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Tour de force by amazing orchestra; Christopher Morley reports on a trip which has further enhanced the CBSO's standing.

CBSO music director Sakari Oramo wiped a furtive tear from his eye as he left the stage at the end of a concert in Helsinki last week, after an ovation which, by the standards of the normally reserved Finns, was tumultuous.

The occasion could scarcely have been more emotional, with the young Finnish maestro taking his new English orchestra back to his homeland for the first time. Final work on the programme was Brahams' Symphony no 2, and it did not escape notice that it was with that composer's First Symphony that Oramo made his dream debut as a conductor just a few years ago, standing in at the few hours' notice to direct the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he was then leader, in this very same Finlandia Hall.

Small wonder, then, that media interest was intense for Oramo's return, this time bringing to the prestigious Helsinki Festival (with its impressive roster of Finland's great conductors) the orchestra that the legendary Simon Rattle had brought to world renown. Small wonder, too, that there was not a seat to be had in the house for either of the two concerts Oramo and the CBSO performed, not even for guests travelling with the Birmingham party, and not even for members of the local Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra anxious to catch up with the successes of their flying Finn.

Such excitement is indicative of the supportive attitude extended to the arts in cultured Finland, where subsidy is substantial and unquestioned. When I asked him at a televised press conference how he felt when comparing this happy situation with the negligent attitude to such matters in Britain, Oramo was surprisingly diplomatic.

"We mustn't take anything for granted," he said. "Who knows what things will be like here in the next generation?

"You must remember that her in Finland the arts have been a strong symbol of our desire for national identity, something you in England haven't had to struggle for in centuries (the World Wars were something different, a global matter after all).

"In England, although not much official interest is shown, there is much private enthusiasm. This is something about which we can feel very positive."

Yet there was a healthy response from the British diplomatic quarter, spectacularly demonstrated in the form of a lively reception hosted by the British Ambassador at the conclusion of the CBSO's opening Helsinki concert.

Coaches took us to his delightful residence, where the hospitality flowed ceaselessly and deliciously, where your correspondent achieved a personal first in phoning in his review from the ambassador's desk, and where His Excellency made a speech which paid tribute to the infinitely successful ambassadorial role carried out by the CBSO, radiating, "enthusiasm and excellence."

He was reinforcing a comment made earlier by the Finnish TV presenter, who had observed "when you think of London, you think of double-decker buses and Big Ben; when you think of Birmingham you think of one of the world's great orchestras." We moved from the auspicious to the heartwarmingly domestic next afternoon, when the orchestra entered the Finlandia Hall for rehearsal to find a class of primary schoolchildren excitedly waiting for proceedings to begin. Further enquiry revealed they were the classmates of Sakaru Oramo's elder son, come to see their friend's father in action with his famous orchestra.

Rather like naughty schoolchildren, some of us played truant from that rehearsal, taking the short bus ride instead out to Ainola, and the house where Sibelius spent the last 53 years of his life. There is something really special about the atmosphere of this secluded place, surrounded by woodland and a lovely flower garden and heavy, above all, with the silence Sibelius craved whilst he listened to the inspiration of nature.

Yet, too, there is the almost palpable feeling that this was still, until comparatively recently, a family residence, with its practical 50s-style kitchen, and, in Sibelius' well-stocked library, the nostalgic sight of a radiogram of the type so many of us had in our homes a few decades ago.

The sense of 'family' is certainly something which can be felt with the CBSO on tour, and this time it was intensified by a welcome addition in the form of the constant and much-valued presence of violinist Elisabeth Batiashvili. Soloist in three of the four concerts of the tour (and how her Sibelius Concerto wonderfully increased its grip on us all!), she also managed to scrounge a seat for her one free evening; she breakfasted with the orchestra and went post-concert revelling, trying (unsuccessfully) to get CBSO chief executive Edward Smith to bop with her on the heaving dance-floor of the Helsinki hotel's nightclub.

She also travelled with us as we crossed the Baltic by speedy and comfortable catamaran to Estonia, and its unbelievingly charming capital, Tallinn.

It is so easy to imagine oneself back in the Middle Ages as one explores the narrow, cobbled streets of the Old Town, climbing towards the imposing Orthodox Cathedral. The huddles of shops and houses provide a riot of varied colour, often overlaid with ornate and descriptive stone-carvings. People go about their business in this paradisiacal environment quite unselfconsciously, in fact adding to the enchantment of the place; the women are some of the most elegant and disdainfully beautiful one could ever hope to see.

Things were not quite so enticing late at night, when I found myself trapped in this labyrinth of dimly-lit alleys, steps, archways and tunnels, with no apparent means of escape. The fact that these words have appeared testifies to my eventual liberation.

Not quite so ancient is Tallinn's Estonia Hall, an elegant turn-of-the-century building, its concert-room small but comfortable, with impressively pillared galleries. Sakari Oramo began the afternoon rehearsal with George Benjamin's Sudden Time, prefacing the music-making with a little speech.

"George told me how happy he was with its performance in Birmingham last week, but when we repeated it in Helsinki the other night he was absolutely bowled over - and that's nothing to do with me, it's your virtuosity!" Much appreciative orchestral foot-shuffling followed.

And there was vociferous appreciation from the audience following that evening's concert. Numbers were small - the Tallinn Summer Festival, of which the CBSO formed a major part - was emptying the pockets of local art-lovers, and only the more well-heeled were able to run to affording several events; but they certainly recognised world-class music-making.

At a gathering afterwards with the Estonian Minister of Culture and the British Ambassador, a representative of the local wing of the British Council paid fulsome tribute to the CBSO.

"We have had many orchestras visiting here, but you are the brightest jewel in the crown of music that's been brought to Estonia."

Estonian Television was there, and Sakari Oramo was interviewed at length on Estonian Classical Radio.

But late that night, before he and his amazing orchestra moved in to the ancient university town of Tartu for its final concert of this tour bursting with enthusiasm for the orchestra and respect for Birmingham, Sakari Oramo could be seen in the hotel's pub, genially presiding over the efforts of mellow CBSO staff and players as they strove to combine in song both Edelweiss and Gilbert and Sullivan's Poor wand'ring one.

The Birmingham Post's music critic made his excuses and left.
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Author:Morley, Christopher
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 30, 1999
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