This year’s edition of Mostly Mozart, at Lincoln Center, includes the premiere of La Passion de Simone by Kaija Saariaho; the oratorio got glowing reviews when it premiered in Europe a few years ago, and its arrival in New York is a big deal. It is not a coincidence, however, that both Saariaho and Susanna Mälkki, who will conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the performances, are Finnish: Finland is a powerhouse on the classical-music scene. From conductors (Esa-Pekka Salonen being the best-known in the US) to singers (Karita Mattila, Matti Salminen) and composers (Saariaho, Aulis Sallinen, Magnus Lindberg), Finland keeps cranking out an awesome number of superlative musicians.
And this wealth of talent isn’t limited to the classical realm either: Finland has perfected the art of combining heavy metal with opera (Nightwish, Apocalyptica, Sonata Arctica), folk (Finntroll, Korpiklaani) and Krautrock (Circle), while its “freak folk” scene (Lau Nau, Avarus) is thriving. How did a country of 5.2 million people achieve such a preeminence? For that matter, the success of Mamma Mia! also reminds us that neighboring Sweden is a pop-music titan. How the heck did that happen?
An oft-mentioned reason for the astonishing number of high-level classical musicians coming out of Finland is that for the past three or four decades the government has pumped money into music education, and clearly the strategy is working. The anti-government rhetoric of the right has so infected the public discourse in the United States that we’ve lost track of a crucial fact: You get what you pay for. Investing in education and the arts is an investment that provides great returns, which is more than apologists for unfettered capitalism can say for the Dow Jones these days.
But something more intangible may be at work as well. I just came back from a vacation in Stockholm, and when you’re in Sweden it’s hard not to notice that music remains a unifying force there, not the dividing one it’s become in the U.S. While America is fractured in an ever-growing number of musical niches, with everybody rocking to their own iPod playlists, in Sweden (and, from what I gather, the other Nordic countries), music still is a true communal experience.
Oh of course you do have small, dedicated genres, with their small, dedicated audiences (I for one was sad to miss a show by Henry Fiat’s Open Sore, a ferocious Swedish band whose appeal is necessarily limited), but at the same time you have things like Allsång på Skansen, a weekly free show broadcast live on TV in which the audience sings along to pop songs pulled from the past 60 years or so. The crowd, which can number up to 15,000, goes from toddlers to grannies, with every generation in between; and everybody’s singing along. It’s this sense of a shared experience that anchors music in a community, and fosters a sense that it matters for reasons that reach beyond individual pleasure (although that is not to be sniffed at either, of course). This, to my mind, is precisely why Abba’s appeal endures: Everybody likes that band. Such a big-tent approach has become a negative thing in America (lowest-common denominator, blah blah blah), but what’s so bad about it?