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Postcard from Helsinki

No city combines sensuous art nouveau beauty with rugged Nordic brutality quite like Helsinki does. The Finnish Capital sits resplendent on the Baltic Sea, at the very edge of Europe and within touching distance of Russia and the Baltic States. Finland has been free and independent for just a century, but Helsinki always knew how best to reap the rewards of the various empires it found itself a part of.Read more…

As such, Helsinki is one of the most musical cities on earth. A few years ago a political campaign was launched to rename its airport after the composer Jean Sibelius, even if the man really responsible for getting Helsinki's music life up and running was Sibelius's friend and rival Robert Kajanus, founder of the Helsinki Philharmonic. Finland exports plenty of conductors but holds on to just as many; its two symphony orchestras have only ever had one non-Finnish chief conductor between them. Both their audiences expect a regular diet of new or unfamiliar music.

A new concert hall complex (2011) and a relatively new opera house (1993) have changed the musical landscape of Helsinki and a constant flow of interesting composers keeps the tradition established by Kajanus and Sibelius alive (not all of them, like the sometime resident Feruccio Busoni, were born in Finland). Like the city's inhabitants, their music is rather more warm and familial that it can appear at first glance. Much of it is, like so much Finnish art, wrapped up in nature and mythology.

The Finns are a pragmatic bunch, which allows them to look resolutely to the future without dispensing with the past. That applies to city life as much as to music. Helsinki is changing fast, with a beautiful new national library now joining the Music Centre and art gallery Kiasma opposite the frankly terrifying parliament building on Mannerheimintie. Few cities in Europe feel as modern as this one does, and few music scenes more forward looking or sounding.

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