By Laura Palotie
Last Sunday, friends and members of Finland Center were treated to an afternoon of world-class classical and jazz music at the Salmagundi club. As academically trained classical musicians, saxophonist Olli-Pekka Tuomisalo, Cellist Seeli Toivio and her brother Kalle, a pianist and organist, represent one of Finland’s most celebrated and long-standing exports.
While Kalle resides in Brooklyn with his Ukranian-born wife and is completing his studies in classical organ at the famed Manhattan School of Music, Seeli and Olli-Pekka had the opportunity to explore New York from a tourist’s standpoint. Earlier this week I met the trio at a Midtown diner to talk about their experience playing at Salmagundi, their insights on New York, and their lives as professional musicians.
What brought you to New York, Seeli and Olli-Pekka?
Seeli: Kalle has lived here for some time - he has studied at the Manhattan School of Music, and recently married an American girl – so right after the wedding in August we decided that we would arrange a visit. And when Kalle told us about this opportunity to give a concert [at Salmagundi], we just grabbed our instruments and hopped on a plane - or well, Olli-Pekka did, I played on a borrowed cello and just brought my own bow.
Have you been to the city before?
Olli-Pekka: I was here a couple of years ago for about a week, just on a short vacation.
Seeli: Aside from Kalle’s wedding this summer, I came here a number of years ago to participate in a cello competition. And now that we have this ongoing opportunity to combine a concert trip with a vacation, we plan to come back more often.
Seeli, you said that you played Sunday’s concert on a borrowed cello. What made you decide to not bring your own?
Seeli: I’ve played on borrowed instruments before. There have been times, for example, when I’ve traveled from Finland to elsewhere in Europe and not brought my own instrument. The complicated thing with traveling with a cello is that it needs its own ticket on a plane, and because we had planned to travel here on vacation and had booked our own tickets so far in advance, an extra ticket for my cello would have cost close to 1500 Euros. This worked out fine, though—Jaana got me an instrument from a local music store here. It was a nice cello, worth about $250,000.
What’s the transition like, going from your own instrument to a new one?
Seeli: Well, it’s kind of like driving a new car. It takes a little while to get used to it. If you borrow someone else’s car, you can drive a short distance, but going on a long road trip is probably not a good idea. Playing on a borrowed cello is similar; you can safely play certain repertoire, like the pieces we picked for this concert. But if I were playing sonatas or concertos or anything more challenging, I would have had to spend a longer time with this cello. In this case, I only had a couple of hours to get used to it, but it wasn’t a problem. I’m a professional, after all (laughs).
Olli-Pekka, you’re part of Metallifonia, an ensemble that puts a classical spin on rock-and heavy metal songs. How did this concept come about?
Olli-Pekka: Pianist Risto-Matti Marin and I came up with the idea about three years ago, when we realized that both of us have a past in metal music, both as performers and as patrons. So it felt like a very natural thing, to commission a composer to turn these hits into classical versions. We plan to go on a three-week North American tour this year to promote our album; we’ll be playing in Chicago and some cities in the South. Not all the venues have been confirmed yet, although I don’t think we’ll be making it to New York this time around.
Your selection of music for Sunday afternoon’s concert was notably eclectic, ranging from Sibelius to Duke Ellington. How did you choose your repertoire?
Olli-Pekka: I suggested songs that were a little lighter, pieces with a jazzy flavor, just keeping in mind the fact that this was a Sunday matinee. I didn’t want to choose anything too heavy, not to mention the other kind of ‘heavy’ music that I play. I selected smoother, laid-back songs, but also songs that contrasted one another. You don’t want to have too much of the same thing.
Seeli: I always make audience enjoyment a priority. If I go to a similar matinee event, I want to hear those familiar, beautiful, tried-and-true pieces. This is the kind of basic repertoire that you can polish up relatively quickly and is always appropriate. A 40-minute sonata might fit into another kind of event.
How was the audience response?
Seeli: The space was packed, and a lot of people came up afterwards and said how much they enjoyed hearing those familiar pieces.
Both of you have spent quite a bit of time abroad professionally [Seeli has studied in Budapest and London, for example, and Olli-Pekka’s CV includes performances in numerous countries, spanning from Germany to Russia and China]. In what ways have your international experiences helped define you as a musician?
Seeli: They say that travel broadens your perspective, which is definitely true. I’m from Lahti originally, which is a small town, so if I had spent all my life there and then suddenly left to go abroad, it would probably have been…
Olli-Pekka: …quite a shock. Both ways, I’m sure (laughs).
Seeli: Traveling also brings a degree of confidence and diversity into one’s playing.
Olli-Pekka: And everywhere you go, you encounter flavors of different kinds of performance techniques and musical styles.
Have you gone to see any local concerts during your visit?
Seeli: I don’t go to concerts much during my free time. When I was little, I used to go with my parents to the opera and the ballet and different classical concerts, but now that I make my living playing the cello, it can be a little too much to go listen to more music at the end of the day.
Olli-Pekka: If I go, it’s usually at a jazz club or another kind of venue that plays something entirely different from the musical genres that I focus on.
So what else have you done during the last few days?
Olli-Pekka: We’ve gone to a number of music stores to pick up records and sheet music. Any trip I go on, I always have to find out about local record-and-music shops. In a way it doesn’t make sense, because you can buy all the same stuff online, but there’s a nice feeling in picking them up in person.
Seeli: I ordered a French-to English translation of a Cello manual published in the 1800s from the New York Public Library. They made a copy for me for a little over $100. We are both currently completing our doctoral dissertations [at the Sibelius Academy in Finland], and a lot of these works aren’t available in Finland.
What are your dissertations about?
Olli-Pekka: Mine covers the history of Finnish saxophone music. I’m doing a written history, as well as a series of five concerts that focus exclusively on Finnish music.
Seeli: Mine covers the history of the left hand cello technique. I’m always scouting for material at libraries and online.
Kalle, you’ve lived in the city since last summer. How do you like New York?
Kalle: I love it. It’s my favorite city. I enjoy a lot of other cities of course, from Helsinki to Paris and Venice, but New York is a place that seems to contain the entire universe within it. It’s so easy to be here, especially as a musician and artist. The city seems to breathe art, no matter what field you’re in.
And you’re the Cantor at the Finnish Church?
Kalle: Yeah, I immediately latched onto the opportunity when I heard that they were looking for someone to fill the position. It’s nice to have a job that corresponds with my own training, and allows me to maintain ties to the local Finnish community. They’ve been so welcoming and open, in many ways they possess all the right aspects of American culture, as well as their Finnish background. It’s also a very active community, and its organizers really get things done.
Any culture shocks?
Kalle: The physical geography of New York took some getting used to—the buildings are enormous and the number of people so vast, but once I got used to it, it hooked me. In the end, you start taking it as a given. Walking around Times Square late at night is safer than walking in the center of Helsinki, because there are so many people around. The atmosphere here is also incredibly open and no-nonsense. Everything is done in a warm, dynamic manner, even though it’s such a large community. It’s a city with a big, beating heart, and something is always happening.