Guided by voices
In Finland, you can walk for kilometres seeing woods and lakes but hardly any people, so 'nature's loneliness, harmony, and quietness are very important to us', says Seppo Murto, music director of the country's Dominante choir. 'Finnish culture comes from living together with nature. This is reflected in the harmony and texture of our folk music.'
It makes sense then that, for their upcoming programmes for this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival, the veteran conductor has chosen works that 'depend not so much on the text as on the music itself'. Murto says at the first concert, the choir will perform some of the best Nordic works written for voices by a range of Finnish and Estonian composers, from the romanticist Toivo Kuula, who was a contemporary of Sibelius, to the more contemporary Einojuhani Rautavaara to Jaakko M?ntyj?rvi from the younger generation.
The second show, at the Yuen Long Theatre, will showcase Finnish folk songs and children's songs, including the all-time favourite Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz.
Choral works aside, Murto hopes to share with Hong Kong new ideas and experiences of music appreciation. 'We will, for example, place individual choir members in the audience ... to create a surround-sound effect that goes around the venue,' he says.
With the exception of a few numbers in the second concert that will be accompanied by piano, both programmes are a capella. 'Singing without orchestra or piano allows the choristers to sing with a wider variety of sound. But of course it's more challenging as the audience can hear the smallest things directly from every member of the choir.'
Dominante last performed in Hong Kong in 2009 at St John's Cathedral. For their Arts Festival debut next month, the mixed choir will be performing inside concert halls, an experience Murto says he and his group are looking forward to. Founded in 1975, the a capella group was first a hub for like-minded choir members from universities in Helsinki. It changed to the present name in 1982 after Murto, then a 26-year-old organist, took over as its music director.
For 30 years, the group has grown although it remains a student-based non-professional choir. 'There is no professional choir in Finland because of a lack of money to support a full-time ensemble,' says Murto. 'But we sing at the professional level and we do receive money from the government on a project basis, such as this tour to Hong Kong.'
Although the majority of Dominante members are students, and the average age is 25, the group's performing level has remained high. In 2007, it made its debut at the BBC Proms, performing a Sibelius choral work with the Finn maestro Osmo V?nsk? and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.
'Music has a strong tradition in Finland's education system, and most of our members have solid music training,' says the 56-year-old Helsinki-born Murto.
He says that one-fifth of the choir are full-time music students from the renowned Sibelius Academy. The turnover rate is about eight members each year, and competition is stiff to get into the choir. Of the 45 members coming here to perform next month, all but two - a German tenor and a Japanese soprano - are native Finns.
Other than having performed here before, Dominante has another Hong Kong connection: Iris Yu In-wai, who became the choir's first Asian member two years ago. 'I was on an academic exchange and spent a year at Aalto University in Helsinki,' says the international business student from the University of Hong Kong. 'I passed the Dominante audition and became the first Asian in the group. I was most impressed by the discipline and passion among choir members. There was a warm family atmosphere, which helped the otherwise lonely days in the cold.'
Yu says she still misses the purity of the music in Finland. 'People are few and the environment is always quiet. I think that is the national character of the Finns which is reflected in their music.'
She fondly remembers an elderly woman who walked up to her after a Christmas concert, holding her hands and thanking her for the performance. 'This is something very rare in Hong Kong.'
Yu also recalls the group has a tradition of singing a song of the host city. 'I had to memorise an Estonian song when we toured there. I think the move shows respect for the hosts. So don't be surprised if they crack a local song during their Hong Kong performances.'
Murto says that other than great music making, there are benefits that come with working with music. 'So if you sing in a choir, you will live a longer life. Because when you sing in a group, it engenders a good hormone that is good for your health, and that's been scientifically proven to be true. We should convey to all governments that this is the cheapest way to well-being.'
Mar 3, 5pm, HK Jockey Club Amphitheatre, HKAPA, HK$200, HK$280 and HK$360. Mar 4, 2.15pm, Yuen Long Theatre, HK$160 and HK$220. Inquiries: 2824 2430