October 19, 2010

Arctic hysteria

This semester in my studies, I've decided to concentrate on contemporary Finnish choral music. Last week, I arrived at class with a piece I had chosen for its absurd text: a poem about an unfortunate (Finnish) family whose story goes somewhat like this: the wife runs away with a Swede, the uncle goes to work in Kazakhstan, builds a sauna, burns it during a drinking spree and kills himself, the aunt has hallucinations of Jesus on the potato shed, the sons commit various crimes abroad and end up in jail, the daughter is abandoned by her husband with seven children, the family dog howls himself to death and the house is left to ruin. All this set to a cappella choir might not sound like a very beautiful piece, and believe me, it isn't. "What a great piece!" our professor smiled: "Finally something else to sing about Finland besides Lapland and the nature! This is the dark side of Finnish society!" And, of course, he was completely right.

What my professor calls Arctic hysteria might very well be something to understand only if you've lived here during autumn. The nights get longer, the weather colder, and bit by bit people start to go a bit nuts. Weirdly enough, instead of letting themselves relax during the harsh winter, people tend to work even longer and harder. And I can definitely tell you that, during the build-up to the Christmas period, choral conductors all go a little nuts. Talking with a friend and colleague some days ago on the phone, we realised that among the "choral conducting circles", talking about your free weekend seems so rare it's almost embarrassing when it happens. We're also often complaining of too much to do because, unlike orchestras which often have professional people taking care of the practical matters, choirs rely on their conductors to do a lot of the practical work in addition to actually choosing the repertoire and conducting the rehearsals and performances. This can be anything from making reservations for concert halls, checking the programmes for spelling mistakes, playing through parts on the piano and recording them for the singers to practise with, picking up scores from the store, etc etc.

I'm not complaining, because I love my job. As a freelancer, I have worked for 14 different choral organisations this year, including the three choirs I regularly conduct. It's great! It's also too much, I know, but it's not exceptional among conductors. Besides, everybody also knows that Helsinki is not a cheap place to live in, not to mention the possibility to have a holiday abroad once in a while, and we all need the euros our choirs can afford to pay us. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, given the huge amount of stress conductors (and musicians in general) encounter during a year, and given that many musicians are also highly impulsive and emotional people, the term Arctic Hysteria is something which now and then describes us very well.

Having said all this, I must admit I have lately become increasingly interested in a lifestyle which manages to combine a bit of hysterical running around, complaining about the weather and the price of everything, and also a bit of taking it easy and not stressing it that much. My motto for this semester was "one thing at a time, with breaks in between" and until now, I think I've managed to make it work quite well. To top it all, I was hit by a bad flu recently, and was forced to cancel various work-related things I had been looking forward to. As a result, it's been just me, the magazines, the books, and the dust-balls for several days now. And you wouldn't believe the weird things I've been able to do!

First of all, I've sat on the sofa and looked at the flat and the things around me. This is my home, and I like it a lot. The rent is absurdly high, but since I've decided to pull through with it I might as well be able to actually enjoy being at home once in a while! Today, I made myself tea and slowly watched the lemon juice swirling around in the cup and mixing together with the darker tea. I've dozed off and woken up laughing at some crazy dream I didn't remember anymore. I've browsed through our bookshelves and rediscovered stuff I had forgotten I owned. I've read magazines. Magazines!! I've reorganised our Finnish music scores into a new system. I've skyped with my sister in New York.

The list goes on and on, but the point is, I feel like I have bit by bit truly discovered the joys of being at home. It's almost embarrassing to admit it, but it's also something I've truly had to teach myself: to not be a little ashamed of taking a break for myself once in a while. Okay, so once I get going again I'll have days packed with three rehearsals, and I'll try to spend the time between the rehearsals preparing for next day's rehearsals. And of course, being a student does not mean lazying around - there's always new music to study and now projects to plan. However, I can't help feeling that after six years of concentrating entirely on reading about repertoire and voice production, standing in front of the mirror waving my hands about, singing through thousands of scores etc, it's time to learn something new about being a healthy and happy musician.

I believe that, for a musician, and most importantly for a conductor, you have to keep your mind occupied and your thoughts alive. My piano teacher once told me that music is not like a painting - it keeps evolving in your fingers and mind and is never really "ready" in the sense that a great painting is. And she was right: I can't hang an accomplished rehearsal up on the wall because next week everything might change again. Worse than that, I can't even perform to friends or relatives by myself, because I will always need musicians in front of me to release the knowledge I have been able to get from some magnificent teachers. However, as opposed to a pianist who might have to go through some rigorous physical warm-ups before she or he is able to perform a long-forgotten piece again, the conductor's most important task is to keep the mind active and stored with knowledge. A colleague recently posted as his status on Facebook: "How much is a Bach motet deposited in the vault of my brain worth?". Impossible to say. But once you know a Bach motet by heart, the chances are it will stay with you your entire life, as so many other wonderful wonderful choral pieces, and you'll be able to share them with as many choirs as you like.

Speaking of Bach: I recently stepped in for a friend to conduct her choir's rehearsal of the Christmas Oratorio. As so often happens, I was forced to leave my preparing work to the last minute and was then surprised by a very tight schedule. Other things came up, and before I knew it, I was standing in front of the choir without having opened the score once at home. As one of my conducting teachers once said: "You will never be able to avoid situations where you have to conduct from sight. It's just one part of this job." But then I realised that, after all, I was not conduct from sight. I have sung the Christmas oratorio for years as a small boy, and so I was able to conduct the rehearsal by remembering all those rehearsals so many years ago. My point: we really need to learn how to take it easy. Some things happen by themselves, some don't (and if you're not always on top shape, give yourself a break), but too many things happen by forcing them to - like having a burn-out.

Musicians - whether they are professionals or amateurs - want to have a happy person in front of them during a rehearsal. Happy as in smiling, yes, but also happy as in mentally balanced, present and, in general, satisfied with one's life. Can someone who spends every minute of his life studying a score, stressing about his choir's tenor situation or planning the next rehearsal, be happy? We all need outlets. My own are doing fun things with the people closest to me, reading fiction and, more recently, yoga. I have really started believing that reading a wonderful book, taking a walk in the park, going to the movies with my family, or just spending a cozy afternoon at home, waiting for dinner to be ready, is just as important to me and my work as studying posture and hand movements in front of a mirror. And once in a while, it's okay to get a little arctically hysterical....

August 10, 2010


As often before, the urge to start blogging again came to my mind during a long train trip. I've just returned from visiting Iisalmi (pronounced: see the title of this post), Finland's 48th largest city. Tucked all the way in Northern Savonia, it's a six hour trip away. Situated between a cluster of lakes (duh), it's a small town centred around a marketplace. A couple of churches, the main headquarters of the Olvi beer brewery and a statue of the Finnish writer Juhani Aho (who was born nearby) might not sound too exciting, but there is a cultural centre with a great city library. There wasn't a lot going on when we decided to take the walk "down town" yesterday, but that's probably (hopefully) because a lot of families are still on holiday. However, I did manage to see one of the city's weirder sights: the restaurant Kuappi, which, with only 8 square metres, is the smallest restaurant in the world (look it up on the Guinness Book of Records if you don't believe me).

Anyway, it's not very convenient to blog during a train trip without your laptop - iPhone or no iPhone - and of course I had brought entertainment with me as always. But isn't it always the same story on long trips? First of all, I can never decide how many books would be too much for six hours. Two? More like one and 1/7, seeing as I was going on board with an almost-finished crime novel (Sara Paretsky: Hardball) as well as a candidate for this year's Booker Prize (Andrea Levy: The Long Song). It's always like this: I want to finish the first novel and start the other one, but then on the other hand I like having a little space between books for allowing my brain to reset. However, if I leave too much time in between, will it make sense starting the next book anymore if we'll be almost arriving? This in turn clashes with another reading principle of mine: allow yourself time to be able to properly read yourself into a new novel when starting it. But does that mean I'll have to rush the ending of the first novel, thereby reading too quickly to be able to actually follow up on what's happening and enjoy the ending? In the end (and you might have noticed I'm a bit freaky when it comes to reading habits) it's easiest to just put both books aside and pick up the crossword puzzle.

But then what? It's always fun to have company while travelling, but I seemed to have got a seat in the children's compartment (oh joy) and it was either chubby 10-year old boys playing with their tray tables or young mothers caught up with their babies. A couple of girls dressed in leggings and something looking like a canvas screen scurried through the carriage swearing at each other. One of the other persons travelling alone was a woman who glanced at me suspiciously whenever I tried to make out what she was reading. Another lady behind me was concentrating on her packed lunch until she complained to the conductor that she wanted a seat facing the way we were going.

It was then that a stroke of luck finally hit me: Mikko's father had given me a pair of earphones in Iisalmi to replace the (two) pairs I had managed to lose. They were old, he warned me, but they'd probably serve their purpose. Alas, as soon as I forced the uncomfortable things into my ears, I heard something like a constant whispery sound, which didn't sound very promising. Hitting "play" on a random choral piece from my music library, I was greeted by a haunting sound which sounded nothing like the Netherlands Radio Choir I was supposed to be listening, but rather like the Kouvola Ghost Choir bellowing from some place very underground. In frustration, I was tucking the useless earphones into the last place I'd look for them afterwards - one of the buttoned pockets of my shorts - and my hand came upon another pair of earphones, this time one of the iPhone earphones I had lost! Hardly believing it, I thrust my hand into the other buttoned pocket - and found the other pair. I had been looking for these Apple earphones at home for over a week, and now suddenly here they were, travelling with me all along!

The joy was short-lived. The trouble with all these iPods and digital music players is that there's just too much to choose from. I like to hit the shuffle button and let the device choose something from my music library for me, but more than often this means I get hit with a string of pieces which goes something like this: A Brahms chorus followed by the latest Five corners quintet jazz number, followed by a Mozart aria which precedes Ella Fitzgerald falling in love, probably injected with some random recitative from a Bach cantata ("Und Gott sprach: Let's do it, let's fall in love...!?"). This is too much for even the most open-minded of musicians, so it's often necessary to choose an album to listen to. Too much of an effort. Back to the crossword. It's too difficult. What is this picture supposed to resemble? For which grid is this clue, across or down? How am I supposed to know the first name of all these obscure celebrities? On to the sudoku then. It's too easy. 5,4,6,7,1,3,9,8. What's missing? 2. I paid a visit to the restaurant car, ordered dinner and came across the dreaded swearing leggings girls. By now, one of them was using such vile language and in such a loud voice I was tempted to start flinging my lukewarm meatballs at her. On the other side, two shabby-looking young men were probably on their 16th beers. Airport bars, restaurant cars - oh, the romance of travelling. Are we there yet?

In the end, I did decide to finish the Paretsky and move on to the Long Song, which made the last hour of the trip pass very quickly. The next long trip will be to the United States next week, but thankfully I won't have to stock up on that much entertainment because this time I will have company. Good night everyone, please keep reading and let's hope I'll be actually able to update this blog more regularly from now on!

February 10, 2010

Life everlasting

I’m just returning home from Tampere on the fast Pendolino, which I was very glad to catch since it was late on its way from Oulu. Normally, the train I take back from the rehearsals of the Tampere Philharmonic Choir is the slower InterCity, which is usually hauntingly empty. I tend to occupy two seats and sort of half lie down, gazing at the accumulated rubbish from the day’s journeys and starting from my seat as the attendant comes to ask me whether I’d like anything from the circulating minibistro wagon. With trains crashing into buildings, ceilings falling right off the roof on top of shocked passangers and more trains cancelled than there are cranky staff members, this certainly hasn’t been a good year for the national railway. Still, you have to admire the self-irony one of the announcers at the Helsinki central railway station demonstrated today as she burst into laughter midway through her announcement. “Dear passengers, the Pendolino which was SUPPOSED to depart to Pieksämäki an hour ago and which was afterwards SUPPOSED to be replaced by a different set of wagons----“ and there she broke off with a giggle and abruptly switched off the microphone. Everyone on the platform burst into laughter, and two minutes later the same voice boomed across the station: “Dear passengers, this is an announcement about the Pendolino train to Pieksämäki….” and there she broke off again, possibly still quite unable to control herself.

Whether on the train, the metro or the tram, the first thing on my mind as I travel home after a choir rehearsal is usually the rehearsal itself. Right now, I feel pleased with the way the TPK has been making progress with the mother of all masses, Beethoven’s missa solemnis. The concert with the Tampere Philharmonic will take place this Easter. Today, we chewed our way through the central movement of the work, the Credo. 20 minutes long and with various different sections, it’s a real showpiece for big choirs who aren’t intimidated by the very long and high notes occurring in almost every part. Next week, we’ll start working on the final fugue of the Credo, which is something which I’ve never seen or heard anything like. As one prominent Finnish choral conductor has put it: “The final fugue of the Missa Solemnis Credo is the nastiest piece I have ever had to conduct”.

Seven minutes of pure euphoria set to music, the “everlasting life” section of the Credo would make any experienced or even professional choral singer cringe. First, there’s the whole of the first half of the mass to work through, and then suddenly the orchestra falls way into the background while the choir takes centre stage with its two parallel themes. The first three pages or so are excrutiating for the sopranos, who stay way above the staff lines for the majority of the exposition. Three majestic Amen chords, and suddenly the orchestra goes wild, ups the tempo, and the choir is back again – this time with some really devilish and syncopated coloraturae in every part “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamen” while each part takes its turn skipping along with the “et vitam venturi” theme, this time in a much faster and jumpier mode. Modulations galore, the fast intervals in the separate parts might remind you of someone practising rodeo on a particularly jumpy donkey. The drums and brass section join the fun, the notes seem to just fly by on the page (“where are we?!?”) and then we come to the real climax: on a high E flat major chord (sopranos on a high B flat), the tempo changes into Grave, dynamics fff, and by the time we finally finish, the tenors will be lying flat on the floor, the basses will be searching for their vocal chords amid the audience, the altos will be readjusting their hairdos and probably more than one soprano will be waving a white flag at the conductor.

So, all in all: can’t wait for next week’s rehearsal!

January 24, 2010


When your head is stuck in a score all day long, it's easy to forget about all the other fascinating things people are studying and working on all around you - like, for example, world history. I've always found history a fascinating subject, albeit a pretty overwhelming one. With too many ancient civilizations, confusing wars, political puzzles and surprising shifts of power to deal with, where do you start to understand all the mess which has happened before today? Visiting a friend in Hong Kong several years ago, I came upon the New Penguin History of The World in a bookshop. Unoriginally titled and 1232 pages thick, I thought this would be a book to own, and so I got it - only to stash it in a corner of my bookshelf behind "Metro maps of the world" for quite some time.

But, lo and behold! The New Penguin History of the World has finally made an appearance outside the bookshelf and my latest mission is to have the thing read and done with by the end of 2010 (or early 2016). One of the most important reasons to finally read this book is to have a clearer overview of history so as to be able to read fiction more easily. Of course, almost all fiction is set in the past, and lately it seems you're bound to make it onto the Booker prize shortlist as long as you set your novel faaaaaar back - consider Amitav Ghosh's superb Sea of Poppies, set in 19th century India, or this year's winner, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (I haven't begun it yet).

The book I'm now reading is Salman Rushdie's latest. Titled The Enchantress of Florence, it's actually set partly in the Mughal Empire and the Republic of Florence. We're talking about the 15th century here, but Republic of Florence? Isn't Florence a city? What exactly were the borders of the Mughal Empire in the 1400s? Enter Penguin's New History of the World. Setting Rushdie aside for a while, I sit up, brace my stomach muscles and plunge the bricklike book onto myself, opening at page 1. Book One: Before History - Beginnings (the book begins). "Where does History begin? It is tempting to reply "In the beginning"" - skip ahead a few pages to chapter one: The Foundations. That sounds more like it. "Scholars have long talked about Ice Ages". ICE AGES? Chapter two: Homo sapiens. Oh dear. How far do I have to read before I get to Indian princesses, ancient glittering cities like Samarkand or the Medici dynasty? That would probably be page 540: Europe's assault on the world. This is going to be a long read!

However, even the prehistoric beginnings of the book turn out to be fascinating. I learn about geological changes which happened "abruptly" - they took between 5 and 10 millenia - and civilizations which "quickly" established themselves all over the world - that is, in several hundred thousand years. Suddenly, a wristwatch looks absurd to me.

January 17, 2010

Falling stars

There's nothing like a good book, and one of the fun parts of reading is looking up words on my Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. We used to use the huge blue books during or English lessons at school. I can just see some of our English teachers right now: a Santa Claus look-alike who once got a student's pencil stuck in his beard and turned red, our bald teacher who year after year shoved American literature down our throats ("This term, we're going to discuss the American dream in literature!" - groans from the whole class: "AGAIN?") and a our red-haired favourite who used to answer almost all questions with the words "shut up" or "go to hell". Anyway, where was I?

The books I have been reading lately have been rich in language, making me consult my dictionary on words such as augury, prurient, trowel and stentorian. The trouble is, what to do when I can't lug the thing along all day? Opposed to the delights of broadening my vocabulary, there's nothing as annoying as finding a misprint in the book you're reading. I don't know about you, but I get the creeps reading a sentence like "they scurried up the gnagway like mice" or "on the way to met his deadly enemy Kashat he strode out so fast and vigorously that his son and the other two men had difficulty keeping up with him." Some people shy away from books that are thicker than their 2 cm, but I enjoy a book with so many characters they have to be somehow summarised first - so that, before the novel even begins, the reader is presented with labyrinthine family trees. One of the books I read a while ago actually had a misprint in the family tree itself, making it very confusing for me to figure out how one of the protagonists could have been born in 1935 when his parents began talking about having children only four years later. It took a couple of hundred pages for me to define the correct date of birth (1940) and correct it with one angry scribble.

I might require absolute concentration with a book, but watching a movie while doing something else isn't too big of a challenge. Just yesterday I spent most of the duration of the fantastic movie Avatar fumbling with my 3D-glasses and trying to sort out the black candy from the colourful candy by holding them up towards the lit screen. And right now, I'm actually watching The Painted Veil on television (it has a slow plot). A cup of tea I'm about to have will probably make me sleepless for a few more hours, but then I can enjoy the relaxed weekend moments a little longer. Starting tomorrow, it'll be back to work with a pile of music to study: Bruckner's E minor mass for choral conducting on Wednesday and Thursday and more Beethoven for the Tampere Philharmonic Choir. There'll also be preparation work to do for Kaamos and SOL, and of course the Slovenian Chamber Choir's program for the concert in March has also been neglected for too long - Schumann, Rautavaara, Poulenc... the list goes on and on.

It's interesting how so many composers seem to have been obsessed by stars. One of the songs in the Slovenian program is Schumann's "An die Sterne" ("To the stars"), in which the poet wonders whether the stars we see are familiar with the feelings we experience on our planet: joy and passion, sorrow and pain. Taneyev's beautiful setting "Stars" to the text of Polonsky reflects on how stars signify rebirth and, at the same time, death. I recently read the biography of the Finnish composer Toivo Kuula, and it turns out he spent a fortune on a huge telescope to watch the stars. As many sopranos have found out, Beethoven took the melodies of his choral compositions to their highest possible point so as to create a symbol for the heavens and, of course, stars. In Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's chilling novel "One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich", one of the convicts talks about his belief that stars are born when the old moon is broken every night. New stars are needed, because "Stars fall every now and then and the holes have to be filled up".

That's a nice way to look at it.

January 10, 2010

Who's who?

Finding myself with four hours’ spare time in Lahti last Thursday, I headed to the main library, which proved a pleasant surprise with its large music section, sound proofed piano rooms – one of which I rented for the cost of 1€ - and its helpful staff. I certainly hope the piano room was sound proofed, by the way, because otherwise the library’s clients got to endure a performance of me humming the (very high) violin solo of the Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis to my own accompaniment. Having a look at the choral section, I was delighted to find a thick book called “Who’s who in choral music”. Published just a few years ago, the book presents over a thousand people from all around the world who have made significant contributions to the choral scene. It’s either that or they’re the editors’ closest friends.

Anyway, since I had nothing but time, I decided to go through the whole list of names and make a note of people I have heard of. From the 1044 names, about 120 rang a bell. And out of these 120, I established a personal connection with 30 persons (this includes people who have conducted a concert I have sung and/or are on my Facebook friend list). Thirty might not seem like much to you, but let me really stress that the book presented a range of people so vast it included Chinese arts managers, people with the obscure job description “clinician” (which, you have to admit, brings more to mind someone in the field of medicine than musicians) and editors of a choral magazine somewhere unheard of.

If browsing “who’s who” didn’t feel quite satisfying, it at least made time pass quicker, and so I was soon trudging through the icy snow back to the Lahti theatre house to resume conducting stage rehearsals of Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci, which will have its premiere together with Cavalleria Rusticana in just over a week. It was one of the coldest days of this winter until now. The trees were white with snow, the sky was a beautiful blue and the sun was beginning to set. Not everybody was happy with the weather. “I always said I was born in the wrong country, out here with these bloody polar bears!!!” screeched our lovable director before settling down in her black robes to supervise the proceedings of the rehearsal.

We were at the final scene, where Pagliacco loses his marbles in the middle of the performance and stabs his wife Nedda and her lover to death infront of an (understandably) bewildered audience (that would be the choir I have been coaching all of last autumn!). The killings had to be rehearsed over and over again, with “STOP!”, “CUT!” and “you’re supposed to stab her, not break her neck!” booming around us from the director’s microphone. The singers performing the parts of the murder victims were having problems concerning the direction they were supposed to fall after they had been stabbed. They went swaying and crashing in different directions so many times that Nedda called a halt to the proceedings and went to get herself something to strap to her knees for protection. After many retakes of the scene – one of which ended in unintentional laughter because the doomed lovers had accidentally almost fallen on each other, with the raving Pagliacco stuck under their limbs – we were finally done.

With this year involving quite a lot of travelling in and outside Finland, it’s a relief to once again own a device for listening to music on the go. One of my newest evening pastimes is compiling playlists from my iTunes library. I actually began a playlist called Best of Bach, but soon realised the task was pretty absurd. When I feel like it, I can just select Bach as composer and probably anything the machine randomly plays by him will be some of the best stuff ever composed! Another thing I have discovered are podcasts. Until now, I have subscribed to two pretty good ones: BBC’s “From our own correspondent” and the Guardian’s “Book of the week”, in which the hosts of the program keep dishing out book recommendations so fast I can’t keep up with the typing.

To end this post, can I just complain about the outrageously short time it takes particles of dust to unite and create all these grey ugly balls flying on the floor? I just found another one although I’ve just vacuumed the flat. According to Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust), “approximately 6 mg/m²/day of house dust is formed in private households”. Well, say that in English, and it probably means a lot of dust. I sometimes wonder whether dust somehow gathers at an exponential speed, with one of the factors being the frequency of vacuum cleaning – the more often you sweep the floor, the faster you’ll have more dust..?

Whatever. The Beach is on tonight, so I can watch that and imagine I’m somewhere far from all this dust and this endless web of “who’s who” we're all supposed to master so well.

January 05, 2010

Steady as usual

I’ve just finished an impressive novel by one of Britain’s newest writers, Sarah Waters. I’d heard of her before, but now that her latest book “The Little Stranger” was shorlisted for the Booker Prize last year, I decided it was time to find out whether she was any good. As it turned out, the book was a great read – an old-fashioned haunted house –story with doors slamming shut, scribbles appearing on walls and telephones ringing in the middle of the night. Some of the scenes were so creepy I woke up after a restless night, calling out “what was that sound!??!” instead of a more usual “thank God for the snooze button”.

While on vacation in snowy Iisalmi, one of the books I brought along was “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë. Loyal to my new reading strategy (don’t read the book description on the back before you’ve finished the novel), I began the book without the faintest clue what it was about. Heights – that’s a geographical term for a sort of mountainous region, isn’t it? But wuthering? Use that in a sentence! So, with only vague conceptions of some sweeping love story to guide me, I found Wuthering Heights (which, by the way, is the name of the house in which the story is set. Sorry if I spoiled it for you!) a truly shocking and even disturbing read, featuring physical and psychological violence, cruel characters, necrophilia (ew) and even a hint at incest. While Northern Savonia slept, I scratched my eyes, turned page after page and wondered whether the front door was properly locked.

Had we stayed any longer away from Helsinki, I would probably have started even speaking English with a touch of Savonian dialect – (“how ooware you? I’m so gleeyad to ssee you!”). Down here, things have been proceeding steadily as usual. Well... we had a couple of train cars go wild and crash themselves into the railway station, passengers on the Silja Europa ferry from Stockholm to Turku didn’t quite get what they paid for when they realised the ship had been going in circles all night because of a faulty rudder, and oh did I mention the mysterious flooding at the main metro station which still hasn’t been opened up to traffic again? Otherwise we’re fine, so touch wood.

Musically speaking, 2010 promises to be an action-packed year, possibly even outdoing the adrenalin and euphoria of last year’s international competitions, beautiful a cappella concerts and one big chunk of workload carrying the title: Mozart’s Requiem. Kaamos will begin rehearsing new a cappella repertoire next week, including Bruckner, Purcell, Poulenc and contemporary Finnish works. The ladies of Diafonia, no doubt still ecstatic about the success of their first traditional Christmas concert (pun intended), will get working on – among others – a very special hymn which was composed at a prison camp in Indonesia during the second world war. (I just need to find the music first). A very important event will take place on next week’s Thursday, when I will conduct my first rehearsal with the student choir Savolaisen Osakunnan Laulajat.

In addition to these three choirs, I will be visiting conductor at the Tampere Philharmonic Choir, preparing them for a performance of Beethoven’s larger-than-life Missa Solemnis. I’m expecting lots of high notes, an army of red faces, frantic waving about with my arms and some breathless train rides back home to Helsinki. Rehearsals with the Lahti opera chorus are over, but there are still stage rehearsals left before the premiere, which is in two weeks. I will be in Lahti at the end of the week to see how rehearsals are getting along. In addition, I have been asked to conduct the Slovenian Chamber Choir and the Chamber Choir Ave in Ljubljana this year. Stay tuned for updates on how work will progress with these two fantastic ensembles!

So as not to finish off too boastfully, let me assure you my life is (still) full of embarassing moments. One of them happened while I was visiting this year’s first Bodypump session. Needless to say, my performance at the lesson itself was top class, but after the session, I couldn’t find my underpants upon leaving the shower. I went through the contents of my locker several times. I’ve lost towels, shampoo and a lock before, but considering the temperature outside, this was one thing I didn’t want to lose - I just had to find those pants! The university fitness staff had recently warned against a thief who was breaking into the lockers, which is why I left my phone and money at the counter during the lesson – this, however seemed highly unexpected. I was just contemplating the possibility of a secret admirer when the pants revealed themselves from inside my work-out bag (so sorry, not much of a story after all, although I can see from your faces you were expecting more - maybe next time). Upon leaving, I said good-bye to my fellow bodypumpers – nobody replied.

May 29, 2009

The Arrival

Written last Sunday.

It’s a good thing my grandmother has switched to digital photography, because otherwise her film rolls would probably have been all used up by the time her airplane began approaching Helsinki-Vantaa airport (making the air traffic radars go crazy with their beeping noises and flashing lights) after her long trip from Quito. I can just picture my father, standing in the arrivals hall holding his camera. Mother and firstborn son reunited through two camera lenses pointed at each other at the very moment the doors slid open and the terminal was filled with the echoing voice of my grandmother letting out an exuberant ”Yoohoo!”

I have to imagine her arrival, because I myself was spending the weekend at the Vaasa Choir Festival with the Krysostomos Chamber Choir. We travelled six hours in a bus driven by one of our sopranos Maija, who had properly adorned the windshield with icons and the choir’s mascot, a ceramic chicken called Sylvi. We’re on our way back now, and have spent most of the time discussing pregnancy and the Muppet show, looking out for rainbows and fancy mansions across the Ostrobotnia region, and stopping for refreshments (our first stop at an ice cream kiosk came quite quickly – it was situated at Vaasa’s main square, 200 metres from our hotel).

On the way to Vaasa two days ago, we made an excursion to Eurohamsteri, one of the most curious stores I have ever been in. Just outside the town of Parkano, the store feels like a giant hall hosting some sort of jumble sale. About half a minute after setting foot inside it, I got lost from the rest of our group and found myself browsing shelves and shelves of vases (3€), t-shirts with Finland’s emblem printed on them (4,99€), dog leashes (19,99€), and cheap angel sculptures (I didn’t bother to look). There is no logic to the way things are piled up: fluffy soft toys are to be found next to rolls of duct tape, and right next to the hair-dye products is a collection of some really tempting sweets produced by ”Mr Willy”. We opted for the jelly balls, which were somewhat harder than your average jelly balls, but still very tasty.

There’s nothing more refreshing than a spontaneous shopping spree, and in this respect, Vaasa’s ”Rewell Center” mall provided. The Center, which brought rebels to my mind every time someone spoke its name, was also one of the venues of the festival – various groups, from barbershop ensembles to operatic choirs form Russia, took part in the ”non-stop choir marathon” right in the middle of the center. We listened for a while before hitting the shops. The downside of paying with cards has always been the fact you really have no idea how much money you are spending. This morning, I tried to log on to my bank account through the internet, but for some reason it was inaccessible. It’s maybe just as well, but when I get through again, I’m going to look out for suspicious-sounding transfers. Last time, I found a payment to ”Oriental Catering Express”, and unless this is a pseudonym for my local Alepa, I have no idea what that's all about!

May 13, 2009

A million sunglasses

”Please put these on”, says the woman who is always part of the team; typing numbers, adjusting lights, and mechanically repeating everything her colleague says. I am given a pair of huge adjustable sunglasses and lie down on a paper-covered chair, staring at the ceiling through my fancy new accessory. When was the last time I was at the dentist? Whenever it was, this certainly is the first time I’ve been made to look like an astronaut with a cramp in his jaw. Shit, one of my buttons is open – but I’m hardly going to start fumbling with my trousers now. On the radio, there’s a discussion going on about the fish-life in the Helsinki region. The interviewer sounds bored (”Em, so you were talking about this new species found in the Vantaanjoki river; what would you say was the most ideal environment for the fish to breed?”), but not as bored as the interviewee (”I’d say… Nurmijärvi”).

I’m concentrating hard on trying to make the dentist switch channels, but my telepathic skills obviously need brushing up (unlike my teeth, by the way, which get quite a vigorous brush twice a day – family members tend to rush behind the shower curtain to take cover whenever I put a toothbrush in my mouth). I wouldn’t mind listening, for example, to Finland’s entry for the Eurovision contest this year. When I realised even members of my choir were ”Losing Control” over the song, I decided to look it up on YouTube. ”It’s such a catchy tune this year”, gasps one of my sopranos, ”I think we really might have chances!”. Grudgingly, I return everyone back to Planet Earth and the task at hand: trying to finally master the alto part for ”Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. It’s just three weeks to Diafonia’s spring concert.

The performance is quite an event for two reasons: first of all, it’s the first time these 13 ladies from the Diakonia College are performing anywhere outside the walls of the institute. Second of all, the concert will be arranged in co-operation with the choir of the Helsinki Policewomen conducted by Airi. Needless to say, the concert requires a couple of joint rehearsals for preparing our grande finale. Timidly at first, but confidently, we arrive on time at the Malmi police station, which, I must say, isn’t the first place you’d imagine finding a choir rehearsing ”My favourite things”. Combining the efficient and crisp organisation of the Policewomen’s Choir with the inspired enthusiasm of Diafonia, the concert is bound to be a success!

Tuesdays are Kaamos-days as well, and from the music class of the Diakonia Institute it’s just a short drive to the concrete jungle of Pasila on bus number 23. I’m the only one with the key to the chapel, but today it looks like everyone would prefer to rehearse out in the sunshine. However, we decide it’s best to get sanctuary inside from the football-kicking hooligans who have also realised it’s a good day to be outside. I can’t believe we are all present (all except one, of course) and after a short discussion about last week’s concert and the subsequent review in Helsingin Sanomat, we get down to perfecting our program for the Tampereen Sävel vocal music festival in June. Our Danish might sound like Norwegian, but boy does it sound good (a very objective opinion, of course) when almost all of the choir is present. Rautavaara’s Credo gains an even more rhythmical quality through the banging of the football outside.

Next day, maybe inspired by my visit to the dentist, I decide to go shopping for sunglasses. And this time I don’t mean those clips you attach to your glasses – I tried those once, but if anyone ever saw me wearing them, you’re probably joking. They must be the most impractical things ever – impossible to get on straight, pressing down on your nose and dangling on one ear. A guy passed us recently looking like a pirate with the other lens covering his mouth. Exactly my point! Not to mention how they always get lost. As it turns out, I end up getting a new pair of regular glasses as well.

And now we come to something which has always bothered me – I try too much to see things through the eyes of others. Which practically means that I want to make quick decisions at the optician’s, because my worst fear is that the girl attending to me will start getting bored and frustrated at this fussy young man who just can’t bloody decide what sort of glasses would look best. Oh yes, she’s smiling, sure, and happily bringing me set after set of fancy frames she thinks would suit me, but I can see that she’ll only last for 10 minutes, or 12 at the most. ”I’m sorry, but could I just perhaps please try those once more, I just can’t seem to make up my mind…” I pathetically whimper, and she hands them over with a slightly more tensed smile, and am I just imagining it or is she glancing at her watch? ”Those certainly look elegant on you.” What’s her work like anyway? She must be bored with me already. Not really caring anymore that my choice will affect the way I look for quite a long time, I make a quick decision and almost run out to the street for a breath of fresh air.

Being a boring fish up in boring Nurmijärvi must be so much better than wandering aimlessly on Aleksanterinkatu, trying to get a grip on which way to go next, and having millions of sunglasses dancing in your head.

May 04, 2009

Undressing neighbours

Let’s face it: nothing lasts forever, and in my case this means my honeymoon with Vaasanhovi is coming to an end. I am, of course, talking about the house I live in and the surrounding neighbourhood, which certainly doesn’t live up to the whiff of aristocracy suggested by its name. When I moved here two years ago in September, all the hustle and bustle associated with the district of Kallio seemed like jolly good fun to me. Okay, my room is hardly big enough to accommodate anything bigger than my bed (which has started to feel pretty cramped lately), but the apartment was tidy, convenient for living with a flatmate and, at least according to Helsinki’s outrageous standards, cheap. The walls were beyond disgusting, and there were bullet-holes in the bigger room, but we cheerfully set to the task of tearing the crackling brownish wallpaper down, filling up the holes, and splashing some new paint around. Have I mentioned I signed the contract for this flat without ever having been in it? No matter! After returning from Austria with a Styrian hat on my head and an “Ich liebe dich” –card in my wallet (yes, it’s still there), spending two months without a speck of privacy at my parent’s place and taking a look at some really horrible flats all over the suburbs, I would probably have been ready to sign a contract for a live-in cupboard on the moon.

I felt all chic and urbanised after spending nine months in a Central European town where the rent was paid in cash (and off the record), grocery shops shut their doors every time you blinked and frequent bank holidays meant an obligatory escape to the cow-filled hills. Kallio’s smelly cheap bars passed for alternative entertainment. Sure, white-cum-grayish was not all that beautiful, but the houses had their own gruff charm. Somebody smashing bottles in S-market was all part of a bigger adventure. Time flies by, and what used to feel “not all that bad” seems increasingly absurd now: tripping over drunk people on the way home and dodging exhibitionists who choose the neighbour’s tiny patch of grass to urinate on. Things on my street tend to change very quickly – yesterday’s fast food eatery is today’s Thai massage parlour, and instead of Turkish men promising salami in your pizza and delivering It with minced meat, you have oriental girls scurrying about in their skimpy and brightly-coloured garments. On the other side of the street, some made-up girl is taking a break from her own strip-tease show and having a cigarette. It’s getting a little embarrassing to give instructions to visitors: “Take a right turn at Hotgirls and you’ll find me right next to the sex megastore!”

Then, of course, there are the neighbours. Fortunately, they like to keep to themselves – our most significant contact with them was when they called the police to knock on our door at 11 pm on a Saturday night for disturbing their quiet with “uncontrolled partying” (it was the night of our housewarming party: okay, so we might have had one or two loud moments including Arabic pop competing with jazzy lounge-music, but by the time the police arrived – probably expecting to see a bunch of knife-waving heroin addicts - we were sipping wine, listening to The Real Group and discussing Brahms). There’s the red-haired woman who walks about with a constant worried look, just dying to find trouble she can report to someone (she looks at me with dismay every time I pass her cheerfully by and say hello). And let’s not forget the fat guy who likes to stroll about the stairway in his bathrobe (probably on his way to the sauna – or, more probably, out for a drink?). There is that one cheerful young bookish-looking girl who lives on the top floor – she must be the one who called the police and raised hell after catching unknown intruders having sex in our attic. I still feel sorry for the woman I accidentally caught stark naked while exploring our communal rooms one day. She let out a sort of squeal of fright and made a dash for the sauna before I could apologise. Still, we managed to have a casual chat about the new washing machine afterwards while hanging our clothes to dry – let’s just say it was sort of akward.

Call me unadventurous and boring, but it’s time to find some place not quite so lively. The first place to look, then, would be today’s special living section of the newspaper. The main article is all about Tallinn’s apartments having become affordable once again, but I don’t quite see the charm of crossing the sea just to get the day started. I get distracted, and start thinking about all the other stuff people have been talking about lately. It seems Helsinki’s residents have developed some sort of obsession towards rabbits, which do scurry about some more parklike areas outside downtown, but really I don’t see what the fuss is all about.
Then, of course, there’s our very own version of “Strictly Come Dancing” (Tanssii Tähtien Kanssa), which is all the rage. The couple of times I’ve been part of the studio audience have been quite a lot of fun – my favourite part is waving my empty glass about and trying to get the attention of the staff which runs all over the place pouring wine to an audience meant to be drunk and cheer their favourites towards stardom. We all left behind a huge pile of rubbish on the 1st of May, but on a brighter note, it looks like we’ve left the worst days of street dust behind us. Just having my window open made me want to go out and get some of those disposable breathing masks which seem to be making a comeback in fashion.

Be as it may, even if it would be easy to find a place to live here, where to find the time for looking around and eventually moving? My summer plans have got completely out of hand already, and with all the end-of-the-term performances coming up there’s hardly any time to get home in between to get the right music. There’ll be more on these choral activities in the next posts. It’s time for me to go put my bed back together. Good night!