Back to Lahti in September 2023

It was like coming home when I looked out of the window of the apartment in Lahti, just as it felt like leaving home when I said goodbye to the cottage in Virtaa, near the little town of Sysmä, after a week’s break in Finnish rural paradise (see previous blog I’m a bit like that, I’m afraid. Like the old song, home is where you hang your hat. I’m exaggerating, of course, I have hung my hat in a number of places that I hope I will never have to see again. That was definitely not true of Finland when I went there in September 2023, my second visit. In 2022 I came here for the first time because of the Lahti Sibelius Festival and love it so much, I just had to come again – and again, I will be coming back this year, 2024.

The same apartment, of course, why change things when they work so well. So, yes, it was like coming home to return here to Lahti in southern Finland for another Sibelius festival. September in Finland is a bit like September in the UK – maybe a couple of degrees cooler, but definitely not cold.

I was staying in the modern and wonderfully efficient apartment block complete with sauna, a lift, and excellent sound-proofing. It was a great place to wake up in and, it was even better after a mug of coffee.

I was in the middle of town and Lahti is a small compact kind of town, well it’s a small city, so everything, including the beautiful lake-side Sibelius Hall was within easy walking distance. I have always thought I was a small-town boy, and it is true that I like the feel of being in a town with all the convenience of urban living but where everywhere soon becomes familiar and, yes, homely. I live in just such a town in the UK.

So, I felt perfectly at home and comfortable here – even my socks matched the decor.

I have to confess that I remembered the way the blinds sent a dotted reflection of the sunlight onto the wall above the bed. I thought when I first came here that even the light is design-conscious in this country. I say that I have to confess this because it gives me away, I get great pleasure from the way light falls on walls. It is even better when it plays the same trick a year later.

Another routine that never changes is doing my morning martial arts practice. I was back doing it here in the same recreational space behind the apartments as last year, and it felt as if it had already been consecrated as my dojo. Even better, it was still warm enough in the September sun to wear shorts.

Turn left for the Sibelius Hall and turn right for the city centre – whichever way you go, the streets are lined with green, that particular leaf shade that seems to say enjoy us because this is the beginning of our last shout before autumn.

I turned right because it was time for a leisurely, holiday-mood, second cup of coffee and there are excellent coffee houses, cafés and restaurants here in Lahti, and I had the time to linger.

Statue of two Finnish cavalry soldiers, Hakkapeliitta, from the 30-Year War. by Pentti Papinaho (1974) – those horses look as if they could have won the war on their own.

The Lutheran Church of the Cross (Ristinkirkko) (1978) looks different from each side you look at it, but whichever, it dominates the skyline and shows off the brilliance of its architect, Alvar Aalto (1898 – 1976), who was a brilliant architect in a country of brilliant architects.

The brilliantly white interior comes as a dramatic surprise, but it is both in the spirit of ecclesiastical design, but also of the Modernist Finnish delight in clean lines. The acoustics are clean and clear enough in here for the church to be a concert venue and a music recording studio too for the Lahti Symphony Orchestra. The magnificent, 53-stop, organ was designed by Veikko Virtanen in 1979, and it is so impressive that it has inspired the annual Lahti International Organ Festival.

Spirit of Freedom (Vapauden Hengetäir) 1952 by Wäinö Aaltonen (1894 – 1966)

Down the grassy slope, and/or the many steps, from the church, in a former brewery building, is Lahti’s new, 2022, visual arts gallery MALVA, which on both of my visits here, put on stimulating and forward- looking exhibitions.

In 2022, they were showing a series of shows by the French artists, Adrien M & Claire B – Claire Bardainne (b. 1978) and Adrien Mondot (b. 1979) – with the collective title Havens of Light, which in their description was digital art and the blending of the imaginary, real and virtual dimensions. It was also billed as being interactive….so much so that it even got me to dance for the distortion mirrors.

Their other project was called Crossing the Mirror – a pop-up book in augmented reality and it’s best explained by this short video.

Even the café space joined in the gallery’s art displays with this reproduction of a sixties living room.

Salpausselkä ski stadium, remodelled in 1972, is a weirdly alien object seen from all around Lahti. I thought it was an abandoned road bridge when I first saw it, but then, skiing is not something I have ever done or ever would. Except maybe, if I wanted to commit an elaborate attempt at suicide. Even going to the top of that ski jump would give me heart failure. I am still impressed by the fact that anyone can ski, let alone do the kind of olympic class ski jumping that goes on here in winter. I’m envious because I know I would love to do it, but would never be able to.

If you live in Finland, you have to be tough and you need to be pretty athletic too, especially in the long winters. In front of the ski slope is a sports complex that caters for most sports enthusiasts, including, of course, a football stadium for Lahti FC, a team that has its ups and downs, I’m told, but it is currently in the Finnish Premier League.

Lahti FC produced the player, Jari Litmanen (b. 1971), who is generally regarded as the greatest Finnish footballer ever. His statue ( by Reijo Huttu, 2010) at the club, and celebrates Finland’s all-time leading scorer, its national team captain who also played for Ajax, Barcelona, Liverpool, Malmö as well as Lahti FC. Known as Kuningas (the King) he is an inspiration to all young Finnish footballer wannabes.

The statue may not be great art but it certainly makes its point. As an art-work, I preferred this nearby kiosk with its equally energetic graffiti.

I guess if you have a sporting yearn but you can’t run or ski or kick a ball, you can always be like these. two enthusiastic anglers in the park that leads to the harbour, and then on to Sibelius Hall.

I paid a second visit too to the sculpture park in the woods next to the park to see the colossal concrete sculptures of Olavi Lanu (1925 – 2015) (see my earlier blog)

And then, as on every evening during my stay, my destination was the Sibelius Festival at the wonderful Sibeliustalo, Sibelius Hall, built in 2000 over-looking Lake Vesijärvi, and with one of the best acoustics in any concert hall I have visited.

I was here in 2022, returned in 2023 and I plan to go to the 2024 festival too when they will be performing, in their 25th anniversary concerts, all seven of Sibelius’ symphonies. I can’t wait, as they say.

Dalia Stasevska, the festival director and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s principal conductor is seen here at the end of the performance of Sibelius Symphony No. 7 during the last concert of the 2023 festival, one of the many highlights of last year’s event.

Another highlight was the Spanish violinist Maria Dueñas as the soloist in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, with Festival guests, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra with conductor Daniel Harding. I am already booked to return and, honesty, I am already excited about it.

Let’s finish with a short video made at a recording session in the Sibelius Hall in 2014 with Okko Kamu conducting the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7.

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