Helsinki and LA Exchange Piano Trios

Three young musicians with instruments

Sibelius Academy students visit Colburn from the pre-collegiate student exchange program with Colburn’s Music Academy.

In February, three students from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland spent a week at the Colburn School for a week of rehearsals, performances, classes, concerts, and field trips. In May, three Colburn students will be traveling to Helsinki for a similar round of activities. It will be the culmination of the School’s first pre-college exchange program.

This exciting new initiative takes its place alongside Colburn’s partnerships with the Saline Royale Academy in Arc-et-Senans and the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin which have provided Colburn students with broadly curated international opportunities for conservatory study. And the Helsinki-Los Angeles connection, which began in earnest when Esa-Pekka Salonen became music director of the LA Phil in 1992, deepens further with this new relationship.

All four of the students I talked to were still pinching themselves to make sure it was all real. Cellist Mira Kardan of the Olive Trio, with violinist Anais Feller and pianist Daniel Wang, told me that when she heard the news, “We were so excited. We’d never been to Finland. It’s such a beautiful country. And it’s really exciting to travel with good friends.”

For their audition, the Trio had prepared Schubert’s B flat trio and were asked to play excerpts selected by the judges during their 15-minute ordeal. “It was a challenge,” Kardan admitted, “but we pushed ourselves. I’ve been here since I was three. I was in the Community School and then I came to the Academy. I’ve learned that everything is possible.”

When pianist Isabella Pätiälä, violinist Albert Sahlström, and cellist Saima Malmivaara in Helsinki saw the call for applications they “immediately thought that we must apply,” according to Pätiälä, “because it’s not every day you get a chance to go to the United States. When we learned that we would be getting lessons from some of the best teachers here,” she added, “we were really excited. And it’s really been great.”

After arriving late on a Sunday night they had a short tour around campus in the morning and started their lessons at 10. “We’ve been working all week and finally tomorrow we’re getting a tour of LA. It’s been quite intense.” They worked on the first two movements of the Mendelssohn D minor, the first movement of the Beethoven’s Ghost, and a modern Finnish piece by Einar Englund. “It’s the last movement. We played it at the concert Tuesday. It’s very fun music.”

When I asked what they would like to show the Olive Trio when they come to Helsinki, Malmivaara said, “Nature, because it’s very important to Finnish people to have forests and lakes near them. Also, the older parts of Helsinki and the fortress on Suomenlinna island.”

Adrian Daly, Colburn School Provost, detailed the American itinerary: “They’ll get to go to Ainola near Helsinki where Sibelius lived with his family for part of his life and where he wrote some of his music including his last three symphonies. They’ll interact with students at the Sibelius Academy. They’ll perform at a joint concert like they did here. They’ll have coachings with their faculty. They’ll get to hear the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.”

Daly also gave an equally detailed account of what Colburn had planned for the three Finns for their weekend in LA. “Tomorrow they’re taking a bus ride around the city including Griffith Observatory, Santa Monica, Farmer’s Market, and the Getty. Tomorrow night the LA Phil at Disney Hall. On Saturday they will sit in on the music history and movement for musicians classes. We’ll have pizza and go to the Colburn Orchestra concert at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena. We’ll have a brunch on Sunday with donors who have helped support the program. They’ll fly back on Sunday evening.”

For Markus Utrio, Vice Dean, Faculty of Classical Music, Sibelius Academy, “these exchange programs are something really special. They’re a whole society’s attempt to be an ambassador to other countries. It’s not sending people to be trained, it’s sending people who will say something about Finland or about America. In Europe where travel is easier, exchange programs are so natural that at the Sibelius Academy we have more than 100 students going in and out.”

Daly, who had already set up exchanges between the Sibelius Academy and Eastman and the Cleveland Institute before partnering Colburn with the Academy, pointed out that, “like many European schools, the Sibelius Academy is very invested in the idea of cultural exchange and student exchange. They have a dedicated international relations office and a person charged with creating and managing exchange opportunities. It would be lovely to make that more available to more students at Colburn.

“In my mind, there’s always been a sense that with exchange programs, part of what’s going on is the kids are acting as ambassadors for their countries. Absolutely. Is that too big a responsibility to put on them? No, it’s never too early to be a citizen.”

This year’s exchange program between the Colburn School and the Sibelius Academy was made possible by the generous support of Stephen Block, Raulee Marcus, Beverly C. Marksbury, and Dr. Lawrence Rubenstein and Dr. Susan Auyang.