A Celebration of Finnish Folk Music

It all started with a guy named Bud

Bud Berry (3rd from the right)

People often wonder how some of our more unusually collaborative programs come into being.  As we make the final touches on our upcoming Celebration of Finnish Music, there is a tale to tell about how the idea of creating a program as part of an international celebration of Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence actually came about.

First, it’s important to know that EMSO has a rich history of creating programs that cross the conventional boundaries of folk and classical music. We’ve come to call these “Origins” programs, as they get to the heart of the cultural origins of much classical music. In this case,  the process began on May 15 of last year, when EMSO presented one of our “Origins” concerts. We called The Soul of Russia, because it brought the St. Mary’s Balalaika Orchestra and master Russian classical pianist Denis Evstuhin together with EMSO to perform a rich collection of folk and classical music from Russia. This particular program took place at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in North St. Paul. (Truth be told, this program was also a wild ride to compile itself, but I’ll save that story for another day.)

Marianne Wargelin

At the end of the concert Bud Berry, a member of the church, and of our audience, introduced himself to Betsy Lake, the orchestra president, and excitedly requested that EMSO consider including a program celebrating Finnish music for our following season, as this would coincide with the international celebration of Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence (known as Suomi Finland 100). It took just one phone conversation with Bud for me to catch his enthusiasm, and think about creating an “Origins” concert of Finnish music, to be part of this large, international celebration – certainly a coup for a small organization such as EMSO – and hopefully to make new friends with more of our Nordic neighbors. From this initial contact we gradually became connected with the organization Finnish American Cultural Activities (FACA), for which Bud had previously served as president, as well as Gene Ollila, FACA’s current president, and even Marianne Wargelin, the Honorary Counsul of Finland. Out of these initial connections came a wide-ranging discussion during the summer, around Marianne’s dining room table, about the 100th anniversary celebration, the broad range of local Finns and Finnish activities in Minnesota, and more encouragement to move forward with EMSO’s idea for a celebratory concert of Finnish folk and classical music.

Once the decision had been made to do a Finnish program, the big question became:


What to Do, What to Do!

Answering this important question began with a conversation with long-time friend and colleague, Cheryl Paschke, whose dance band Finn Hall was collaborator on EMSO’s first foray into Finnish folk music, back in 2010. It would be easy to simply create another program with Finn Hall, but I thought it would be more interesting to seek another direction. It quickly became apparent that the Kalevala, Finland’s epic poem, and the rich traditions of folk tales and tunes it represented were an exciting direction to go, and Cheryl, being such an integral part of our local Nordic folk music community, also had suggestions of other Finnish folk musicians to contact.

Diane Jarvi

Please bear in mind, gentle reader, that I am neither a Minnesota native, nor do I have any Nordic heritage, so all such explorations felt like wading blindfolded into very deep, murky waters. Those who either grew up in Minnesota or have Nordic roots already know things, even at an unconscious level. For those of us completely uninitiated, it’s hard to even know who to talk to and what questions to ask. Like all good musicians, I started searching my own collection of recordings for Finnish orchestra music that seemed to have a grounding in Finnish folk epics (much more plausible since 2003 when Osmo Vänskä came to town as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra), followed by simple google searches for Finnish folk and orchestral music. This in turn led me to Music Finland, and their remarkable repository of all manner of Finnish music information – including a catalogue of 1428 Finnish composers and 34,365 Finnish compositions!

My conversations with local musicians who had a solid grounding in Finnish folk music included the singer Ruth Mackenzie (who, although not Finnish, created a magnificent project back in 1998 based on the Kalevala called Dream of the Salmon Maiden); master fiddler Sara Pajunen; and finally, singer, poet, and kantele master Diane Jarvi.

These meetings and conversations were always more rich with possibilities than might be possible to even envision, let alone pull off with a small arts organization, very limited funds, and a relatively short time line. But each conversation opened a window to dreams of future projects, that I trust will build in their own time.

For this particular project EMSO is working with Diane Jarvi, on a program that is centered around the Kalevala specifically, and Finnish folk legends and tunes in general. The orchestra will be performing very evocative music by Finnish composers Jean Sibelius and Uuno Klami. In turn Diane will be sharing her own evocative Finnish folk music and tales, drawing the direct connections between the folk traditions and the spectacular orchestral music it brought about. What’s more, our audience will have opportunities to participate by singing a famous, old Finnish folk song along with Diane and the orchestra, as well as sing the final hymn section of Sibelius’ epic Finlandia.


And what about Bud Berry?

After all it was his simple suggestion at the end of last May’s EMSO concert that set this whole scheme into motion! Alas, Bud has been in failing health, and is actually living in hospice. But Bud being Bud, he is still planning to attend our concert on May 21. I will be thrilled to welcome him as a special guest of honor.


The East Metro Symphony Orchestra presents:

A Celebration of Finnish Music
with special guest Diane Jarvi

Sunday, May 21, 2017, 2:00 p.m.

Woodbury United Methodist Church
7465 Steepleview Road, Woodbury, MN

Admission FREE to all with freewill offering to be collected

Part of Suomi Finland 100 and presented with generous support from the Finlandia Foundation and the St. Croix Valley Foundation

For more information please visit www.emsorch.org