THE SIBELIUS SINGING COMPETITION IS BORN
The idea of a singing competition dedicated
to the solo songs by Sibelius was born in Järvenpää in the middle of the first
decade of the millennium. Raine Ampuja had just joined the board of the
Sibelius Weeks festival and was seeking a new perspective on the maestro in his
“It seemed a bit odd that Sibelius did
not have a singing competition dedicated to him, even though he wrote over a
hundred solo songs,” says Raine Ampuja. “There were, after all, competitions
bearing his name for conductors and violinists, even though Sibelius himself
was not a conductor and wrote only one violin concerto.”
Mission: to make the Sibelius Lieder known
Right from the beginning, the
competition had a clear mission: to make Sibelius’s songs known both in
Järvenpää and elsewhere in Finland and the world. For his other works are far
better known than his Lieder.
The competition was initially to have
been a national one. The rules nevertheless allow citizens of all the Nordic
and Baltic countries to take part.
First, the competition idea was widely
tested. The organisers of the existing Finnish singing competitions and other
relevant professionals were consulted. Leading figures in the history of the
competition included Erkki Rajamäki, a voice teacher at the Sibelius Academy,
Juhani Airas, representing the City of Järvenpää, and singers Jorma Hynninen
and Päivi Nisula.
The first competition was the result of
a year’s intensive work.
“Creating a competition from scratch
involves a tremendous amount of work and coordination. Contacts have to be
established. At that time, social media were not available in the way they are
today. We did have the web, luckily, and we needed it to find out such things
as the organisation of the university voice departments in different countries
and the names of their voice teachers. We then contacted them by phone or
The competition aimed high from the
very outset. It even exceeded its expectations. It caught the attention of the media
and got good coverage in both the press and the main TV news.
Arranging the second competition in
2011 was already a little easier. No great changes were necessary, and the
competition and its concerts just ran their course. The idea of expanding the
competition also began to be discussed; it would, after all, next be held in
2015, when 150 years had passed since Sibelius’s birth.
Songs familiar and unfamiliar
The singers’ choice of repertoire in
the Sibelius Singing Competition is regulated by the organisers. This means
that the competitors are forced to go outside their comfort zones. For the
audience, this couldn’t be better.
“The fact that some of Sibelius’s
lesser-known songs get a hearing in the competition has been greatly praised.
The competition is a bit like a Google search,” laughs Raine Ampuja.
Unlike on the previous occasions, there
will be no orchestra in the finals of the 2015 competition: as in the preliminary
round, the finals will be with piano accompaniment. This is not, in Raine
Ampuja’s opinion, a bad thing.
“In all the other big singing
competitions the singers perform with an orchestra, and often excerpts from
operas, which means that the audience must know the context. In this
competition we can, in a way, now get back to the heart of the Lied. The
Sibelius Lieder may appear to be modest, but they are music without end.”
Raine Ampuja has faith in the
“Sibelius’s music is great, and
Sibelius is one of Finland’s strongest brands, able to withstand the vagaries
of time. In this respect the competition has nothing to worry about. Sure, a
competition must be capable of change, and I’ll be happy if someone comes up
with something new. The competition arena, and the repertoire, for example, may
well be re-examined. Just as the competition may be made even more
international. There is a vast amount of vocal expertise in, say, eastern Europe.”
Sights set high
The Sibelius Singing Competition is ambitious
but not too earnest. The organisers’ job is not to make the competitors more
nervous – on the contrary, it is to ease their tension. To this end, for
example, the competitors are encouraged to bring along strawberries, apples and
fizzy drinks to fortify themselves in the backroom.
The competition has not been without its
surprises: once, in the middle of a performance, soloist and orchestra suddenly
realised they were performing different pieces. The conductor called a halt,
they began again, this time the same piece, and all was well.
“At the time it was no laughing
matter,” says Raine Ampuja. “Of course we aim for everything to go exactly as
planned – and if it doesn’t, so that no one will notice. A well-honed
organisation must always have an effective Plan B in its pocket. The quality
requirements are high in a competition bearing the name of Finland’s national
Text Anu Piippo 8th Dec 2014
Translation Susan Sinisalo