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Helsinki Music Centre. Press photo

The so-called vineyard style has been used for the hall – Toyota’s favourite audience layout. This means that the orchestra is in the centre of the space, while spectators are placed around it. Marja-Leena explains that the usual classic ‘shoebox’ model is not as effective if the hall is to accommodate more than 1200 listeners. Experts will be better judges of whether this is true (I seem to remember seeing successful shoebox designs even with a higher number of seats), but Helsinki has adopted the vineyard model, and thus in this hall music can be enjoyed by approximately 1700 listeners. Yasuhita Toyota’s philosophy is that the enjoyment of music should be shared – the vineyard design allows viewers to feel a spirit of community in the perception of sonic information. Another of Toyota’s enthusiasms is striving for the presence of the national identity of the respective country. In Helsinki, this is resolved by the interior of the hall being created in resemblance to the polyrythmic arrangement of stones in Finland’s rivers, around which ripple streams full of rapids, or the stairs marked with small lights which weave among the artistically arranged sectors of the stalls. The dark shades of the hall (as well as the lobby), on the other hand, correspond to the murky atmosphere of a Finnish sauna.

All the concerts are completely sold out (although this is not surprising, and apparently happens everywhere during the first season of a new concert hall). On December 17, the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra played its final concert of the autumn half-season, led by Estonian master Olari Elts (also well-known in Latvia), Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonic. The great event of the concert was the performance of Giacomo Puccini’s opus of his youthful years, Messa di Gloria, also a brilliant display by the State Choir Latvija which has a long history of cooperation with this Finnish orchestra.

Let us look back on this year’s achievements beyond Latvia’s borders. In March 2011 the Latvija choir sung Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw under the lead of Mariss Jansons; in October they did the same (also led by Mariss Jansons) in Munich; in June they dazzled the audience of Hamburg’s Laeizshalle under the lead of Simone Young; in July they sung Mahler’s Symphony No.2 in a Greek amphitheatre under a romantic full moon; in September they returned to Hamburg to perform led by Jeffrey Tate, while in Brussels they played together with Andres Mustonen and Vladimir Yurovsky. The performance in Helsinki was thus a pleasant culmination to the year. It must be said that the pleasantness was more symbolic than sonic, however, as the exalted acoustical quality somehow remained hidden. Of course, in comparison with the Finlandia Hall, the orchestra can now build up a splendidly blossoming forte and melt into a fantastic piano on the threshold of audibility, but there was a lack (possibly subjective) of a touch of clarity, which would have brought a magical atmosphere to the event. The sound was good, but slightly lustreless, and quite different depending on the location within the hall. In the first part, I had the opportunity to sit in the best seats, where local and foreign journalists tend to be seated, as I understood. During the second part I listened to the interplay of the choir and orchestra through the music of Puccini while sitting almost level with the orchestra - and it was a completely different orchestra. Not regarding quality (that was consistently excellent), but in the overall cast of the sound.  Even stranger was the fact of the choir being squeezed into a quite insufficient space, so that some of the 60 singers had to stand on the floor, not on the platform. Initially, a space for the choir had been planned higher up on the balcony next to the organ, but ultimately the singers have been tucked away behind the orchestra, and it seemed that all the grace and strength characteristic of the Latvija choir, which we also enjoyed this time, did not fully reach the audience. 

Finnish critics praised the choir to the skies – the headlines of reviews in both the leading Finnish and Swedish newspapers included hymns to the choir. The praise was deserved, but speaking to the singers made it clear that satisfaction was not high, specifically due to the acoustical qualities of Musiikkitalo. It might seem from the above that it not worth visiting the Helsinki Music Centre. Of course it is worth visiting - as an example of architecture this venue is awfully beautiful and worthy of note. Just take into account that concert tickets should be bought for higher seats, and on this side of the orchestra, not behind it. During the next six months, Musiikkitalo will host a meeting between Olari Elts and Baiba Skride, while the Latvija choir is also likely to be part of one of next season’s concerts. The ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki only takes two hours.