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 home town.

“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 letter.”


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 competition’s future.


“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 composer.”


Text Anu Piippo 8th Dec 2014

Translation Susan Sinisalo


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