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Helsinki Music Centre. Press photo

Helsinki’s New House of Music 0

Orests Silabriedis

Last spring, visited Reykjavik’s new Harpa concert hall. Autumn provided a chance to take a walk through Rēzekne’s future concert venue, awaiting its traditional ridgepole celebrations on January 6. In Liepaja, it has been decided that the new concert hall should be ready in 2015. They say that next year will see the completion of the long-awaited Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg. Not without the insistent pressuring of Mariss Jansons, Munich has finally chosen a site for the construction of a new concert venue. Let’s not even mention Estonia, which has seen concert halls built or renovated in Pärnu, Tartu and Jõhvi in last 10 years or so. Even Paris, without its own hall for so long (just like Riga) is hoping to launch its new philharmonic in the famous Cité de la musique or City of Music in early 2014. These are just a few examples of a similar trend to be observed in many places around the world, and the subsequent text is not about Riga hoping to make do with a rebuilt Congress Centre, but rather about Riga’s nearest large concert hall being open since August in Helsinki. This is the Helsinki Music Centre or Musiikkitalo, at once a permanent home to three entities co-existing in harmony – the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Sibelius Academy. The Centre has its own ideological and financial management team, but only in February will its true captain be revealed – the one assuming responsibility for the artistic fulfilment and economic rate of return of Musiikkitalo

The idea of a new concert hall for Helsinki has been pressing since the 1990s, especially since the Finlandia Hall, drawn by Alvar Aalto and completed in 1971, although impressive, is quite an inappropriate structure for symphonic music concerts in terms of acoustics. Two of the first tasks were hiring an acoustics consultant and holding an international architectural competition. The competition took place 12 years ago and was won by a group of Finnish architects from Turku. The most important condition for the architects was the compulsory co-operation with acoustics specialist Yasuhisa Toyota, one of the world’s most prominent experts in his field; who, by the way, once visited Riga with the aim of eventually participating in the creation of or new concert venue – or that was the plan, at least.

The winners had to comply with building height restrictions and some conformity of the venue’s overall countenance with the parliament building across the street. Also important was the fact that the building was to be located on the same line of landscape (on the shore of the lake) as Finlandia and the Opera. Ultimately, an eight-storey building was created, with two-thirds of it located underground. Its exterior is exceedingly plain, as the main emphasis has been placed on the interior – respectively, the content of the building. Part of this outer image is a patinated copper roof, generally characteristic of Helsinki’s oldest architecture. The large-scale glass facades, on the other hand, fit in well with the more modern buildings of Finland’s capital, including the neighbouring temple of contemporary art, Kiasma. It is interesting that the many underground storeys are also quite filled with light, thanks to the large glassed shaft or atrium, which allows the generous Northern daylight to be manifested to the fullest. 

On December 16, I am standing in the Musiikkatalo lobby with music journalist Lauma Mellēna, listening to an energetic young lady talk about the new pride of Helsinki. Among others, mention is made of Thomas Aquinas, who said that a saw made from glass is not beautiful. What is the connection with a glass saw? It turns out to be a poetic allusion to functionality. Not a single detail (!) of the very spacious concert hall does not comply with acoustic requirements. This applies to both the passages through which spectators reach the stalls, as well as the overlay of Finnish birch panel, taking up a precise percentage of the surface and encouraging the immediate rebound of sound. The plan was simple – the acoustic specialist gave the percentages and relationships, and from then on it was the architect’s problem how he dealt with these issues. 

The stage is made of Finnish pine, and the boards have no knots. The density of the wood has been precisely calculated, as the stage is the largest and most important instrument resonating in the space. Above the stage, a special concrete object weighing 27 tonnes is hung from 40 steel cables. Four cables of such strength would actually be sufficient to hold the weight, but the builders of the hall wanted to make completely sure, so that the orchestra would not have to steal occasional nervous glances at the threatening object above their heads. The block of concrete serves as the best monitor for the musicians to be able to control the sound. We also learn that the roof of the concert hall has been built from cement, and a thin layer of paper has been placed on top of this cement, ‘working’ in the interest of acoustics. Sound quality does not depend on the amount of people in the hall. “Everything you see in this hall is there in order for the acoustics to be perfect,” our guide Marja-Leena Lehtimäki, Communications Coordinator, tells us, “our goal was to build a world-class concert venue.” >>