Music Happened in Helsinki and St. Petersburg


There was a plan. If the winds in Espoo permitted racing to commence by 1:00 pm my partner would be off the water in time to take the Metro into Helsinki for a concert, but if the wind wreaked havoc we’d miss the opening piece. In June daylight wasn’t a concern. After my museum visits and his Lightning Boat World Championship races we hoped to hear live music in Helsinki. We already had tickets for the Philharmonia in St. Petersburg. 

On my first day in Helsinki I turned a corner from the Kamppi Metro Station and heard a cello.  Beside a storefront a young woman was playing one of the Bach Cello Suites on an instrument that was scratched and distressed. In front of her splayed feet was a felt hat for euros.  Her earnest Bach alerted me to tune my ears for the music I’d hear in the next 10 days.

Choir at the Ateneum Museum, Helsinki

Later that afternoon I walked into the Ateneum, Finland’s National Museum.  It was a free day in Honor of Helsinki Day. I climbed the grand staircase and wandered into an exhibition titled Silent Beauty that paired Japanese art with Finnish art.  Voices wafted into one of the galleries. Assembled on the same staircase I’d climbed earlier, 30 or so singers congregated on the steps.  Spectators lined the balcony, sat on museum stools and squatted on the steps above the choir. The sponge of early 17th century acapella music drew listeners of all ages into a sort of holy communion. 

The following day I took a ferry to the island of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sweden spent 40 years constructing the fortified embankments – 1748-1788. The stone fortress  and the hidden harbors defended Helsinki’s own harbor into WWII. Across the bridge from Artillery Bay Quay I heard a violin but I was on a mission to find the warships on the Dry Dock. Two great wooden boats rested on hoists but beyond a bridge was the mast of a great schooner.  She was grand, but I was distracted by a mahogany boat festival in the marina. One Italian motorboat resembled a souped-up Chevy with Tiffany Blue trim. The owners sat beside their manicured teak helms and gleaming stainless steel trim. When I remembered the violin I retraced my steps. There wasn’t a violin. Instead the Finnish Guards Woodwind Band was rehearsing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622 arranged for two clarinets.  Every few bars the young conductor would walk to the back of the hall still waving his arms.  Their rehearsal concluded with a military march much to the delight of the tourists gathered in the back of the hall.  

Finnish Guards Woodwind Band, Suomenlinna

The winds were with us so we secured tickets to hear the Russian pianist Denis Matsujev at the Helsinki Music Centre which opened in 2011 with undulating acoustic walls designed by Yasuhisa Toyota who also designed the acoustics for the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and Disney Hall in Los Angeles. The concert was rescheduled so Matsujev could judge the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.  He was at once a showman who began his solo recital with Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 2, No. 3 in C Major.  His exacting technique was tooled by his incredibly fast fingers.  With his 6’6” frame one can imagine his great hands reaching more than an octave and a half.  The balance of the recital was reserved for the Russians. Matsujev, who rebooted the Rachmaninov Competition in 2018 with his good friend Putin’s approval, showed his mastery of the keyboard in Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme by Corelli.  The theme, La Folia, an 8 bar melody in G minor, was written as early as the 15th Century.  Corelli used it in a 1700 Sonata for violin and harpsichord and Lizst relied on the theme for his Rhapsodie Espagnole.  Rachmaninov wrote 20 variations of the theme. It’s said that the number of variations he’d play was in proportion to the amount of coughing from his audience.  One night, violent coughing shortened the piece to 10. 

Rachmaninov expanded Corelli’s refined complexity with scripted ornamentation, but it was  Matsujev who loosened the great layers of sounds from the Steinway keyboard. An Intermezzo bridged the first 13 variations to the final 7 variations, returning to the initial Andante with added weight and determination. In Matsujev’s strong hands the ensuing Piu mosso agitato plunged the listener back into a reformed Andante. His precision was both romantic and explosive. 

The final half of the concert was the Tchaikovsky Meditation Op. 72, No. 5,  a piece that revealed Matsujev’s tender side.  His shimmer of color was sweet enough to elicit bouquets of roses from the seated audience who clapped in rhythmic unison but did not stand for an ovation until he’d played five encores!  The hall was not sold out but those in the seats clearly came to worship. Denis Matsujev has a date at Carnegie Hall – October 20, 2019.

Denis Matsujev, Helsinki Music Centre

My final day in Helsinki included getting lost on my way to the monument dedicated to Finland’s national composer, Jean Sibelius.  Two parks on either side of a four-lane road offered equal possibilities, but the giveaway was two oversized tour buses parked on the opposite side of the road. Through a copse of trees, the 28 foot tall welded steel pipe structure appeared like an organ in a grand cathedral, minus the keys. The 1967 tubular sculpture by Eila Hiltunen had music of its own when the wind blew through the textured pipes. Adjacent to the monument was a  bust of the composer mounted on a stone wall. Of course a Finnish violinist, accompanied by a Bluetooth speaker, worked through the phrases of Sibelius’s iconic Violin Concerto Op. 47 in D Minor.  The young man’s violin case was open for euros.  The monument would have felt empty without him.

Musican unknown, Sibelius Monument

St. Petersburg

On April 16, 1917 Lenin returned to the adulation of the Bolsheviks. His sealed train car and engine were encased in glass at St. Petersburg’s Finland station. Many painters memorialized the moment.  One fictionalized the event by painting Stalin at Lenin’s side. We didn’t see that painting but we soaked in all that the Hermitage and the General Staff Building offered. The Masters were on display in the Hermitage and the Impressionists and 20th Century artists could be seen in the General Staff Building.  So much marvelous art including many Matisse paintings that couldn’t be seen outside of Russia.  

After a quick search on the Mariinsky website, I discovered The Stars of White Nights Festival featured a chamber music concert at the Mariinsky Concert Hall that was renovated after  a 2003 fire. Toyota of the Helsinki Music Centre designed similar wavelike walls with blocks resembling the exterior’s brick walls. The chamber musicians included the veteran violist, Wilfried Strehle, who had played in the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert Von Karajan for twenty years, first violinist Dina Zikeyeva of the Mariinsky Orchestra and the young Dutch-Finnish cellist Jonathan Roozeman, a finalist in the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition. The ensemble played a crisp Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G Minor, KV 478 with the expressive pianist Zarina Shimanskaya. Later this year, she’ll perform at the 13th Mariinsky International Piano Festival.  A second violist was added for Mozart’s String Quintet in C Major, KV 515.  The program’s second half was reserved for the Brahms Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34.  The Brahms was a particular showcase for Roozeman who we discovered lived in Espoo, Finland near the marina where the Lightning Boat races took place. The Finnish Cultural Foundation loaned him his 1707 cello.

Mariinsky Quintet, Mariinsky Concert Hall

The next afternoon while walking back from the Palace Square to the hotel we took a circuitous route under an arched entryway and found the Capella Glinka, site for the Summer Music Academy. Rows of chairs were arranged in front of an outdoor screen televising the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition from Moscow.  We joined the crowd and were equally mesmerized.

Anton Yashkin, 21, Russia, Tchaikovsky Piano Competition from Moscow

The following evening was the only concert we’d secured tickets for months earlier: the St. Petersburg Philharmonia conducted by Yury Temirkanov accompanied by pianist Polina Otenskaya in a program dedicated to Polish composers, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) and Witold Lustoslawski (1913-1994).  

Otenskaya was born in Moscow and began performing across the USSR from the age 5.  She frequently appears with the Philharmonia. Her sensitive touch added expression to her grand gestures in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op.11. The Grand Hall’s white columns and chandeliers were nearly muted by its history of performances by Lizst and Clara Schumann, and the world premieres of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Otenskaya’s charm at the keyboard made the audience swoon. Rhythmic clapping elicited an encore before giving a standing ovation.  The Chopin Waltz was the perfect sendoff for a white night in St. Petersburg.  We walked to find the moon rising at 11:45 pm and discovered the brightly lit bridges over the Neva River.  They would raise one after the other at 1:15 am and then at 1:30 am. We stood on the Alexander Nevsky bridge to watch the Palace Bridge rise under the glow of a light show.  

Polina Otenskaya, Grand Hall of the Philharmonia

The Tchaikovsky piano competition was underway in Moscow, but the cello competition was just starting in St. Petersburg.  Seats were available, so after touring the General Staff Building we took a cab to the Small Hall of the Philharmonia and arrived early enough to secure a program and a seat to hear the last two cellists for round one. The fine cellist Mischa Maisky was one of the judges.  Each cellist was assigned a list of required pieces. The Danish cellist, Jonathan Swenson, began with the Pezzo Capriccioso Op. 62 accompanied by piano.  His dexterity and fine command of Tchaikovsky’s descending line were exquisite.  His next piece, the Caprice #11 in G Major by Piatti, posed a challenge for any virtuoso cellist.  Exactitude was achieved, but his expression showed he not only memorized but learned the music by heart.  He was able footed avoiding the brambles in the garden. In his single movement of the Shostakovich Concerto in D Minor, he was the Dutchman carefully performing the Russian master’s music. For the required Bach he chose the Sarabande from Cello Suite in C Minor. It seemed purposeful to position the C Minor after the Shostakovich. With Bach’s blueprint, his playing was heroic enough to earn a spot in the second round.  

Jonathan Swenson, Small Hall. Philharmonia St. Petersburg

The next cellist, German Benedict Kloeckner, began his first round with a Bach Prelude and Sarabande. Like the Dutchman he had technique, he’d memorized the music and knew how to collaborate with a fine pianist, but who could say what the judges expected from his rendition of the required pieces. Kloeckner seemed to look heavenward for intervention during his Pezzo Capriccioso Op.62 only to go in deeper into the music with the repeat.  His grasp of Tchaikovsky’s Romanticism cleared him for the second round.  He saved for last the Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D minor which premiered in this city in December 1934 with the composer at the keyboard. Shostakovich composed the sonata after falling in love with a 20 year-old student.  He divorced Nina, but when he learned she was pregnant he remarried her. The piece exposed Kloeckner’s artistry in his pizzicato and his chosen tempo.The performance honored the Russian composer’s legacy.  

Benedict Kloeckner, Small Hall, Philharmonia of St. Petersburg

When the nights were ‘white’, music happened in Helsinki and St. Petersburg. Music was happening back in the states:  violinist Francisco Fullano at the Newport Music Festival, Stephen Hough in Millenium Park in Chicago and cellist Kian Soltani at the Colorado Music Festival…   Tune your ears and create a list of your choosing. It just happens.

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