Finally Finished

The new Finlandia Hall in Helsinki has been transformed by a Japanese mystic with an ear for acoustics

Counterpoints Music

Sounds good: Helsinki’s new concert hall

When Finland tore itself free from Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, its leaders discussed what the independent country’s first building should be. “A concert hall,” said someone, to general assent. The nation had, after all, been conceived by Jean Sibelius in Finlandia, back in 1899. It would not exist without music.

Plans were drawn and a hillside site allocated in central Helsinki. Then it was pointed out that the new state might need a parliament. The site was reassigned and the hall was put on ice during a brutal civil war, two Russian wars and enduring poverty in a culture that is ever prepared to grit its teeth and wait.

When peace prevailed during the neutral age of Finlandisation, the concert hall project was given to the next most famous Finn after Sibelius. Alvar Aalto was an architect of world renown for his “functionalist” buildings in which every steel joist and glass wall was fit not just for purpose but for its unity with lake and forest surrounds. The new hall was to be named Finlandia and finished for the composer’s centenary in 1965. Six years late, it opened in 1971 to the accolades of a grateful nation. There was only one dissenting voice. It belonged to my late friend Seppo Heikinheimo, chief critic of the mass-readership Helsingin Sanomat. He declared the hall an acoustic disaster. He was ostracised and sent on leave, cold-shouldered by every right-thinking Finn.

Alvar Aalto had the wrong idea. Spartan functionalism yielded the antithesis of luxuriant sound. Finlandia Hall, when I first heard a concert in it, made Jessye Norman sound like a goose being readied for foie gras, strangulated to satiation. As a national emblem, it was cold turkey.

Like every London concertgoer, I know about bad halls. We have three of them — the Royal Albert Hall, with an echo that gives two concerts for the price of one, the Royal Festival Hall, with cottonwool acoustics, and the Barbican, where players can barely hear each other. We have spent £200 million in recent years on improvements to these white elephants and achieved no more than adequate compromise.

The Finns did better. They turned Finlandia Hall into a conference centre and splashed out €180 million  on a new concert hall, the Helsinki Music Centre, next door. Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen said: “The state has a duty to uphold cultural identity. Without it, there can be no nation.” 

A team from Turku headed by the unknown Marko Kivisto won a design competition with a frugal scheme, carved into a sloping hill on two entrance levels. The interior was handed over to the best acoustician money could buy: Yasuhisa Toyota, a Japanese mystic who is more prone to discuss “vineyard shapes” and “psychoacoustics” than precise measurements of sound decay.

Psychobabble notwithstanding, he seems to know his stuff. In a full house on opening night, the sound from my seat was agreeably transparent without being overly bright. After the big fffs of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, it took almost three seconds on my watch for the noise to decay — the proof of a flexible acoustic. Sakari Oramo, who conducted, compared it favourably to his excellent former hall in Birmingham. 

The sound was kind to woodwinds, a little ungracious to the lower strings. That will mellow with time, practice and seat adjustments. Best, to my ear, was the responsiveness to voice. All the soprano Soile Isokoski had to do in three Sibelius songs, it seemed, was open her mouth and the hall did the rest. Now the world’s great orchestras are lining up to visit Helsinki. Finland can, at last, fulfil its independence dream and take its place in the symphonic hall of fame. What I want to know is: when can we have one, too?