2000s Archive

Song of the North

Originally Published September 2005
Right now, sparsely populated Finland is the very best place in the world to listen to opera—not to mention tangos.

It is a common misapprehension to think of the Finns as strong, silent types living in a state of Nordic gloom. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, along with the chance to enjoy berries and wild mushrooms fresh from the forest, a wealth of pristine seafood, and soothing saunas followed by immersions in deliciously cold water, the most compelling reason to visit Finland is that it is, per capita, the world’s opera superpower.

What explains the Finns’ exceptional affinity for music and song? To begin with, there is the idiosyncratic language itself, with its mellifluous streams of long, rolling vowels punc--tuated by the occasional hard consonant. This rush of beautiful sound, effortlessly produced in even the most prosaic conversation, makes the Finns uniquely suited to singing, whether opera, tango, jazz, or hard rock. (Among the world’s leading manufacturers—and users—of cellular phones, Finns are also in a chattering class all their own. I once received a massage in Savonlinna from a russet-haired woman who vigorously worked me over for 30 minutes with her right hand while gabbing into the cellphone in her left. So much for strong but silent.)

History as well as language has conspired to create this Nordic music mecca. During long periods of domination by Sweden and Russia, the Finns were actively discouraged from speaking their own language, and turned to native song as a way of maintaining their traditions and identity. In European royal circles the musicians all evolved from the same German-Viennese and French-Italian styles. But unlike nearby nations such as Denmark, Sweden, Poland, and Russia, Finland never had a royal family and, therefore, no court musicians. So the roots of Finnish music were different, more inward-looking: Forest murmurs, birdcalls, cascading water, and arctic silence were enmeshed in Finnish music, which became a deliberate expression of national character.

When the movement to throw off the yoke of foreign domination came to a boil in the late 19th century, composer Jean Sibelius wrote Finlandia and other expressly nationalistic music to lead the charge. Even today, I see many Finnish eyes well with tears at each hearing of Finlandia, no matter how frequently it is played. Finns, I believe, experience the deepest sense of self when listening to their music.

The native-music mania becomes obvious the minute you enter the country. At a music shop in Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, CDs by artists such as Britney Spears and Madonna tend to be in the back shelves; the main racks brim with pieces by contemporary Finnish classical composers. And the longer you stay in the country, the more aware you become of the extent to which music saturates the culture. One winter evening, I turned on the television and found an orchestral concert on one channel, a vocal recital on another, music from Lapland on a third, and a ferocious political debate on the fourth. The topic? Whether three large concert halls were enough for the million citizens of Helsinki. (It was determined that a fourth big hall was necessary, and the building is currently under construction.)

This nation of slightly more than 5 million people is unusually music-literate. There are close to 150 music schools, including Helsinki’s famous Sibelius Academy, and children are taught to sing and to play instruments when they are mere toddlers. Members of Parliament demonstrate their devotion to the national obsession by attending a performance of the National Opera en masse each year.

For the visitor, access to music is continuous and easy. On any given night at the Finnish National Opera, you can hear a cast full of glorious voices. (The incandescent performances of the gorgeous soprano Karita Mattila, known as the Finnish Venus, routinely send audiences into frenzies.) The spectacular Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra performs several times a week, often in dramatic Finlandia Hall, designed by Alvar Aalto, and every week the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra broadcasts a concert. This phenomenon is not restricted merely to the capital, either. There are 15 full orchestras scattered throughout the country, and many small towns are home to world-class concert halls with

The Details

Staying There

Hotel Kämp (Pohjoisesplanadi 29; 011-358-9-57-61-11; hotelkamp.fi; from $200), a luxury hotel in a landmark neoclassical building, is the city’s finest. Cumulus Hotel Seurahuone (Kaivokatu 12; 011-358-9-69-14-1; cumulus.fi; from $265) is an elegant Art Nouveau treasure opposite the train station. Sokos Hotel Torni (Yrjönkatu 26; 011-358-20-12-34-60-4; www.sokoshotels.fi; from $263) provides very good value and has a fine restaurant.

Eating There

Kuu (Töölönkatu 27; 09-27-09-09-73) has perhaps the most genuine Finnish cooking of any Helsinki restaurant. Lasipalatsi (Mannerheimintie 22-24; 09-61-26-70-0) is a stylish 1930s restaurant famous for its blini with vendace roe. At Savoy (Eteläesplanadi 14; 09-68-44-02-0), every detail, down to the famous vases, was designed by Alvar Aalto. Try it for lunch on the panoramic terrace. Lappi (Annankatu 22; 09-64-55-50) is the best place for hearty specialties from Lapland.

Being There

The proverb “First build the sauna, then build the house” neatly expresses the sauna’s place in Finnish consciousness. Two are kept warm at all times backstage at the Finnish National Opera, for example, and at the national hockey rink you can watch the game naked in a skybox sauna.

Helsinki offers the visitor many sauna choices. To visit The Finnish Sauna Society (Vaskiniementie 10; 09-68-60-56-0) you must first purchase a Helsinki Card and reserve in advance.

Opened in 1928, the Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall has pools for nude swimming and, in true democratic Finnish fashion, everyone from street sweepers to former presidents comes here. Kotiharju is the last wood-fired public sauna in the city, and no-frills Arla, where the clientele is older and working-class, provides a fascinating window into Helsinki culture.
A younger crowd frequents Café Tin Tin Tango, a funky bakery and art gallery with sauna. The ultimate sauna experience, though, is at Hvitträsk, about 30 minutes from Helsinki by taxi, where the lakeside sauna is surrounded by leafy woods. —F.P.

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