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Finland’s Musical Talent Comes to Washington

Composer Olli Kortekangas premieres his environmentally themed work at the Kennedy Center this weekend

Photo courtesy of Choral Arts Society of Washington.

Finland is home to a prodigious musical life, including in contemporary classical composition. Two local choral groups, the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Children’s Chorus of Washington, have joined forces to bring a piece of the Finnish phenomenon to the Washington area this week. At a concert this Sunday—Northern Lights: Choral Illuminations from Scandinavia and Beyond—in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the two groups will perform the world premiere of Seven Songs for Planet Earth, a new work by Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas.

The premise of this symphonic cantata, about how “respect and love for nature should be seen as a fundamental element of human life,” falls somewhere between touchy-feely and downright preachy. Four of the texts were written by environmental activist and poet Wendell Berry, a choice that seems to endorse the local food movement and other environmentalist views.

When asked earlier this week about the possible polemical overtones of a work about environmental activism, Kortekangas says that the issues are important to him personally but that the work is an “artistic manifestation of a worldview” rather than something overtly political. He adds that some of the more confrontational texts, such as “In plenitude too free, we have become adept beneath the yoke of greed” in the fifth song, are part of a sort of call to arms, a moment of challenge, not representative of the tone of the entire work. Kortekangas specifies that he discovered the poems of Wendell Berry by chance, in a book on nature subjects, and that he came to admire the writer because he “lives what he preaches.” Kortekangas also incorporated the more tree-hugging words from St. Francis of Assisi’s the Canticle of the Sun.

Another movement is made up of words contributed by members of the Children’s Chorus of Washington. (Kortekangas came to Washington in January to work with the group’s young musicians.) The strength of Finland’s musical culture can be attributed to broad government support of Finnish performing organizations and of music education in Finnish schools, a system that “may be the best in the world,” according to Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker. Kortekangas is also composer-in-residence for the Tapiolan Kuoro, a celebrated children’s choir in Finland, and his admiration for the Children’s Choir of Washington led him, he says, to want to “involve them in the creative process,” as well as write for them. The CCW also commissioned a separate work from Kortekangas for its 15th anniversary, which the group premiered earlier this month.

The final element is found in the mysterious movement called “ Yoik: Chanting the Landscape,” which Kortekangas described as a tribute to the traditional singing style of the Sami people, in northern Finland and other countries. “When someone yoiks,” Kortekangas explains, “he or she does not yoik about something but yoiks something, trying to illustrate the real being of this object.” Using randomly chosen neutral syllables, the singer tries to evoke something with sound: In this movement, Kortekangas says that he was trying to capture the beauty of the Finnish landscape.

Find out what the work sounds like this Sunday, May 22, at the world premiere at 5 PM. Purchase tickets ($15 to $65) from the KenCen’s Web site.

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