland! As a former conducting student at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, I was thrilled to catch up with friends and build new memories in the “land of the midnight sun.” Naturally, the trip also connected me with several Leading Tones composers and included a stellar concerto performance by talented young musicians.
The first destination on my journey was deep into the Finnish countryside, where a unique music camp is held every year for both adults and children. The Suomen Työväen Musiikkiliitto (Finnish is an impossibly difficult language--let’s just call it “STM”) music camp in Aitoo, Finland, hosted over 100 student, amateur, and professional musicians. The STM camp is unlike any band experience here in America. Bands are organized by ability level, not age. The bands range from the A-Orchestra, which performed music such as Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, to the D-Orchestra, which is a band that teaches complete beginners how to play a wind instrument in an ensemble. In each of the bands, adults sit alongside children and perform together throughout this 10-day-long intergenerational music camp.
I had the opportunity to study saxophone with Leading Tones’ own Daniel Gordon. I met Dan at the STM camp back in 2011. In a camp entirely comprised of Finns, I was shocked to discover that my saxophone teacher was an American guy who had busked across Europe twice with his soprano saxophone and studied with both Sigurd Rascher and Jean-Marie Londeix (two completely different ends of the classical saxophone spectrum). How did this guy end up at a music camp in the forests of Finland?! While that’s a story for another day, it goes without saying that we have been great friends for many years, and our time at the camp was a blast!
On the second day of rehearsals with the B-Orchestra, a gaggle of bassoonists stood in front of the ensemble and played Janne Ikonen’s concerto, Shipman’s Song. The soloists were comprised of teenagers and adults, all of whom had been studying the bassoon for around four years. For each of them, this was their first concerto experience. From the first rehearsal to the concert, the piece was a great success! Janne, who was teaching percussion at the camp, was very pleased with the performance.
The music of Marja Ikonen and Jukka Viitasaari was also featured in the STM camp’s final concert. The wind band scene in Finland is tight-knit; all of these composers attended the concert and supported the musicians. Janne, Marja, and Jukka are also incredibly popular composers in Finland. In fact, you will probably hear the music of at least one of the three Finnish Leading Tones composers at any given wind band concert. It was a delight to catch up with these three friends over coffee and pulla (Finnish donuts) at the STM concert.
My time in Finland also included many serene and reflective moments that were heightened by the natural beauty of the countryside. In what other place can you watch a lakeside “sunset” at midnight? In what other place is sweating in a sauna set at 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit!) not just a fun activity to do with friends but also a way of life? Where everyone’s favorite “candy” tastes like salted black licorice and the rye bread is darker than the midsummer evening sky, Finland is definitively a unique country.
My experiences at my dear friend, Hanna’s, family cabin at the lake will surely shed some new light onto my next performance of Marja Ikonen’s A Day at the Lake. My day around the bustling streets (and rollercoaster rides!) in Helsinki with my friends, Marjo and Risto, reminded me of the festive energy of Jukka Viitasaari’s Three Aspects of the Toddler Song. Finally, the vast forested landscape and the stoic tradition of sitting quietly in the sauna brought me back to the Shipman’s Song. Finnish traditions, cultural and musical, are certainly worth exploring. I’ve found that Finnish music sounds and feels just a little different than what I’m used to. With Sibelius’ masterworks and the scores of world-class Finnish conductors, what better way to embrace this country’s culture than through its music?
Melanie Brooks is the Director of Bands at Winona State University and co-founder of Leading Tones Music, LLC.