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Beautiful Finnish

Juho Pohjonen
Beautiful Finnish
The BPO Celebrates Finnfest

Finnfest USA is an annual celebration of both the past legacy and the current contribution of the people of Finland to the culture of America. The festival, which was first held in Minneapolis in 1983, celebrates Finnish culture through food, arts and crafts, music, lectures, and social dances and it has been hosted by over two dozen cities in almost as many states. During the next two weeks, Finnfest will be held in Buffalo for the first time, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra will be a major player in the celebrations. This is just as it should be, since, in addition to the festivities surrounding Finnfest, Kleinhans Music Hall, the permanent home of the BPO since it opened, and one of the very finest spaces in the entire country for the performance of classical music, will host a special dinner, with music afterwards, to observe its 75th anniversary on October 12. The building was designed, of course, by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and his son, Eero, a critically important fact which was, regrettably, omitted from the invitation mailed out for the event.

BPO music director JoAnn Falletta will be on the podium for both pairs of concerts celebrating Finnfest, this weekend and next. The towering presence of Jean Sibelius, the national composer of Finland must always be acknowledged, and each pair of concerts will feature a symphony by the composer. Sibelius’ masterwork in the genre, the Symphony No. 5 in E-Flat major will be featured in the first pair of concerts on Saturday October 3 at 8pm and Sunday October 4 at 2:30pm. The music of the contemporary Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund (b. 1972) will make its BPO debut with his work Isola, inspired by his trip to the island of Själö in the southwest archipelago of Finland. The composer was moved both by the scenic beauty of the island, and by its tragic history, since during the 17th century both lepers and women suspected of witchcraft were deported to it, and “the darkly hued music conjures a vista of ultimate heartache, reflecting the human history of the desolate island.”

While the other big work on the program, the Piano Concerto in A minor is not by a Finnish composer, but by Edvard Grieg, a Norwegian, it seems unlikely that any audience members will complain, especially since they will get to experience the Buffalo debut of the exciting young Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen. In a review of Pohjonen’s recent Atlanta Symphony performance of Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 5 in G Major, under the baton of Robert Spano, a critic noted that “His playing is simply extraordinary”. In addition to performances with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Pohjonen has performed with orchestras in Korea and Mexico and been on tour throughout the US with The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Next weekend’s pair of BPO concerts, on Friday October 9 at 10:30am and Saturday October 10 at 8pm will feature the Symphony No. 1 in E minor by Sibelius. When he composed his first symphony Sibelius was thirty-two, and he has been described as “a national hero in the making,” due to the earlier phenomenal success in Finland of his cantata Kullervo. Based on the Finish national epic “Kalevala,” Kullervo affirmed Sibelius’ commitment to the new Finnish-language movement, even though his own native language was Swedish, as a means to oppose the ever-tightening Russian grip on his country, which had been a Russian province since being taken from Sweden in 1809. Influenced in no small part by the music of Tchaikovsky, the composer’s first symphony continues to enjoy a well earned place in the standard repertoire.

Elina Vahala

Born in 1928, Einojuhani Rautavaara ranks at the very forefront of contemporary Finnish composers, and his Violin Concerto has been performed by the Buffalo favorite Elmar Oliveira with the BPO in 2003 while his tone poem Isle of Bliss appeared on a classic series program in 2011. Rautavaara’s extensive catalogue of compositions includes eight symphonies, and the BPO will perform his Symphony No. 1, a work written in 1956 and later revised in 1988 and 2003. Rounding out the program, the young, rising violinist Elina Vähälä, who was born in the US but raised in Finland, will be the soloist for the US premiere of Jaako Kuusisto’s Violin Concerto. Born in 1974, Jaako Kuusisto studied the violin with Géza Szilvay and Tuomas Haapanen at the Sibelius Academy in Finland, and with Miriam Fried and Paul Biss at Indiana University, and he has also established an enviable reputation as both a conductor and a composer. Kuusisto’s compositional technique has been described as extending the musical language of Sibelius “into the modern compositional realm, with brilliant orchestral effects, an imposing sound, and traditional forms and tonal languages greatly extended rather than completely discarded.”

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