Esa-Pekka Salonen: Why I love to be a Finn

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Why I love to be a Finn


norman lebrecht

December 06, 2017

The most celebrated Finnish conductor reflects on his country’s essence.



  • Sue says:

    I absolutely MUST visit Finland. It looks wonderful and rather like Sweden, actually.

    • Simon Scott says:

      Does anyone out there know about the great Finnish violinist Heimo Haitto 1924—1999?
      He was a great player,and had a very colourful life

    • Nik says:

      There are superficial similarities with Sweden, but Finland is culturally very distinct from Scandinavia. I know quite a few Finns living in Stockholm and they are all terribly homesick.

      • Mike Schachter says:

        I agree, it is very different from Stockholm, more perhaps like St Petersburg

        • Nik says:

          Finnish culture is also perhaps more challenging to “crack” for a foreigner, but very rewarding when you do.

        • Furzwängler says:

          That is of course because Finland was until December 1917, and following the Russian Revolution, part of the Czarist Russian Empire. Which is why in e.g. Helsinki there are so many Russian-looking buildings and a Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

          • Furzwängler says:

            oops, an’and’ too far! : it should read “…Finland was until December 1917, following the Russian Revolution…”

          • Mikko says:

            The architect that the Tsar put in charge of designing Helsinki as the new capital after 1809 was Carl Ludwig Engel, a German from Berlin, who designed in the neoclassical style favored at the time by the elite in St. Petersburg. It’s not a Russian style of architecture by origin, and various nationalists and traditionalists in Russia were occassionally fiercely opposed to it in St. Petersburg, e.g. in the case of the neoclassical St. Isaac’s Cathedral designed by a Frenchman. Of course, St. Petersburg was from the beginning a Tsar’s idea to build a European city in Russia, and they’ve always imported styles and designers, right up to the present-day new Mariinsky opera house.

            Engel had an amazing carte blanche to design an entire city plan and the essential monumental buildings Helsinki (the Lutheran cathedral, university, main government buildings, and also smaller state and church buildings across Finland), which is why he agreed to live in Helsinki, despite disliking the weather and the remote provincial location. He never learned Finnish, as the elite in Helsinki at the time mostly spoke Swedish, apart from the Russian overlords.

            The orthodox christian Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki actually is in a more or less traditional style of a Russian orthodox church, but it certainly sticks out from Engel’s neoclassical building (and now has a modernist office building by Aalto in front of it).

  • Cubs Fan says:

    Great conductor, and one of the modern composers who writes really good, exciting music that audiences enjoy. But…nothing is “free”. Not education, healthcare…nothing. Still, the US could (and should) learn a few things from Finland about education and politics. And odd, isn’t it, that the recordings used in the background are from other conductors? Nothing wrong with Segerstam or Lintu, but EPS has made some superb Sibelius recordings.

    • Sue says:

      Agree about the “free” bit – somebody always pays.

      And I have EPS conducting the LAPO with the film music of Bernard Herrmann which is actually a superb recording in both playing and recording quality. Here’s a tiny sample:

      • V. Lind says:

        “Free”means freely available to all. The United States is almost alone among democratic and civilised and developed nations in being hostile to the notion that paying tax means a better life for all. Right-wingers everywhere feel similarly, of course. It is ultimately anti-egalitarian: maintaining that they would prefer to make charitable donations (which of course are voluntary and usually secret, not to mention tax-deductible) to paying tax means the right essentially chooses who will get health care and education. Tax-based schemes are available to everyone, whom the right usually dislikes.

        The Americans are just me-firsters, private enterprisers, and it is staggering in the 21st century to see how reluctant they are to ensure that their fellow citizens, whatever their means, can get treatment for health problems.

        • Stephen Munslow says:

          ‘ “Free”means freely available to all. ‘
          Yes, I know what you mean.
          Beluga caviar, Rolex watches, vodka containing particles of gold and Rolls Royce Silver Shadows are freely available to me, too. After all, nobody’s preventing me from having them.

          It is good to have a link between what you consume and what you pay. When I lived in the USSR for a year, in Voronyezh, heating was free, that is every building has an inbuilt system without anyone needing to pay directly. Consequently, in the winter the system was full on all the time from October, when it was switched on, till April, when it was switched off. I well remember, even when it was -25C outside, we had the windows open. It was colossally wasteful, because nobody had to pay upfront.

        • JJC says:

          Paying high taxes does not insure a better life for all, just look around, but it will make it more likely that your life will be run by government bureaucrats. My healthcare was superb until Obama came along but now, despite paying more, it has been severely downgraded. I know that this is all intended to force me to turn to the government for a solution but I will never do that.

          • May says:

            There are few cures for self-induced ignorance. But you could start by understanding the nature of the Affordable Care Act and then shopping around, or at least, discussing the increase with your insurance company. I don’t think they would want to see you go. But back to the real subject: stop blaming Obama. He didn’t cause your insurance to go up. Your insurance company took advantage of the confusion in the marketplace and raised their rates. You just happened to react more slowly. But again, that is not Obama’s fault, it’s your fault.

        • Cubs Fan says:

          This isn’t the place to be discussing the ACA, but May, you’re saying something that is absolutely not true. There is a provision and requirement in the ACA that the gov’t would subsidize those who can’t afford their own premiums. And if that wasn’t enough money (and it wasn’t) then the companies can charge responsible people higher premiums to cover the premiums for those poorer policy holders. So, shortly after the ACA came out, my insurance group, a division of the state retirement system, published a letter to all policy holders saying, “next year your premium will rise approximately $250 PER MONTH. Most of this increase is due to the requirements of the ACA. We realize this will present a serious financial difficulty for many of you. This is not a fault of the legislature, but the direct result of Obamacare.” So, you see, it’s bad enough that I pay so much for my own insurance, but now I have to pick up the slack for the moochers in society. Call me selfish, heartless, right-wing…but I have always taken care of myself and my family and don’t expect the gov’t to bail me out or to be my nanny. I have several doctor friends who have left the profession thanks to Obamacare, and I know others who have been financially devastated because of the ACA. It was a terrible law, but liberals blindly supported it and still can’t admit it’s huge failings. It’s stupid laws like this that make most of us terrified of the idea of government run health care. Maybe the lawmakers and bureaucrats in the Europe and elsewhere are smarter and less corrupt than those in the US. If the Veterans Admin healthcare is any indication of how a US run system would be, count me out!

  • Stephen Munslow says:

    Almost everyone has a little cabin in the forest, by a lake. This is possible because Finland has a mere 5.5 million people spread over a country two and a half times the size of England, which has 56 million people. The population of Finland is 2.5 millions fewer than that of London. For most adults in England to have a cabin, would require about 15 million cabins. The population density of Finland is 17 per km2 – England has 420 per km2. Does that explain why the English might be less relaxed about mass immigration from the EU, Esa-Pekka?

    • William Osborne says:

      Always a joy to read Brexit logic… Almost all of Finland is above 60 degree north latitude. The Northern part of the country is covered in snow 7 months a year. And let’s say it isn’t exactly sunny, when the sun comes up at all. To relieve crowding, perhaps a good portion of Britain should move up there since it is indeed rather unoccupied.

      • Stephen Munslow says:

        Low population density is part of the good life. It is something to envy. Second homes are the norm in Scandinavia, even in comparatively crowded Denmark, which is as densely populated as England was a couple of hundred years ago. Second homes for the majority are not a practicable possibility in a crowded country. How many Singaporeans have one? Japanese?

      • Adrienne says:

        Space is space, whether comfortably habitable or not.

        Generous of you to accept, however, that Britain is not the most xenophobic country in Europe. I’m sure they were deeply concerned.

        Perhaps the Channel and the North Sea, advantages that Austria doesn’t enjoy, are playing a part in this?

  • William Osborne says:

    One senses the pat, orderly, foursquare, rather conformist world of the Nordic mindset. It is well suited to classical music, and perhaps that tells us something about the genre itself.

    But these most important point is the generous support of the arts provided. There are about 16 essentially fulltime orchestras largely owned and operated by various levels of government in Finland for a country of 5.5 million people. By that measure, California would have about 120 full time orchestras. The NYC area would have about 18.

    This is the cultural landscape that allows Finish conductors and composers to develop their craft, and why they have a larger footprint on the world stage than the USA with 58 times the population.

    • Sue says:

      Austria has a total population of (circa) 8 million and carries numerous major orchestras and arts organizations – and it also is forced to cope with an influx of ‘the migrants’ at great cost to the already over-burdened taxpayer. Vienna also has finite population space built, as it is, almost entirely of 3 storey apartments. Actually, the same applies to all their ‘major’ cities. I don’t hear them complain; probably because they’re too afraid to do so.

      • William Osborne says:

        The Austrians complain loudly about immigration. It is one of the most xenophobic countries in Europe, far worse than the UK. I would have to look the numbers up to be sure, but Austria has about 15 orchestras for a population of 8 million, which gives it the second highest number per capita behind only Finland. Germany has 133 for 85 million people. For large countries Germany is in a category by itself.

      • William Osborne says:

        A little more analysis. Finland has one orchestra for every 366,00 people. Germany has one orchestra for every 617,000 people, or about half the rate as Finland.

        In 2010 Finnish orchestras performed 268 works by Finnish composers.

        Municipalities pay 48% of the costs for these orchestras, states 29%, and the Finish Radio 10%. Most of the rest comes from earned income.

        You get what you pay for.

        • John Borstlap says:

          “In 2010 Finnish orchestras performed 268 works by Finnish composers.”

          If in only one year, so many local pieces have been performed, was there any masterpiece among them, or were they mere one-off premières? Were they including older, or prewar pieces? Or is this number merely a sign of conformist mediocrity? How do audiences react to this influx? I thought that the Finish new music scene was organized a bit like the Dutch scene, i.e. with a ‘politbureau’ structure, with committees consisting of ‘experts’ with vested interests.

          • Mikko says:

            You might take a look at e.g. the programs of the Finnish Radio Symphony:


            Yle, the broadcasting company, is likely the largest commissioner of new works, so the orchestra plays a lot of premieres. On the independence day (Dec 6th), they had new pieces by Magnus Lindberg and Lotta Wennäkoski, along with Sibelius’s Kullervo. The orchestra has also recently revived pre-war works by Erkki Melartin and Uuno Klami. Melartin’s Traumgesicht has been on the program a couple of times over the past few years, and has also been played by others. Of new works, some by the usual suspects do get performed repeatedly (Saariaho, Lindberg, Salonen, Aho, Tiensuu, Heininen, Fagerlund, etc. – I was going to add Rautavaara, but there shall be no more new works by him).

            I would imagine that the 260+ number probably includes musical theater, and I would imagine that most of the new musicals in local theaters and summer festivals (and there are many) will never be revived.

    • John Borstlap says:

      “One senses the pat, orderly, foursquare, rather conformist world of the Nordic mindset. It is well suited to classical music, and perhaps that tells us something about the genre itself.”

      To suggest that classical music, as a genre, would be ‘pat, orderly, foursquare, rather conformist’ is a grotesque, inane misrepresentation which can only be explained by gross ignorance of the existing repertoire, the variety of which has no parallel in any other musical culture in the world. All the great works of the classical repertoire, which have survived the erosion of history, were – in their own time – unique, original, impressive achievements of utterly individual and brilliantly gifted composers. These works are still capable to ‘speak’ to us over an abyss of time and place; that may have been possible because of insights into the genre which goes far, very far beyond the mentioned description.

  • Peter says:

    Paavo Berglund any day in preference to Salonen, especially in Sibelius.

  • George King says:

    You either ‘get’ the Finnish mindset or you don’t (and it makes no difference to the Finns whether you do or don’t). I happen to have enjoyed visiting and working in Finland. Their musical culture is extremely rich, from folk music through rock, pop and heavy metal all the way to ‘classical’ and and avant-garde (virtually all of wich you can choose to study at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki). One thing that impressed me (also in Estonia) is that families attend concerts and take children as young as 6 or 7 along with them. Many musical events start at 6pm and are over by 7 or just after. They are family events. And I’ve heard Schoenberg (‘Verklaerte Nacht’) and Bartok performed on such occasions. Another thing is their openness to outside musical influences in their music education (African, Asian, Middle-Eastern). It goes without saying (but I’ll say it all the same) that their school teachers are probably the best-trained in the world.

    • Nik says:

      “and it makes no difference to the Finns whether you do or don’t”
      Yes, in fact they are very similar to the Japanese in that respect. They are proud of their quirks and find it amusing when foreigners are a bit puzzled by them.

  • moonpavilion says:

    Some comment is necessary about the special status of the Finnish language which is of the Uralic family and consequently completely unrelated to the Indo-European Russian and Swedish languages which surround it. That also adds a special quality to Finland surely.