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Finland: Music's Superpower

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Finland: Music's Superpower

It is not so well-known that many of the biggest hits in pop music these days are crafted by a committee of Swedes. But Scandinavia has an even bigger musical superpower in tiny Finland. This nation of only five and a half million people looms very large in the world's concert halls. The latest example, Klaus Mäkelä, 26, Takes Podium at Storied Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Klaus Mäkelä, a 26-year-old Finnish maestro on a rapid rise, will be the next chief conductor of the storied Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the ensemble announced on Friday, after a several-year search following the dismissal of Daniele Gatti over sexual assault allegations in 2018.

“It means very much,” Mäkelä, who currently leads the Orchestre de Paris and the Oslo Philharmonic, said during a news conference. “It’s wonderful to have found this family of musicians. We really share the same ambition and passion.”

There are Finnish conductors all over the place. One of the most famous is Esa-Pekka Salonen who took over the reins of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1989 at thirty-one years of age. Alex Ross commented in the New Yorker:

The Salonen era in L.A. may mark a turning point in the recent history of classical music in America. It is a story not of an individual magically imprinting his personality on an institution – what Salonen has called the "empty hype" of conductor worship – but of an individual and an institution bringing out unforeseen capabilities in each other, and thereby proving how much life remains in the orchestra itself, at once the most conservative and the most powerful of musical organisms.

In 2018 the San Francisco Symphony appointed him musical director. But there are many other Finnish conductors and Wikipedia has fifty-one pages of them including Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Leif Segerstam, Susanna Mälkki, Osmo Vänskä and a host of others. Keep those umlauts handy!

But the question is why? Yes, Finland has been prominent in classical music for the last hundred years, due in part to the fame of composer Jean Sibelius, but the mystery of how a semi-arctic nation of five and half million is so much more prolific in music than, say, that other semi-arctic nation of Canada with thirty-eight and a half million people has long puzzled me. Perhaps part of the answer lies in the Finnish educational system, reputedly one of the finest in the world. Is it because they are mostly Lutherans? Who knows, but obviously cultural factors are involved. You won't find the answer in this post, obviously, as it would take a major research project. In the meantime we can just contemplate how miraculous it is that the Concertgebouw Orchestra, one of the finest in the world, chose a twenty-six year old Finn as their new musical director.

Here he is conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in the Symphony No. 7 by Shostakovich:

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