Sunday, May 14, 2006

Hungry for Culture

Last month the Finnish Symphony Orchestra Association announced that during the previous year there had been a record number of listeners for the country’s orchestras, a total of over one million. Finland, whose population of 5.2 million is that of Minnesota and considerably smaller than the state of Washington, has 13 professional symphony orchestras, 1 opera orchestra, 8 professional chamber and semi-professional orchestras, and 7 other orchestras. No wonder the country is able to produce so many world class conductors, instrumentalists and singers (think of all those solo opportunities!), not to mention composers. A total of 96 premieres of Finnish works were performed, including 10 symphonies and concertos each. Since most of the halls are much smaller than in the U.S., all this translates to about 1,800 performances. Conductors rotate between orchestras, or go overseas, and audiences have a fresh face, other than that of a visitor, to meet every few years. Perhaps that fact is an important reason behind those impressive numbers. Even orchestra musicians seldom stay in one ensemble for the life span of their careers.

Yet even Finland suffers from financial problems. The National Opera, having moved to their new home in 1993, is suffering from them the most, as that art form is the least cost effective of all. The hall seats only about 1,300 which is considerably less than what one is accustomed to here. As they have a full time orchestra of their own and even the chorus members are salaried, the organization employs around 600 people. Expenses in the country are higher than ever since joining the European Union and it is hard to find additional funding for the arts. Traditionally the American style ‘rich pay for it and decide what is done, how and by whom’ doesn’t exist there. Music and other art forms are for the people, paid by the people in the form of taxes. The opera company has to tighten its belt and probably make its employees take unpaid leave for short periods of time. Not to worry: unemployment benefits will cover most of the loss.

Summer is almost here and so is the festival season in Finland. It seems like every town, no matter how small, is capable of creating one of these special events, which range from music to dance, theater to visual arts. The official Finland Festivals has 80 member events, ranging from one week to several. It is a large number when one remembers how short the summer season is: about two and half months. One thing the Finns have in common with Americans: in both countries people are willingly fooled to thinking they are getting something better than ordinary, just because the event is called a ‘festival’. I am not complaining, as whatever makes people happy, let it be so.

But not to put us down: we, too, have culture; no less than eight active varieties in Cascade Fresh Yougurt, according the Seattle company's web pages.