Nordic Music, Unjustly Neglected by Geography
Let's start with Estonia. Finally they have found one composer whose music has made an international impact -- Arvo Pärt -- and one wonders if his music would have achieved the popularity it has had he continued to live in that country instead of Vienna and then Berlin. (He left Estonia in 1980 because of differences with its then Soviet-dominated government.) But Pärt is by no means the only Estonian composer whose music deserves a hearing by all of us. My own nomination, from among quite a few composers, would be Eduard Tubin. His ten completed symphonies are extremely powerful, dramatic, tautly constructed works. Anyone who responds to the symphonies of Shostakovich is likely to connect to Tubin's music.
Finland may have done the best of these three countries: Sibelius's place is firmly established, and thanks to the wealth of Finnish conducting talent -- produced largely by the teaching of Jorma Panula -- we have Finnish conductors in many important posts. They have made us aware of the music of Magnus Lindberg, Kaija Saariaho, Aulis Sallinen, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and others. Still, how many of us have had a chance to encounter one of the twelve symphonies of Kalevi Aho in a concert hall? And at how many Lieder recitals does someone sing the songs of Yrjö Kilpinen, deeply felt and beautiful as they are? And among the important figures of the twentieth century, Joonas Kokkonen seems to me to have been unfairly forgotten. His Requiem is an extraordinarily powerful piece of writing.
Sweden's musical history goes back much further than Estonia's and Finland's. "The Swedish Handel" was what some called Johan Helmich Roman, though we don't hear his music from the early 1700s at all today. We do, fortunately, run into (rare) performances of some of the symphonies of Franz Berwald. But I'll bet that if a German or Viennese composer wrote precisely those same works, we'd hear them a lot more often. Somehow, it seems to me that geography becomes destiny. While these four symphonies may not be of quite the same stature as the Schumann or Mendelssohn symphonies, they are not as far below that level as the ratio of performances would have you believe. And then there's the Brahmsian music of Wilhelm Stenhammar -- music of great beauty and elegance that is largely absent from the repertoire of non-Scandinavian orchestras and performers.
There are, of course, many non-Nordic examples of this as well. To cite just one composer, I believe that the music of Douglas Lilburn would be better represented in our concert halls had he not been hidden away in New Zealand.
If I could wave a magic wand and grant myself a wish, it would be that performers exhibit a real intellectual curiosity, go beyond the music they know, and be open to learning works from traditions other than their own. I wish they would get beyond the prejudices and pre-formed views that shape much of our programming.