Interview by Dominique Wagener and Aimée Quednau
On May 7th, 2019, the Collegium musicum of the University of Cologne, in cooperation with the Department of Scandinavian and Finnish Studies, had the pleasure to welcome the Finnish male voice choir, Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat, from Helsinki. They prepared an elaborate evening program, opening with the Kalevala themed Opus 18, six songs for male choir (1893-1901) by Jean Sibelius. These were followed by a short Richard Strauss piece called Durch Einsamkeiten (1938) and a modern composition, Runo (2015), by their very own member Juuso Vanonen. The second half of the evening was dedicated to the world premiere of the whole nine-piece cycle, Nine Echoes of Ancient Trees (2014), by Michael Ostrzyga. As the piece originated upon YL’s request, the composer himself gave a short introduction to the piece.
We were especially curious about the choir’s visit and took the opportunity to meet its director Pasi Hyökki and two of the singers, Aleksi Haapanen and Matias Penttinen, to ask them a few questions.
norrøna: Considering the name (Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat = Singers of the Student Body) we were wondering if all of you are students or if it is mandatory to be a student to be part of the choir?
Aleksi Haapanen: We’re not all students. It’s a choir which was formed within the student body of the University of Helsinki. That’s where the name comes from. In the beginning, all of the singers probably were of the Helsinki University but nowadays we are from all over the place. I think one third of us are active students, one third are former students from Helsinki University and one third are from somewhere else.
norrøna:How do you cast the choir members?
Pasi Hyökki: I think the best way is when the singers talk to their friends, colleagues, student friends and simply everybody. We are performing so much that everyone knows the choir is in Helsinki and if they come to study in Helsinki they probably would like to come and try if they can get in.
AH: We also have a lot of singers that are second, third or fourth generation of choir singers.
norrøna: So, is it that way that once you’re a member of the choir you never leave or are people staying for three years and then leaving?
PH: Some leave after some months. They feel like »ok this is not my job« and some guys are there 30 years. Everything in between that.
AH: We have singers who are 19 or 20 and then we have singers who are around 50. The mean age is probably 25 to 30.
Matias Penttinen: And the oldest YL alumni are at the moment over 90 years old.
norrøna:We’ve been listening to your warm-up and that already sounded amazing so I guess you have a really high standard concerning the choir members. Are all of you professional singers?
PH: Actually, we don’t have any professional singers in our choir. There are some music teachers and instrumentalists.
AH: Some study something music-related.
MP: I think a good example is that Aleksi is a dentist and I study administrative science. So, nothing to do with music.
AH: It’s also a great thing about this choir. There are people from all over the field. It’s nice to know people from different backgrounds.
norrøna:How dedicated does a member have to be? How often do you rehearse? And how do you deal with the fact that the members are not only from Helsinki but also from somewhere else?
PH: We have quite much to do but we practice only once a week on Tuesday evenings for about 3,5 hours and then some weekends maybe twice a year.
AH:We have 15 to 20 concerts a year with the whole choir as well as quartet activities. It depends on whether you want to be fully involved. Then you can easily spend every second day on that. But if you don’t want that, that’s also ok.
MP: On Sunday, we had a training day in Helsinki, yesterday we had the administrative board meeting, now we have this four-day tour and next Tuesday there is also a concert as well as the administrative board meeting on Friday. So, it’s quite busy.
norrøna: We saw that you played for example in Japan and different places around the world. How do you manage to do that much with the choir while on the other hand being a dentist or something else?
PH: That’s a demanding thing and that’s why we don’t have the obligation to have to be part of every tour. So, if you cannot go, you cannot go. We have about 80 to 90 singers in total. For example, on this tour we are around 50 singers.
AH: We have good vacation policies in Finland, so it’s manageable. We usually do one longer tour and then maybe one or two smaller ones per year because it’s not possible to take too many days off work.
norrøna: Is it never a struggle to get a whole choir together for a tour?
PH: Nowadays we are struggling a bit nearly every time. But we have managed. So far.
norrøna: So much about the choir itself. We looked a bit through your Spotify appearance and were impressed by your extremely huge repertoire. It’s so diverse: you have everything from tango to pop-songs and rap features to Sibelius, where is the limit? Is there anything you cannot sing?
PH: I don’t know. I think it’s very nice to try and find out how to sing different kinds of things. We just had a concert in Helsinki with three ethno-groups: one Sami group, one harmonica quartet and one female a cappella ensemble. We worked together with them and made a very different kind of music. It was very nice. I think we love to do different things.
AH: I think it’s quite a new thing that we do versatile stuff. If you listen to the old records from back in the 90s, 80s and 70s it’s mostly contemporary and classical male choir music. Then came the tangos in 2000 and then all of the pop-rock stuff. It’s just fun to try the limits.
norrøna: So, who picks the songs? Is it the choir that suggests new ideas or do composers request you for their work?
PH: Mostly, it’s my job to figure out how to find and order new music. But we also have a very nice group of people who are discussing and trying to find out what is going to happen next.
MP: Like brainstorming.
PH: It’s very effective and useful. Otherwise you are just occupied with your own mind and lack ideas very easily.
norrøna: Now this is a question I’m personally curious about regarding the song selection. The album »YL goes Tango« especially caught my eye. Alongside the Finnish Tango tradition, there also exists a tradition of Heavy Metal music. I was wondering if there will ever be a project like »YL goes Metal«?
AH: It might be a good idea. I think there are some choirs that have done that already.
norrøna: Speaking of new projects, how did the collaboration with Michael Ostrzyga come about?
PH: We have planned to do German and Polish music and I put some thought into having one contemporary composition from both countries. Then I asked and tried to find out who would be a good German composer for choirs. Then I heard the »Iuppiter« of Michael Ostrzyga and I was amazed. It’s a very good piece. I called him and asked if he would like to compose about eight minutes for us. He composed 38 minutes. (laughing)
DW: But you accepted the challenge.
PH: Yes, but it’s not a very easy piece.
norrøna: What about the other pieces of this evening? How do they fit together with the piece of Michael Ostrzyga?
PH: The pieces we are singing at the beginning of the concert were all actually composed for YL by Sibelius. They are our most precious material. Then follows the piece by Richard Strauss which is from the same period as the Sibelius compositions. After that we are going to sing a piece by Juuso Vanonen. He is a member of our choir and a skilled composer. He has composed a five-parts-piece for us. His and Michael’s pieces are combined together. So, Sibelius and Strauss and Vanonen and Ostrzyga build a unit.
MP: But again, Juuso’s profession has something to do with computers and not with music.
norrøna: Did you only come to Germany because of this cooperation or do you also play other concerts? Is it part of a tour?
PH: Yes, we are going to Ludwigsburg tomorrow, to the festival (Ludwigsburger Schlossfestspiele) to sing Šostakovič there (Anm. d. Autorin: Dmitrij Šostakovič, Sinfonie Nr. 13 in b-moll, »Babi Jar«) and also a little a cappella music but not the pieces we present here today. So, it’s a tough tour.
norrøna: What are your other upcoming projects? What can we expect in the future?
MP: Well, we have a pop concert in Helsinki at the end of October.
PH: In the beginning of June we are going on summer vacation for two and a half months. Then we have a big, big Christmas time in Finland. We have eleven own Christmas concerts around Helsinki churches. It is the biggest choir event in Finland.
MP: And the Japan tour will be in the beginning of 2021.
AH: We need to plan three to five years ahead.
norrøna: And I guess it’s a lot of organization, too.
AH: Yes. It depends on where we are heading because we also have agents in different parts of the world that take care of everything for us, but of course it takes time and effort to get those contacts.
We thank Pasi Hyökki, Aleksi Haapanen and Matias Penttinen for the interview and all of Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat for their visit in Cologne and the beautiful concert.