Finnish Wind Music Conference

Suomen Puhallinpäivät

Pori, Finland 18th to 20th March 2005

by Mark Heron

Recommended Works:

J-P Lehto Variazioni Dodecaphonici
Stephen McNeff Clarinet Concerto Maecenas
Pertti Jalava Tuulenpesä
Toivo Kuula Vuorella & Soitto

Or, to those not familiar with one of the planet's most impenetrable languages, "Finnish Wind Music Conference". Finland's answer to a BASBWE conference takes place annually, although artistic direction and administration is the responsibility of the organising committee in the locality in which each individual conference is to be held.

This year's conference took place in Pori, a small city in western Finland which in true Finnish fashion boasts a full time professional chamber orchestra, a modern 700 seat concert hall and a thriving music school. All this supported 30% by the State and 70% by the City and despite a population of less than 100,000.

Finnish composer, Jukka-Pekka Lehto, who's Sinfonietta was the final work in last year's International Wind Festival at the RNCM, is principal flute of the Pori Sinfonietta and as a leading figure in the Finnish wind music scene was involved in the organisation of the conference.

New professional wind orchestra

His major innovation for this conference was to found a new professional wind orchestra, the Satakunnan Wind Orchestra ("SWO") which proved to be a triumph of collaboration between the various local arts organisations.

Of course organising and funding any new orchestra is a considerable task, even in a country where the arts enjoy significant support from both national and local government, and some creative thinking was required.

I had previously conducted Pori Sinfonietta and as the orchestra was keen to work with me again, Lehto suggested combining a return visit with the wind festival and invited me to conduct the new wind orchestra. That was good idea number 1 as my travel & accommodation costs were covered by the orchestra.

Good idea number 2 was to link the orchestra's regular Friday night concert to the festival, making it the opening gala concert and booking two leading Finnish wind soloists to perform in that concert: internationally known trumpet virtuosi, Jouko Harjanne, and principal bassoon of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jussi Särkkä.

Good idea number 3 was the masterstroke: alongside the two wind concerti the rest of the Pori Sinfonietta programme should be for string orchestra only. That meant that the orchestra's wind, brass & percussion had a very light week and so Lehto was able to persuade the orchestra management to donate the wind, brass & percussion section's contracted hours for the week.

Armed with 14 very fine professional players as the core of his new wind orchestra, Lehto approached the local military band and some freelance players to fill in the gaps and form a full one-to-a-part wind orchestra. The army agreed to release whatever players were needed for the week and the conservatories in the region were very helpful in re-arranging and covering lessons and classes which the freelance players were due to teach.

Whether such a sequence of events could ever happen in the UK with our climate of funding cuts and the hand-to-mouth existence forced on our professional orchestras is probably doubtful but it does show what is possible with some enterprising thinking and co-operation between professional, military and educational institutions.

Gala Concerts

As mentioned above, the opening gala concert was given by Pori Sinfonietta. Britten's Simple Symphony for strings was followed by Atso Almila's bassoon concerto, written in 2001 for Jussi Särkkä. Almila writes in what might be described as a post-Sibelius style, with maybe even a hint of the sound worlds of Copland and Vaughan-Williams. All of that makes for an accessible style and although this work exists only in chamber orchestra format he has a number of concerti and other works for wind band which would be worth exploring.

Jouke Harjanne is one of the finest trumpet soloists around and gave a faultless performance of the Hummel concerto to open the second half. Tchaikovsky's great String Serenade closed the programme. It was a slight shame that some of the wind conference delegates chose to leave after the Hummel rather than staying to listen to those stringy things - that occasionally narrow-minded approach is international I guess.

The Saturday gala concert was the inaugural concert of the SWO and consisted almost entirely of world premieres. Graduation by young local composer Juuso Wallin is a useful opening work for a concert with the initial fanfare giving way to a quite intricate development of the material in compound time. It is around grade 5 and available from the composer. Still in his early 20's, Wallin is a composer to keep an eye out for in the future.

Tuulenpesä by Pertti Jalava is scored for a slightly reduced wind orchestra of 2232 3321 sax:atb 2-4 percussion. Translated literally the title means "nest of wind" but the word refers to a bunch of birch twigs traditionally used as a natural brush to clean oneself with while in sauna. The percussion parts are technically possible with 2 players but even with 4 are highly virtuosic and demand professional players of a high standard.

The composer notes in the score that the basic idea came from a progressive rock piece he wrote some years ago. The music meanders slowly, wistfully and mostly quietly until the rapid and complex extended percussion cadenza which gives way to a short codetta reprising the first section. This is a rewarding and highly original work well worth considering as a change of pace and tone colour - but only if your percussionists are up to it! Tuulenpesä is probably grade 6 and is published by Musact.

The one non-Finnish work on the programme was Stephen McNeff's new clarinet concerto. Commissioned by the Southwark Concert Band and the North Cheshire Concert Band with funds from the Performing Rights Society, this project was already in progress and when I was asked to suggest a soloist for this concert it seemed a good idea to ask Stephen if it was possible to 'speed up' and finish the work a bit earlier than originally planned. He agreed to do so and Linda Merrick came over to give a 'preview performance' prior to the official premieres by Southwark and NCCB in May and September 2005.

The brief for the concerto was that whilst a top level soloist would be needed, the band parts should be manageable by amateur and student bands. Those who are familiar with Ghosts, Wasteland Wind Music Two, Rant and other recent McNeff works at this level will not be surprised to know that he has delivered what was asked for. At some 23 minutes in length this is a major addition to the wind concerto repertoire and it is good that even with his commitments as composer in residence with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and commissions from the likes of the Royal Opera House Stephen is still willing and able to find the time to write works aimed at community and youth bands.

Watch out for it soon in the Maecenas catalogue and there will be a performance at the International Wind Festival in November by Linda and the Bolton Sinfonietta.

Back to premieres of new Finnish music and October Sun by Jukka Viitasaari. Adept and prolific at school and youth band level, Viitasari has an extensive output published by Edition 7.October Sun perhaps reflects this background a little, being relatively safe in terms of orchestration and doublings, but Viitasaari has a good ear for colour and with careful balancing this is an effective tone poem lasting 9 minutes at around grade 5. Certainly school band directors looking for something a little different would do well to investigate his catalogue.

The final work was a set of theme & variations by Lehto, Variazioni Dodecaphonici. A slightly subversive sense of humour, some might say "naughtiness", is never far from the surface in Lehto's music and lends an element of approachability to what is quite often fairly advanced tonal language. In this work, most of the variations pay tribute to dance forms, however alongside the gavotte and minuet there is a "House" variation and a 1970's disco tribute. There is a nice balance of full-on tuttis and more delicately scored sections and the orchestration is inventive, particularly in the use of percussion and a variety of muted effects in the trumpets. Around 12 minutes in duration, Variazioni Dodecaphonici is around grade 5 and is published by Musact. Good quality youth bands will have great fun with this piece.

The closing concert was given on Sunday afternoon by the Helsinki Academic Wind Orchestra. This group is made up of students studying at universities and colleges in Helsinki, other than the Sibelius Academy. Considering that the majority are not music majors, the band plays very well and is probably comparable with our best university bands in the UK. The conductor was Ville Paakunainen, a wind conducting student at the Sibelius Academy.

For me the programme was a little disappointing in that it was built around transcriptions of 2 orchestral works. The players delivered effective enough performances of Mussorgsky's Night on a Bare Mountain and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture but it was a shame the opportunity wasn't taken to programme original works for wind orchestra, or at least to select transcriptions which are better suited to the medium. Effective enough for outdoor pops concerts, wind transcriptions of 1812 only ever seem to highlight the big hole where you want the cellos to be!

Of much more interest were the works sandwiched in between. Completely new to me wasVuorella & Soitto by Toivo Kuula (1833 - 18) a substantial two movement work for brass ensemble written in 1914 but very much 19th Century in style. I shall certainly investigate this one further and it would make an attractive first half to a concert alongside, for example, the Mozart C minor serenade.

Tommi Kolunen is a local boy made good, having recently graduated from the Sibelius Academy. He gave a sound performance of Tango Tarantella (a more substantial work than the title suggests) by Jukka Linkola, who has written extensively for wind band.

Repertoire Sessions & Other Concerts
In addition to the gala concerts there were 3 repertoire sessions, focused on easy, intermediate and advanced repertoire mainly by Finnish composers. Each of these sessions was given by a band at the appropriate level so delegates were able to get a feel for how any given work would sound when performed by players of the intended ability level.

There was also a light music contest (purely of original music, no transcriptions or creative arrangements) the prizes for which were decided by the audience, and a combined performance by 2 local community bands.

I didn't attend any of the lectures as my Finnish is rudimentary in the extreme but these seemed very much focused on composers and repertoire. Linda Merrick also led a session on her clarinet concerti commissions, focusing particularly on the relationship between composer and soloist.

The Finnish Wind Music Scene

The "scene" in Finland seems to be healthy and in many ways similar to the UK. The only full time professional bands are the military with the Guards Band in Helsinki being the top ensemble. The Sibelius Academy is the premiere conservatoire and they have recently begun to pay more attention to wind orchestra repertoire. Although some students win a place there straight from high school it is quite usual to first attend one of the regional conservatoires of which there are 5 or 6 throughout the country.

In addition to the Academic Wind Orchestra, several universities in other parts of Finland have bands and community bands are plentiful throughout the country.

At grass roots level, instrumental tuition is not generally given in the schools but through separate music schools based in most major towns and cities. Wind Bands seem to be an important part of the music school system and although quality is of course variable, they generally seem to be well led and resourced.

The conference was well attended with a similar number of delegates to a BABSWE conference - admirable when considered in light of the fact that Finland's population is a tenth of the UK's. There was also significant local support for the festival and the Pori Sinfonietta and Satakunnan Wind Orchestra concerts were particularly well attended.

Finland is well known for the support it gives to composers and perhaps this explains what seems to be a very strong culture of commissioning and performing music by Finnish composers. There exists a very wide range of repertoire at all levels of difficulty and covering light music as well as art music.

Even in the light music, it seems to me that the composers are less affected by "globalisation" than their colleagues in other parts of the world and conductors looking for something that sounds a little bit different could do worse than explore the Finnish repertoire. An added bonus is that there are no "local peculiarities" in terms of instrumentation so the scoring is generally identical to British & American bands.

The Finnish Music Information Centre (FIMIC) has an extensive catalogue of Finnish Wind Music, published in 1997 but with regular updates. Most of the repertoire is published either by small publishers, whose prices are generally lower than UK or US publishers, or by FIMIC. FIMIC is a non-profit making organisation and they will supply sets of wind band parts at cost, typically 20 to 30 euros a set.

Useful Contacts:

Finnish Music Information Centre
Edition 7
SPOL (Finnish Wind Music Association)
Finnish Guards Band