CLASSCOL

The notion of a cultural entente between Los Angeles and Helsinki may seem somewhat far-fetched, but it seems to be working. Evidence is easily at hand this month, as the shadow of Kullervo falls upon the Music Center. This week (Friday and Saturday nights and next Sunday afternoon) Esa-Pekka Salonen, a deputation of his fellow Finns and the Los Angeles Philharmonic busy themselves with Sibelius’ 70-minute symphony bearing that name. Later this month (four performances starting February 25), welcome please the visiting Finnish National Opera, bearing Aulis Sallinen’s brand new opera of the same name, in its world premiere under Music Center Opera auspices. Kullervo, “the blue-stockinged gaffer’s son, yellow-haired, handsome, fair of shoe,” the sad-sack anti-hero of Finland’s epic poem “Kalevala”: he hardly seems the heroic essence of symphony or opera. Rejected by his father, and again by his foster father, he roams the countryside as a brooding, dangerous loner. He rapes and murders a woman he finds on the road, and then discovers that she was his sister. He returns to confess his misdeeds to his parents, but only his mother acknowledges his presence. He leaves again to slaughter his father’s enemies, then takes his own life by self-immolation. ”No, he is not what you’d call a hero.” This is the great baritone Jorma Hynninen, who sings the music of Kullervo both in the Sibelius symphony this week and in the opera later on (and also on the recording of the opera, due out next week on the Ondine label). I talked to him in Helsinki last fall, when I sat in on some of the recording sessions. “But he epitomizes quite a lot of the Finnish soul, which can be very dark and sometimes very cruel. To me Kullervo is a lot like some of the Texas loners I’ve seen in films — like Hud, for example.” Both works, the Sibelius symphony of 1891 and the Sallinen opera of exactly a century later, spend much of their time in darkness. They are not otherwise, however, very much alike. The darkness in the Sibelius is the warm, enveloping Romantic night. Sallinen’s opera is cloaked in a more austere, intimidating darkness. It comes closer to the essence of the “Kalevala,” that 666-page long national epic that demands of its readers infinite patience and rewards them with some powerful folk drama. His orchestral textures are shot through with electric bolts of violent, glacial colors. His characters sing, exult, argue and grieve in long, rhetorical melodic lines of haunting beauty. There are great arias, not in the Verdian sense, but full of deep, personal passion. One aria in particular lingers in my memory after hearing the mezzo Eeva-Liisa Saarinen {cq} singing it in a Helsinki recording studio: a mother telling her son (Kullervo) that a mother’s love for a son outweighs any of that son’s wrongdoing. There is much we can learn from Finland’s musical life, and especially from that nation’s remarkable aptitude for supporting its own music. That comes out of a continuing pride of nationhood that people there seem eager to impart to all visitors. I was struck by Hynninen’s earnestness, for example, when he told me that he would rather sing new roles in unfamiliar operas in Finland than become a star on the international operatic circuit (which he could certainly be). “I like the life that’s a little dangerous,” he said. The “Kalevala” is a compendium of centuries-old legends about everything from the creation of the world (out of eggshells) to a final folkish retelling of the coming of Christ. It was only collected and published about 150 years ago, but that event had a profound impact on the country: the first substantial forward step toward the establishment of Finnish as an official language in a country starved for any national identity. Decades after the publication of the poem, Sibelius began writing symphonies and tone-poems inspired by episodes in the poem; that, too, became an important step. Whatever you may feel about Sibelius’ music (and I don’t happen to feel much), you have to award him points on the heroism that made a work like the “Kullervo” Symphony an act of political and cultural defiance. Perhaps inspired by Sibelius’ forthright heroism, Finland supports its contemporary composers handsomely. It does so even when their composers choose to live somewhere else. Sallinen, for example, lives in the south of France. “Whenever I come to Helsinki,” he told me, “my batteries go dead. Even Sibelius had to go to Italy now and then to warm up his talent.” Sallinen composed “Kullervo” to inaugurate Helsinki’s new opera house. When construction on that house fell behind schedule, the deal was made to bring it here for its on-the-road premiere: a coup for Los Angeles, some Los Angeles sunshine for the visiting Finns (including the Helsinki University Chorus, which sings in both the symphony and the opera). Sallinen has now composed four operas, all produced by Finnish forces and three of them now recorded. The Finnish National Opera (or “Ooppera,” with Finland’s typical propensity for too many letters) has a remarkable record of support for native composers; it produces, and usually records, at least one new work every season. The new operas aren’t all about the hardship of life on Finland’s rocky soil; check out Einojuhani Rautavaara’s splendid “Vincent” (about Van Gogh) on the Ondine label. By the standards of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s own music, or that of his compatriot Magnus Lindberg, the 56-year-old Sallinen ranks as a conservative. If that means that he works with sounds and ideas that composers before him have also tried, so be it. In Sallinen’s case, it also means that he uses these sounds and ideas in new ways. You will like “Kullervo”. Among the reasons is the assurance it bears that there is still someplace in the world, at least, where grand, romantic, accessible, dramatic opera is still being created, sung and supported.