Flying to Lahti in Finland for Sibelius

My first sighting of Finland, land of lakes, forests, saunas and music, seen from the air on a scheduled flight to Helsinki.

It all started six months earlier, in the Runaway Cafe on platform two at Lewes Station, UK, my home town. I am not talking about my journey to catch the plane to Finland. It was March 2022, I was having a coffee before the London train arrived and the radio behind the counter was playing Sibelius’ most well-known piece, Finlandia. I was going to London for a day at the British Museum for The Stonehenge exhibition, which I truly enjoyed. The only trouble was that tune. I could not get rid of Finlandia all day.

In all honesty, I was wishing I could hear the whole piece on my home sound system and I didn’t want to wait until I got back, but I had to. Of course, being an obsessive kind of man, it wasn’t good enough just to listen to Finlandia, love it though I do, especially as played by an orchestra called The Lahti Symphony Orchestra (Sinfonia Lahti), conducted by Osmo Vänskä. No, I decided that I had to listen to all seven of Sibelius’ symphonies again, in numerical order, of course. It had to be the versions by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra too. If you don’t know these recordings, please find them somewhere, they are truly inspiring and, I thought, without any proof or even any knowledge what that actually means, they are very Finnish.

I hadn’t given the orchestra’s name a lot of thought, but it had occurred to me that Lahti was a strange sort of word and, of course, I couldn’t speak Finnish. I didn’t know what a Lahti was, maybe a type of milky coffee, or who Lahti was, or where Lahti was. So, with Sibelius fully enthroned in his rightful place back in my brain, I decided to google Lahti. Ah, yes, it’s a relatively small town in Finland which has its own symphony orchestra, famous for its recordings of Sibelius’ music. They had a state of the art orchestral hall too, by a lake, The Sibelius Hall, which, I now read, had first class, world class, acoustics. And then the big moment. Drum-roll, please Lahti Symphony Orchestra: every year Lahti holds a Sibelius Festival with its resident orchestra, in the Sibelius Hall and playing only Sibelius’ music.

Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957)

So there I was, heading North, sitting on a Norwegian Airways flight from London Gatwick to Helsinki Airport at the end of August 2022. It was my first visit to any of the Nordic countries and, for someone who had been going on holiday every year to Italy, this was definitely going to be something different.

Helsinki from the air and, beyond it, the Baltic Sea.

This is the impressive modern building that is the Sibelius Hall in Lahti. I was truly excited to get here, but I was knocked out by the architecture and its setting.

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra (Lahti Sinfonia) with its principal conductor Dalia Stasevska, who is also the festival director, gave three concerts of Sibelius’ music. His Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7 and the great late work, Tapiola, a tone poem that some people call his 8th symphony. There were also a number of the composer’s other tone poems and two rare performances of his music for narrator and orchestra, The Wood-Nymph and Snöfrid.

The Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska is already known for her passionate, dramatic and rhythmically exciting interpretations of a whole range of composers’ works – including many contemporary Finnish composers. As well as being the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor, from 2021 until 2025, her first principal conductor’s post, she is also the principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra where she became better known to British audiences after she conducted the Last Night of The Proms in 2020.

Now she is even on the cover. of this month’s Gramophone Magazine (April 2024), and it is, by now, patently obvious that she will soon be taking a giant, and well-deserved, leap into the top ranks of international conductors.

I will remember particularly her emotional commitment and her ability to transmit that feeling to us in the audience, especially in profoundly serious performances of Sibelius’ great twin other-worldly masterpieces, Symphony No 7 and Tapiola. Look carefully, if you can be bothered, I am sitting, transfixed, four rows back, on the left, feeling privileged and moved to have been there.

The opening concert of the festival was impressive too, with the Estonian Festival Orchestra conducted by the Estonian-American conductor, Paavo Järvi, the orchestra’s chief conductor and founder, but also chief conductor of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, and the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo. They played Sibelius’ thrillingly late Romantic Symphony No. 2 and his dramatic quasi-symphony, Lemminkäinen, setting some episodes from the life of Lemminkäinen, the reckless, flawed and deeply human hero from Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala, with its mystical Isle of the Dead guarded by the black swan of Tuonela.

 Lemminkäinen : Thus became a mighty hero. In his veins the blood of ages, 
Read erect and form commanding, Growth of mind and body perfect 
But alas! he had his failings, Bad indeed his heart and morals, 
Roaming in unworthy places, Staying days and nights in sequences 
At the homes of merry maidens, At the dances of the virgins, 
With the maids of braided tresses (Rune IX, The Kalevala)

During the intervals to the concerts, the audience retreated to enjoy the appropriately inspiring architecture of the Sibelius Hall (Sibeliustalo), completed in 2000, it is the work of Finnish architects, Kimmo Lintula and Hannu Tikka, continuing what is by now Finland’s international reputation for great architecture.

The concert hall’s acoustics are, as I had read, as good as you get, and its pin-drop clarity encouraged the audience to sit silently and it also allowed the orchestras to play to their full range – from fortissimo to pianissimo with no loss of detail. In the interval, we could also catch those famous Finnish sunsets over the lake. I know that Sibelius is much more than just a Finnish composer, he’s one of the greatest masters of music, and his works are not really ‘about’ Finland, but the Sibelius Hall in this setting, after some great performances of his music, can’t help but remind us that his inspiration wherever it came from, can’t have been unaffected by the Nordic beauty of his homeland.

Up these intriguing musical stairs, on the other side of town, is the Lahti Conservatory of Music, (Lahden konservatorio), where there was also a piano recital given as part of the festival and, this year, focusing on Sibelius’ less well-known genre, piano music.

David Munk-Nielsen

The young Danish pianist, David Munk-Nielsen (born 1998), still studying for his master’s degree at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, and was already an award-winning pianist He won first prize in the Tampere Piano Competition as well as the Tallinn Piano Competition – and in both competitions he played Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto, not for the faint-hearted, in the finals. In his Lahti Sibelius recital, he played three sets of piano pieces from the beginning and the towards the end of the composer’s creative life. Ten Pieces, Op 24, are examples of Sibelius’ early, Liszt-inspired virtuoso works; Five Pieces, Op. 75, The Trees, and Five Pieces, Op. 85, The Flowers, are sets of often gnomic miniatures, each title the name of a tree or a flower, and the music is, well this is Sibelius, a lot more interesting than their names suggest. David Munk-Nielsen played them with the seriousness they deserve and, where necessary, the virtuosity that says much for his future.

Jean Sibelius taking trees seriously.

You have to take trees seriously in Finland, it is the most forested country in Europe, the great northern forest. A small piece of this forest, in southern Finland they are a mix of deciduous and evergreen, spreads down almost as far as the Sibelius Hall in Lahti in what is called Kariniemi Park, which also contains the Lanu Sculpture Park, featuring the work of Finnish sculptor Olavi Lanu (1925 – 2015), who took trees seriously too. His works are often made in concrete but disguised as if they are growing in the forest – which in Kariniemi Park, they are, if you see what I mean.

Lahti sculptor Olavi Lanu (1925 – 2015)

Walking in the park, I felt that I had a real if small-scale taste of what that the Finnish forest, further north, is truly like. A desire was born to explore further into Finland’s natural landscape while I walking down wooded paths to the equally Finnish landscape of lakes.

Also bordering onto trees in the centre of Lahti is the Lahti Museum of Visual Arts Malva – mostly known simply as Marva. It was obvious from my first visit that the people who run it have just the right attitude to the modern and the historic and that they have very good taste too. Their main exhibition, when I was there, was by the Dutch conceptual artist, Maarten Baas.

Maarten Baas – all smoke and mirrors at Lahti’s Malva exhibition

Dutch artist, Maarten Baas’ exhibition, Hide and Seek, was full of surprises, jokes and insights into what we sometimes call, wrongly, the everyday.

Maarten Baas does some amazing things with smoke and mirrors too. His burnt objects, many of them of iconic pieces, was truly dramatic and not a little disturbing….I can still smell the burning.

Lahti is not just a place for great music and art, forested walks and lakes, it is also, yes, a nice town. I suspect it is also a very Finnish town – orderly, organised, efficient and modern – an extremely pleasant place. I like its understated charm a lot. Finland feels like a modern place to me, and I really like the way that the oldest buildings in Lahti all seem to be 20th century. It feels like Lahti lives in the present and the future – that gives me hope. It is also a great place for a coffee or a drink in civilised surroundings.

Lahti’s main church, the Church of the Cross (Ristinkirkkko), was built in 1978. Another piece of fine modern architecture. Today, it was holding a wedding. So simple but so effective this display of sunflowers – no happy couple could help. but me moved by its simple but profund statement of hope and good wishes. The church, by the way, has been the location for a lot of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra’s highly-regarded Sibelius recordings.

Home for this week, was a modern apartment in a modern apartment block, in a modern apartment estate, right in the middle of town and a short walk from Sibelius Hall.

I know that the Finnish winter is harsh but the Finns are ready for that. They are natural designers. The doors fit, the locks lock with a delightful clunk, they stay shut too in a gale. Here, in my temporary home, the obsessive in me loved the way everything worked and looked smart as well as functional. This lift, for example, nicely lit, smoothly opening and closing doors and a purring swish gave me great pleasure every time I used it.

A lot of Lahti citizens live in these type of developments and, unlike many other apartment blocks I’ve seen in other countries, here I think , you are lucky citizens to live here.

There was even a place for me at the back, in that nicely designed communal garden, so I began each day, as I try to wherever I go, doing my kungfu and tai-chi practice – overlooked by some curious residents who only registered their surprise with a slight flicker of a smile and a friendly Hei.

After tai-chi, what better, most Finns would agree, than a hot sauna back in the apartment. Sauna is the only Finnish word to enter the international vocabulary. It means, yes, sauna and it is genuinely a part of every day life in Finland. You feel great afterwards, believe me.

Down the street, turn right and five minutes away is another world. Well, as you can see below, a themed restaurant that isn’t into the idea of hiding its ideas. Viking Restaurant Harald (Viikinkinkiravintola Harald) is just what it says the moment you see it. At first I was reluctant to go in. I suspected it would be all embarrassing theme park entertainment with terrible theme park food, but I was wrong. The decor has a sense of humour. I know that Vikings were not exactly what the comic books portray. My father’s family came from the Scottish Hebrides and some of our ancestors have Viking names, so I am a softy for my Viking heritage, even if I do know for a fact that Viking never wore two-horned helmets, and I certainly never thought I would wear one, but….

…never say never. When in Lahti’s Viikinkinkiravintola Harald, after a few Viking beers, and a very good meal (honestly, the food is first class), almost anything can happen. But, before I go, let me leave you with members of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, who have given me so much pleasure here in Lahti. They are performing their Covid lockdown version of Sibelius’ Finlandia, each musician in his or her own home studio. Kiitos ja kippis! I shall be back!

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