Gazing out onto a frozen lake through spruce and pine, next door to a useful tram stop twenty minutes’ ride into the centre of town; this was the perfect space between peace and bustle. I visited Helsinki to attend an evening of my song music, put together by super-soprano Margit Tuokko, who not only sang all the pieces with the impossibly high notes (including King Harald’s Saga and Natural History) but could be found doing the photocopying, the media and the schedules. The concert took place in the elegant waterside hall of Helsinki Conservatorium.
Vaulting the obstacle of an all-English language programme, the musicians gave some ‘best ever’ performance of some tricky numbers, and have joined my own Finnish roll of honour on which I mentally list the numerous Finnish composers, conductors and performers who have brightened my life – I’ll just start off with Kaija Saariaho, Osmo Vänskä and Karita Mattila, with many more to come.
How does a small (Scotland-sized) population manage this? As ever I was anxious to ask comparative educational questions. I already knew that in Finland, formal school doesn’t start till the age of seven – though it was still a surprise to see quite sturdy kids out playing and enjoying themselves during the full school day they’d be having(with tests and homework) in the UK. I was told that though Finland formerly topped all those international tables which supposedly measure scholastic achievement, they’re dropping down somewhat. Ok, so what about music teaching in schools? Everyone was anxious to assure me that there was a specialist music high school in Helsinki with two or three hours music per day. Britain has those schools too of course, but what about educating everybody else? Well, according to my informants, the weekly school music lesson up to now has been unadventurous, maybe singing pop songs, but a new national curriculum has for the first time mentioned the word ‘composer’. The idea is to get composers into schools, something we’ve been doing with success in the UK for 30 years . But our national curriculum has squeezed the timetable too much to fit these visits in any more.