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Helsinki University Choir in America

Martti Turunen

Conductor of the Choir

The idea that the Helsinki University Y. L. Choir should visit America was born in 1935 when we met several university choirs during a European tour. Most of these choirs had given concerts in the U.S.A. and were surprised to hear that the Y.L. had not visited that country. The idea remained in our minds after we returned to Finland and only an external impetus was necessary for us to realize our ambition. This impetus came, curiously enough, from America herself. The Yale University Choir intended to make an European tour and wrote to the Y. L. on the subject. Unfortunately the American choir was unable to extend its tour to Finland, but its conductor, Marshall Bartholomew, who was also chairman of the International Students' Choir Union, invited the Y. L. representative to meet him in Stockholm to discuss affairs connected with the Union. Accordingly the Y. L. representative met Mr. Bartholomew, who invited Y. L. to America and promised that his choir would do their utmost to ensure the success of the tour. We were naturally very pleased to accept the invitation, although financing the trip was a very serious question. The necessary funds were nevertheless forthcoming, thanks to the support of the Government and the entire Finnish Nation. Our visit to America was not entirely a concert tour, for it was intended also as a kind of fanfare to the June Delaware Celebrations to which Finland was invited. We also wished to get in touch with American university students and in general to give the American public some idea of Finland and her efforts in the field of intellectual development.

From our very first day in the United States we found that the rumors we had heard of American sympathy had not been exaggerated. For example, when we performed at Rockefeller Centre on December 26th, when the announcer jokingly spoke of us as visitors from far away Finland, the only country in the world which paid its debts, his remark was greeted by very hearty applause from the concert-hall audience. We were also afforded excellent reception by the authorities. Mayor La Guardia received us at the City Hall in New York, made some very friendly expressions about Finland, and spoke of his pleasure at the visit of the choir to America. We were received with the same warmth at Harvard University, where we stayed as guests for almost a week. Much could be written of the impressions we obtained at Harvard, but I must proceed to discuss the main part of our visit - the concerts themselves.

While staying at Harvard we visited Boston to rehearse with the Boston orchestra under Koussewitsky. These rehearsals, especially the first, were of the greatest importance to us, as we knew beforehand that the entire success of our visit depended on these joint performances with the Boston Orchestra. It is no easy matter for an unknown students' choir to make a hit in the U.S.A., where the world's leading musicians have shown their ability; even though we knew o countrymen had done their utmost to make our visit a success. Everything, however, turned out well in the end although the disappearance of the score of the "Birth of Fire" threatened to wreck all our preparations. The manager of the Boston Orchestra nevertheless refused to be perturbed and sent for radio photographs of the score, which became front page news in the States and advertised us in all parts of that tremendous country. The success of these joint performances in Boston and New York opened all gates before us. In addition to performing in the two cities mentioned above, we gave concerts at Worcester, Fitchburg, Princeton, Washington, Ashtabula, Ann Arbor, Cranbrook, Detroit, St Louis, Chicago, Marquette, Duluth, Virginia, and New Haven, as well as in Montreal and Toronto in Canada. Everywhere we warmly received both by audiences and critics. The peak of our tour was our visit to Washington. We were received at the station by the Finnish Minister and Mrs. Järnefelt, and several Congressmen who bade us welcome. On our tour around the city we called on Vice-President Garner, who made a speech. We replied with the "Porilaisten Marssi" to such effect that Mr. Emil Hurja professed to have fears for the roof of the Capitol. A unique compliment was paid to our country when we entered the gallery of the House of Congress. The sitting was suspended and Congressman Hook of Minnesota presented us to Congress and spoke of the Finnish people who played their part in colonizing America 300 years ago. Congressman Hook concluded his speech with the words: "We are also proud of the fact that Finland is the only country which has honestly and regularly paid its debts to the United States of America (applause). We, the members of Congress, note with pleasure that the representatives of this honored country have come here to the city of Washington officially to participate in the Delaware 300-Years Jubilee Celebrations (applause)." This was probably a unique occasion in Congress. While applauding the speech the Congressmen rose and faced the gallery where we stood.

The following day Secretary of State Cordell Hull received Minister Järnefelt, Mr. Hurja, our chairman Prof. Jutila, Mr. Pitkänen and myself, and made a speech containing very warm references to Finland and her participation in the Delaware Celebrations. In the afternoon of the same day we appeared at the large Constitution Hall before an audience of nearly 4,000. This was one of our most successful concerts, for we finally won the somewhat unbending audience of the capital so completely that there seemed to be no end to the applause. We were afterwards informed by the Finnish Minister that in several quarters the wish had been expressed that we would soon return to America. The Washington Concert showed before all the reaction of the American public to Finnish music. We ourselves observed that the musical taste of America is entirely European. The audience reacted to everything that was artistically valuable and original, whether in lyrical, dramatic, or humorous compositions. I have no space here to describe all the impressions derived from our American tour. I can only say once more that the visit of the Y. L. was something more than an attempt to demonstrate Finnish cultural achievements to the American public. We who took part in the visit look on it as an extremely enjoyable and inspiring event whose experiences will certainly he of great benefit to each of us in our work. We all hope that this first visit to the United States was not our last, and that in future we may again have the opportunity of making further acquaintance with that most interesting country and its progressive people.

Published in Finland-United States 1938. Special publication for the advancement of Finnish-American relations. 1938, p. 120-121.

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