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Savonlinna

I finally made it to Savonlinna. Five young women from England wanted to know what I was wearing. Thankfully nobody at the opera festival cared.

A decade ago, relatively inexperienced and hungry for work, I was asked to interview the outgoing Artistic Director of Finland’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. It was an external commission from a client I wanted to please. I made noises over email to obscure the fact I hadn’t actually been to Savonlinna (though I didn’t lie). After many hours of preparatory research, it felt like I had.

Now, I actually have. Last week, on 6 July, I was dumped abruptly near Savonlinna by a non-liveried Saab 340, one of only five passengers on board. Having topped up that research of a decade ago and re-read the interview transcript, the place was pretty much as I’d been picturing it. Perhaps there was a touch more of both the idyllic (the castle and coast) and the drab (the city) about it. Beyond that, it simply felt magnificent to be back in in Finland – as it always does. That’s a feeling I have never quite managed to rationalise.

Medieval Castle opera in Finland is a far cry from Country House opera in England. Nobody cares what you’re wearing. The auditorium is huge – the capacity approaches that of the Royal Festival Hall – and attention is rapt. In an interview two hours after I arrived, current Artistic Director Ville Matvejeff asserted that Savonlinna sees itself as the most prestigious opera stage in the country. It has the advantage (over the Finnish National Opera) of a short one-month summer run to be able to book stars – one usually tops the bill each year, Lisette Oropesa for 2023 – and employ a colossal chorus of 72. My interview with Matvejeff, with words from others and an analysis of where Savonlinna sits 111 years on from the first operatic performance inside the castle, will run in a future issue of Opera Now.

On my second day in Savonlinna, I was swallowed-up by a group of five British wellness and travel journalists. They were on a Visit Finland-sponsored press trip staying at Pihlas Resort – a high-end ‘eco-luxury’ spa and hotel in the Lakeland area of Saimaa, about an hour’s drive from Savonlinna.

With the festival’s Head of Communications, Sonja, I met these five women off a minibus. Sonja then proceeded to give us a backstage tour of the castle that hosts the opera, Olavinlinna (‘backstage’ = the bits of the castle sufficiently free of the general public to be crammed with the apparatus required for large-scale opera). Next we climbed aboard an elegant double-decked steamboat, which padded around Finland’s biggest lake as we were served savoury tapas and Aperol. Three hours later the boat dropped us at a concealed jetty at the back of the castle-island, from which we could sneak into the auditorium/courtyard via the orchestra pit, and take our seats.

It was a breath of fresh air, on the boat, to listen to these journalists from my homeland (and Sonja) – marooned as I am in northern European climes where social conventions and conversational rhythms are so different.

Then, a short way into the boat trip, it started – a familiar trope. ‘We’ve decided: we’re all moving to Finland,’ one of the women proffered, to general good-humoured agreement. ‘I feel my whole body has kind of gone down a few gears…like I can breath again,’ said another, who had made the journey from Fulham (she actually said this happened the moment she was embraced by the cool white-grey of a Finnair cabin on the tarmac at Heathrow).

This took me back to my first extended visit to Finland in 2007, when I tramped heavy-hearted back to London from Kuhmo, absolutely convinced that the only reasonable course of action to reclaim what looked like a grim future was to lay foundations for a permanent move to Finland.

Part of that is the buzz of a press trip, when you’re working without working (not something that’s possible these days – not for me, at least). Part of it was the obvious effect of Finland’s flat lakes and forests, its ever-present horizon. Much of it, I suspect, was the realisation, among these five young women, that the Finns they were encountering lived their lives in a way that contrasted hugely with daily grind in London, Birmingham and elsewhere.

Is the ‘lets’s move to Finland’ line a figure of speech, an impossible dream, or a rational and realisable objective? After Brexit and the pandemic, it’s demonstrably harder than before. But it was a tough enough proposition for a single British man, and even more a single British woman, back in 2007 – or even in 2015, when I made the move to Copenhagen. ‘Have you found it difficult to integrate in Denmark?’ Sonja asked me on my first night in Savonlinna. I took a while to answer before conceding that yes, on balance I have, but that the circumstances mean those difficulties haven’t affected me all that markedly. Settling in Finland, with a language that bit harder to master, a climate that bit more brutal and a capital city that bit further off the beaten track, would be a very different proposition. Still, I know brave people – including two from London – who have done it.

I often wonder why more people don’t move to countries with which they feel attuned, to which they feel more politically aligned, and whose creative optimism or pervasiveness they find more inspiring. One of the Savonlinna women had, indeed, moved to Paris from England and made a career there. Who hasn’t dreamed of living in Paris? She’d actually done it.

Another of the women was wise enough to notice that the experience they were being shown at Pihlas was far from everyday reality, even for the Finns who work there. And yet, I know from talking to them – a diverse group, but an educated and worldly one – that they saw the gulf that exists between the way life works in Finland and the way it works in England (and France). I reassured them that yes, this is really the case, even in an increasingly globalised Helsinki (and even in Copenhagen).

Then, opera. The women had been told I was an opera specialist, and their journalistic inquisition led them to prod me gently for insights. I found this no less awkward than when, around the boat’s dining table, we were each encouraged to present our chosen outfit for the day garment-by-garment from shoes up, explaining which brands we were wearing (they let me off lightly).

The reason for my discomfort on the opera front wasn’t self-deprecating or shy – I don’t mind talking about things I’m familiar with and have opinions on. More, I didn’t want to skew their own natural responses and was fascinated by their reaction to large-scale opera, as a bunch of curious people with almost no experience of it (only one had been to an opera before). What a privilege, in these times when opera is facing such a crisis of cultural and social identity, to watch one with four perceptive people who had never done so before.

Amy Lane’s production of Roméo et Juliette at Savonlinna (Jussi Silvennoinen)

I might get around to writing about that for Opera Now too. If I do, the despatch will include the young journalist from Sutton Coldfield who, on my immediate right for the performance, groaned and wept her way through Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and just wanted to hug someone, anyone, when it was over – suggesting that, yes, opera still holds some power even for a generation used to quicker fixes (but who, like all of us, know the ending to this particular opera before it’s started). In the meantime, I’ll be filing my visit to Savonlinna away with plenty of other little trips to Finland that have proved, somehow, far more provocative and life-affirming than the sum of their parts.

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Doing Politics

Towards the end of The Northern Silence, there’s a reference to Finland’s sometime Culture Minister Paavo Arhinmäki. He admits, in a quote from an interview he gave me while in office, that he is ‘probably one of the worst Culture Ministers ever.’

The interview took place in January 2013 on a roof terrace in Cannes. It was unusual in every sense. I was used to interviewing musicians, not politicians. Also, I was offered the chance to interview Alexander Stubb at the same time – then Finland’s Minister for European Affairs and Trade (and an entertaining columnist in Finnair’s magazine, Blue Wings). Just a year later, he would become the country’s Prime Minister.

Music Finland arranged the interviews. I couldn’t think of what to do with the results – they weren’t really saleable – so I wrote them up for my now-defunct website, Moose Report.

Given the quote’s inclusion in the book, I thought the context might be worth republishing here. I also remember vividly the circumstances under which I wrote the article – late one night, the following February, in Andy’s Pub in downtown Oslo, emptying a few large glasses of beer as I went. Reading it now, I think that shows…

Arhinmäki & Stubb

Paavo Arhinmäki (L) and Alexander Stubb at Midem in Cannes, 2013

Have you ever played football against Alexander? I ask the question of Paavo Arhinmäki, Finland’s Culture Minister, as his government colleague the minister for European Affairs Alexander Stubb stands a few yards away posing for a photograph on the roof of a Cannes hotel.

Now, I’m no David Frost, but I think it’s one of the more astute questions of my interview with Arhinmäki. It’s also the last: I’m about to walk over and begin on Stubb. These two Finns might be members of the same government – they’re also pretty much the same age in political terms – but that’s where the similarities end. Ideologically, physically and linguistically they are poles apart. ‘He hasn’t ever played football,’ says Arhinmäki, glancing upwards at the altitudinous Stubb. ‘He’s a hockey guy.’

Of course he is. He would never play football, would he? Just look at him. He’s far too clean-cut. Stubb is famous in Finland and Europe for sporting achievements far beyond kicking a ball on a flat piece of grass. He’s competed in marathons, triathlons and Ironmans.

As he hops up onto the balcony wall for the photographer, he looks chiselled and immaculate in a pale-blue striped blazer. With that single item of clothing he’s gauged the tone and geography of the occasion and nailed it. Perhaps the most impressive part is that he’s come to the French Riviera straight from the World Economic Forum in Davos. He must have packed that pale-blue blazer before he left Helsinki eight days ago. That’s the sort of foresight a good foreign minister needs. That’s the sort of thing that prevents world wars.

If Stubb is the smooth-talking, media-savvy, soundbite-literate and undeniably impressive international politician, Arhinmäki is your clever mate who’s done extraordinarily well for himself. Talking of soundbites, I’m immediately surprised by the first one Arhinmäki offers me. Try this for size: ‘The culture minister before me Stefan Wallin was probably the best or one of the best and I’m probably one of the worst Culture Ministers ever.’

He refers, of course, to the fact that Wallin was in the enviable position of being able to dole-out huge funding increases to cultural institutions, while Arhinmäki is being forced to do the opposite. His cuts are generating angry column inches in arts-loving Finland, but anywhere else in Europe (with the possible exception of Germany and Norway) they’d be seen as fair game: a few brown Smarties dutifully removed from the top a still rich-and-chocolatey cake.

Even so, if I’d got Maria Miller to admit she was ‘the worst culture minister ever’ I’d have a front-page headline on my hands (despite the fact that the statement is self-evidently true).

It isn’t that Arhinmäki doesn’t know how to deal with a naïve-looking music journalist out of his depth sandwiched between two politicians, it’s actually the opposite. He wants to disarm himself early on in the interview.

That way, when I ask what his favourite arts event of the last year has been, he can immediately draw on his special advisor’s brief – knowing that I have a finger in the pie of a major classical music magazine – and say it was the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance at the Musiikkitalo in Helsinki. Tadaa: a neat, back-door and quasi-international routing of those Finnish commentators who have accused him of wanting to dismantle Finland’s extraordinary operatic/orchestral infrastructure.

That’s a little unfair, given the fact that Arhinmäki immediately goes on to reel off a varied list of events starting with Pulp’s Finnish debut (‘I met Jarvis Cocker’) and finishing with a self-arranged view of a private collection of Lichtensteins and Warhols.

What Arhinmäki also does very well is see-off my rather pathetic attempt to align certain elements of musical performance (ie, ensemble singing and playing) to the ideologies of the left. ‘I have had culture as a hobby all my life, and many of my best friends, they are actors or painters’, he says. ‘But it’s not my role to say what is good art and what isn’t. We don’t know in this day what is going to be important art for a whole nation in 50 years.’

He does lurch to the left as part of that statement, but only to cite and criticise the far-right True Finns party, who would only fund artistic projects rooted in Finland’s Golden Age that are ‘easy to understand’.

In the end, Arhinmäki defends those elements of Finnish cultural life which are so humbling and inspiring to people like me who love the arts but particularly enjoy watching operas and listening to orchestras. He points to the issue of engagement: ‘the main idea in our whole cultural policies [sic] is to try to get as many as possible to enjoy all different kinds of art and culture.’

It’s not Arhinmäki’s list of cultural experiences from the last year that strikes you – impressive as it is – as much his emotional and intellectual reactions to them. ‘Patriarkka [Juha Jokela’s play at Finland’s National Theatre] was a discussion about different generations and their political ideas. When I was watching it, I was the whole time wondering what I’m doing, am I doing everything right and wrong about my family, and things like that. It’s very important that it’s that way, you can feel it.’

And so to Stubb, who smoothly slips in a reference to literary hero Elias Lönnrott (he who compiled the Kalevala) when I ask him whether the epic poem – celebrating its 150th year in English this year – has a hand in shaping the everyday life of modern Finns.

Turns out he thinks it does, but only in general terms and in an international sense (a recurring theme): ‘every country has its Kalevala’. I must have missed England’s 736-page poem that takes in incest, fratricide and the formation of the earth through the cracking of an egg on the knee of a semi-submerged woman.

Stubb has far less tenuous things to say about work-life balance – in fact, he delivers a frank admission that takes me back almost as much as Arhinmäki’s ‘worst minister’ protestation. ‘I’m home at five-o-clock when I’m back in Finland,’ says tamed capitalist Stubb. ‘I think it’s bullshit to do long hours to be honest.’

Is that how the Finnish workplace operates? ‘It’s a generation thing. In the olden days you had a whole bunch of politicians who did long lunches, long dinners, and had a certain lifestyle and basically ignored their families. Nowadays, if you look at my Prime Minister and myself, both of us have young kids, and I have to set some rules. I’m away from home for the better part of 4 months a year, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend [the remaining] evenings in cocktail parties or dinners or something.’

That’s not all. Stubb made his name as an economist before entering centre-right politics, and he’s no idiot when it comes to numbers. He’s stumbled Pythagoras-like upon the truth that you can divide very one of earth’s days into three parts of eight hours each: ‘you work for 8 hours, you play for 8 hours, and you sleep for 8 hours’, he tells me.

It’s the sort of statement – especially when delivered in piercing January sunshine on the shores of the Mediterranean – that gets you thinking; that has you inadvertently mapping out a new blueprint for your own life.

That – as well as the moment he pulls out his yellow Nokia Lumia 920 and begins to enthusiastically take me through its features (an experience I last enjoyed at the hands of a deluded individual in an O2 shop in Streatham) – is what I’m left with after meeting Stubb. I’m not even going to tell you what he said about David Cameron. That was quite revelatory, as it happens…but I’d rather you remembered the 8+8+8 theory.  

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Snaps

I’ve amassed hundreds – thousands – of photos from my travels around the Nordic countries. Only one was good and relevant enough to be included in the finished edition of The Northern Silence – the image of Sade Kamppila and Viivi Roiha I took during Silence Festival in Kaukonen (Plate 6).

Here I’ll post some more, each with some relevance to the text itself.

Fjordland

Chapter 1, Landfall, describes my first visit to the fjords of western Norway, when the whole area was so shrouded in mist I could hardly see a thing. ‘Only on subsequent visits could I fill in the blanks: the colossal peaks, sheer hillsides and serene snaking fjords’ (p.13).

This shot is from one of those subsequent visit – made three years later in September 2009. It’s a view of the Stalheim Canyon, from the coach that takes visitors on a winding mountainside road from the village of Gudvangen to the fjordside town of Voss.

Sauna party

The sauna party at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival (p.31) was an experience I will never forget. Until you’ve spent an entire night at one of these parties, I’m not quite sure you can really comprehend the combination of wildness and oneness with the earth that lies at the heart of the Finnish psyche.

I was with another British journalist at the time, Jonathan Wikeley (known these days as an organist, choir-trainer and music editor). He has his back to the camera in this first photo, taken at around 3am. A few hours later, just before we made it to bed, we took this shot using my camera’s timer, sitting at the end of the little jetty that heads out into the lake. Looks like I still have a ‘sauna beer’ on the go.

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Tapiola

The first paragraphs of The Northern Silence – from the opening chapter, Tapiola

From the glass walls of Helsinki Airport, Finland’s forests resemble a dado rail separating the horizon from the sky. But the country’s ancient woods are different. They are altogether more inhospitable, inaccessible and unkempt. They don’t start or finish; they come into being and drift elusively away again. The deeper you venture in, the more their base rhythm shifts. Those neat forests harvested for timber and pulp in suburban Helsinki are clipped and consistent. Finland’s old-growth forests are sprawling and unruly, littered with glacial boulders and standing pools.

            I am clambering through one such forest with two Finns, Pekka and Esa. We are on the outskirts of the town of Pietarsaari, high on the country’s west coast in the district of Ostrobothnia. It is late November, around midday. The sun has emerged, but will remain visible for a few hours at best and will cleave resolutely to the horizon while it does. Its position there actually makes the forest lighter: rays filter sideways through the trees, particularly near the forest clearings where no canopy can interrupt them. I have not experienced this particular kind of light in a wood before. It illuminates millions of tiny particles in the air. It is bracing and embracing, a visual equivalent to submersing yourself in lake water.

            Pekka Hako is a musicologist, folklorist and educationalist from Helsinki and wants to talk about this distinctive late autumnal light. He is a bear of a man, unmistakably Finnish from the drooping legato of his spoken English to his high cheekbones and Nokia gumboots. He mentions the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, born not far from here. ‘Aalto tried to recreate this effect in many of his buildings,’ Pekka half-shouts as he walks some metres ahead, negotiating rocks and dodging squelching mud, gesticulating with his left arm to signal he’s speaking. ‘He considered the sun’s position at latitudes like this and tried to find ways of getting its light to infiltrate buildings in the same way, using latticing and panels. He wanted just the quality of light we have here.’

            Aalto wasn’t the only one. This lustrous, piercing sideways light leads me to music – to the last major piece for orchestra by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. In Tapiola,[i] Sibelius created what seems on the surface to be an orchestral depiction of Finland’s spirit of the forest, as set out in the country’s folkloric poetry. At its simplest, Tapiola can be interpreted as a journey deep into one of these woods. It carries with it the heaving undertow of forest winds and creaking trees. It makes oblique references to mystery critters lurking in the half-darkness. It saturates your ears with a sense of the unseen and the unknown. It disorientates at macro and micro level: underneath the orchestra’s elusive twists and turns, the entire musical structure sits uneasily in its own key.

            Despite the fear and foreboding, Tapiola eventually comes good. In the score’s final bars, the orchestra reaches outwards in an almost physical embrace. Its string sections divide and spread-eagle, alighting on notes just far enough apart to affect the musical equivalent of a damp, luminous glisten. The music shifts key for the first and only time – into the major. As an evocation of autumnal Nordic light momentarily filtering through forest trees, the final bars of Tapiola get closer than Alvar Aalto ever would. We are left with the reassuring impression of the forest as a foe turned friend.

            After those crepuscular chords, Tapiola disappears into the silence from which it emerged. Sibelius would do the same. For more than thirty years following Tapiola’s first performance in 1926, the composer wrote little he deemed fit for public exposure. Were the warning signs there? Tapiola has only one half-melody, itself built mostly from repetitions of a single note. Despite that valedictory shift from minor to major, the piece effectively remains within the confines of a single key, a design feature almost unheard of in music at the time. The whole score is alarmingly short on actual musical material. Little wonder silence followed Tapiola. As one musicologist has written, ‘Sibelius reduced his music more and more until, in the end, there was none.’[ii]

            Silence, it’s tempting to speculate, had proved itself too intrinsic a part of Sibelius’s musical language for him to resist embracing it fully. Or perhaps, from his home in the woods, he let it embrace him. The composer had explored the eloquence and energy of silence in plenty of works before. In some, he uses it more obviously. But in Tapiola, silence is the natural state over which each and every sound treads discourteously, right from the rumbling kettledrum with which it sneaks into being. Here, Sibelius uses silence not as a rhythmic lubricant or a dramatic device pitched in counterpoint to extreme noise. Rather, it lies under each and every note, like the inaudible breathing of the forest. Playing the silence, the best conductors know, is how to play Tapiola.

            Silence is more prominent in the northernmost reaches of Europe, in urban as well as rural environments. Sometimes it is real and pure. Sometimes it lingers despite the noise – the deafening silence of poetic fantasy; stasis charged with ferocious thought. Like the forest of Tapiola, it can exist internally as well as externally. Sibelius’s life after Tapiola was filled not with silence, as legend dictates, but with attempts to fill it – with a world of stillborn noise ultimately suffocated by a silence more powerful.


[i] Tapiola refers to the realm of Tapio – in Finnish mythology, the god or ‘spirit’ of the Forest.

[ii]  Goss, Glenda Dawn (2009). Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.