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Birds from the bogs of northern Finland perform with the CSO

Jolene Laverty

“When I conducted…that piece, I felt as if my grandfather had spotted me buying a porn magazine” – Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen on the work of Rautavaara.

Finland – it’s a great place. Home of the sauna, Santa Claus, and so many watery bogs. It was also the home to Einojuhani Rautavaara, the leading Finnish composer of his generation, who died last year at the age of 87.

Despite the acclaim, Rautavaara’s ‘big break’ may have been a bit of a fluke. Sibelius, one of the world’s greatest symphonists, was invited to send a student of his choice to study in America in recognition of his 90th birthday in 1955. Despite having never met him, Sibelius selected Rautavaara. Upon reflection, Rautavaara suspects that Sibelius probably heard one of his works on the radio, which led to the scholarship.

“Chance has played a great part in the life of Einojuhani Rautavaara,” says biographer Samuli Tiikkaja.

In 1971, Rautavaara was commissioned to write a cantata (a song for voice and instrument) for the University of Oulu, which was to be performed at a graduation ceremony; but the choir that was to sing for the cantata was, in Rautavaara’s opinion, not up to scratch. So, Rautavaara took a portable magnetic tape recorder on a field trip to the bogs of northern Finland where he captured the sounds of arctic birds, and used their voices in the cantata instead. With these recordings, some of them subtly manipulated to enhance the haunting sounds, Rautavaara created ‘Cantus Arcticus: concerto for birds and orchestra,’ which is perhaps the most often performed piece in his large body of work. Tiikkaja speculates, “had he written a conventional choral cantata, it would undoubtedly have been left to gather dust in the university archives after that first performance.”

Rautavarra’s versatility and confidence lead him dismiss a choir in favour of bog-birds, and also gave him the courage to draw on tradition during the modern era for classical music when tradition was scorned upon. The New York Times shared Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s recollections of playing Rautavaara’s Symphony no. 5

“That kind of signal at that moment in history was like a huge exclamation mark: I’m starting a piece that is called ‘symphony’ — which is already outrageous — and I’m starting it in C major. When I conducted the first rehearsal of that piece, I felt as if my grandfather had spotted me buying a porn magazine. It was an outrageous thing to conduct a new piece that started in C major.”

You can experience for yourself the sublime sounds that were created by this ‘outrageous’ composer when the Canberra Symphony Orchestra presents the first ActewAGL Llewellyn Series for 2017. Conductor Jessica Cottis brings to life Rautavaara’s ‘Cantus Articus: concert for birds and orchestra,’ complete with the same recordings made with magnetic tape over 45 years ago. Following the unusual coupling of orchestra and birds, another striking union takes place, as pianist Daniel de Borah teams up with CSO Principal Trumpet Rainer Saville for Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor.

Image: Lindi Heap Photography

Image: Lindi Heap Photography

Finally, whilst the days may be getting shorter and colder, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra will take you to a warm, happy place with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the ‘Pastoral.’ If you’re a fan of Disney’s Fantasia, you’ll know ‘Pastoral’ from the scenes with the fauns and Pegasus, and later the angels and saucy swimming centaurs.

the essentials

What: The Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s ActewAGL Llewellyn Series, Piano
When: 29 and 30 March
Where: Llewellyn Hall, ANU
Tickets: cso.org.au

Feature image: Daniel de Borah (credit Darren James)

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Jolene Laverty

Jolene Laverty was born and raised in Darwin, but has lived in Canberra for most of her adult life. She spent close to twenty years in radio, which took her to the copper outback of Port Augusta to the sparkling aquamarine waves of the Whitsundays. Today she is a member of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra*, ANU student, wife of a high-school teacher/rock-musician, and mother to three children who were each born in a different decade. *not allowed on stage. More about the Author