10 Finnish Composers You Should Know (Who Aren’t Jean Sibelius)

By Michael San Gabino |

Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Orchestra (Photo: Courtney Perry)

Osmo Vänskä, the Finnish music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is proud that Finland is home to so many incredible composers. “It goes back to Jean Sibelius,” Vänskä said in a recent interview. “Sibelius was born in 1865, and he died in 1957. Finland was still a part of Russia until 1917, and Sibelius was making a career and becoming famous outside of the country. So his popularity made Finns think of independence and he became a national hero.”

The Minnesota Orchestra has performed and recorded many Sibelius works. But there are many Finnish composers of the 20th and 21st centuries who also deserve recognition. Vänskä shared 10 Finnish composers that everyone should know who aren’t Sibelius, adding “I can go on! There is a lot of good style and talent coming from Finland.”

1. Kalevi Aho (1949- )

“Aho was the composer-in-residence at the Lahti Symphony Orchestra in Finland [where Vänskä was chief conductor]. Aho’s piece Minea was commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra in 2009. His music is powerful, and he has many thoughts to tell us.”

2. Sebastian Fagerlund (1972- )

“Sebastian was the composer-in-residence at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. I like his violin concerto very much. He has a newer opera, Autumn Sonata, and though I have not seen it, I have heard many good things about it.”

3. Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928 – 2016)

“Rautavaara died a little over a year ago, though his most popular piece, Cantus Arcticus,  comes from 1972. He went to places in Finland and recorded bird sounds. These recordings are then played with the orchestra. It still sounds quite modern, and it’s a powerful piece.”

4. Joonas Kokkonen (1921 – 1996)

“Kokkonen’s cello concerto is a close piece that I have recorded with the Swedish cellist Torleif Thedéen. He also composed a famous opera that has been performed more than 200 times called The Last Temptations.”

5. Kaija Saariaho (1952- )

Kaija has composed many operas, with many performed in Paris since she lives there. Most recently, her opera L’Amour de loin was performed at the Metropolitan Opera. She is one of the most well-known living composers in this moment.”

6. Magnus Lindberg (1958- )

“Magnus was the composer-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, and he has also worked with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.”

7. Olli Kortekangas (1955- )

Kortekangas is an active composer who is writing a lot of concertos and operas. I conducted the world premiere of his oratorio, Via, and he composed a piece called Migrations for the Minnesota Orchestra three years ago.”

8. Jaakko Kuusisto (1974- )

Jaako was the concertmaster of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra when I was there, and he’s not only a violinist but he’s also a composer and conductor. His violin concerto has been performed in the U.S. [the Minnesota Orchestra included it on their Finland centennial concert], and he’s very promising for the future.”

9. Esa-Pekka Salonen (1958- )

“Of course I have to mention Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is a composer-conductor. He was the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He guest conducts and has a lot of good music that has been performed all over the world.”

10. Lotta Wennäkoski (1970- )

Wennäkoski has come to attention especially after her piece, Flounce, was performed at the Last Night of the BBC Proms in London in 2017.”

Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra will perform Sibelius’s tone poem En Saga as a part of their appearance at Symphony Center in downtown Chicago on January 28, 2018. The last time the orchestra performed in Orchestra Hall was in 1966, and the last time they appeared in the Chicago area was in 1980 when the orchestra performed at Northwestern University. The orchestra will also perform and give master classes at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Indiana University-Bloomington.