Page last updated at 17:39 GMT, Thursday, 28 January 2010

Does Finland need its new concert hall?

In 2011, the Finnish capital Helsinki will have a new concert hall to take over from the one which has underperformed for nearly 40 years, but not everyone is in favour, as Nick Higham discovered.

Finlandia concert hall
The Finlandia Concert Hall was completed in 1972

Getting into Helsinki's new concert hall was not easy. I climbed up a small step-ladder, squeezed through a narrow aperture and squatted uncomfortably on the stage, taking care not to bang my head.

Around me sat an audience of 1700, a full house. They were dressed identically in felt smocks and little felt hats, row upon row, a faceless battery of silent listeners.

When it is finished, Helsinki's Musiikkitalo will no doubt be a splendid building. At present it is hard to tell.

The auditorium is full of scaffolding, the surrounding foyers are bare concrete and much of the building is, in any case, buried below ground, so as not to spoil the view of Helsinki's parliament across the road.

Acoustic tests

For now, visitors who want to see what the hall will eventually look like - and get some idea of what it will sound like - have to make do with a one-tenth scale model, built by Japanese experts to test the hall's acoustics.

The best concert halls are shaped either like shoe-boxes or arranged in what is called a "vineyard configuration", with the audience sitting all round the orchestra

At just over two metres high, the model is big enough for a man to move around in, and it was the model, not the real thing, into which I had climbed.

The audience were little white dummies.

Their felt hats stood in for hair. On one of the dummies in the middle of the front row, someone had scrawled a tiny cartoon face.

The model, I was told, passed all its acoustic tests with flying colours.

It is just as well, not simply because nobody wants to spend a huge sum of money on a brand new concert hall only to discover it has duff sound, but because 40 years ago the Finns did just that.


The old hall, the Finlandia-Talo, was built in the early 1970s as a national showcase by the country's most famous architect, the modernist Alvar Aalto who died in 1976.

Inside the Finlandia Concert Hall
Finland's musical establishment has been lobbying for a replacement almost since the old hall opened

It is a striking building, almost as white as the surrounding snow - unlike most modernist 1970s buildings this one is clad not in concrete but in white marble.

The midwinter view is framed by the bare branches of trees festooned with ice-crystals, which help to soften the building's hard outline.

Though like most Finnish buildings in winter it is well-heated, it still feels chilly and rather uninviting, so huge and empty is it.

The place doubles as a conference hall and therein lies part of the problem. The auditorium is fan-shaped, resembling a Greek theatre.

It may work well for conferences but the best concert halls are shaped either like shoe-boxes - rectangular with the orchestra at one end - or arranged in what is called a "vineyard configuration", with the audience sitting all round the orchestra. And that is the design for Helsinki's new hall.

Muffled sound

To my inexpert ears, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra sounded fine as they rehearsed Dvorak's cello concerto and a new work by one of Finland's leading composers, Magnus Lindberg.

But Tuula Sarotie, the orchestra's general manager, told me the hall works like a giant mute which muffles the sound rather than amplifying it.

As a result, the musicians have to work harder, play louder and force the music.

Helena Hiilivirta, the director of the new music centre, told me Alvar Aalto - though he may have been an acclaimed architect - simply did not care about acoustics.

It may be more charitable to say he did not understand them. Either way, Finland's musical establishment has been lobbying for a replacement almost since the old hall opened.

'Fancy new buildings'

But the project is not universally popular. From the political left have come accusations of elitism. Perhaps more surprising, there have also been criticisms from within Finland's cultural establishment.

Leif Jakobsson, the newly appointed chairman of the Arts Council of Finland, is among those who have expressed doubts. In recent years, he says, the Nordic countries between them have built some 40 new concert halls, opera houses and theatres.

It is a huge number for a region with a population of only 25 million people. Far too much money has been spent on fancy new buildings, he says, and not enough on what happens inside them.

Helena Hiilivirta has an answer to that one.

A world-class symphony orchestra is like a great work of art, she says.

You cannot just put it in store - you have to build a gallery to display it to best effect, just as Helsinki's two main orchestras really do need a proper concert hall to play in.

Leif Jakobsson argues there are plenty of other halls in Helsinki, including historic churches and a modern opera house. But the new music centre's opponents have already lost the argument.

It is due to open in August next year while the Finlandia hall next door - given over entirely to conferences and exhibitions - will remain a standing reminder of what can go wrong with prestige national projects.

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Country profile: Finland
06 Feb 12 |  Country profiles

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