Finnish soprano Olga Heikkilä and pianist Anni Laukkanen offer the Berlin audience access to a refreshing and honest side of art song.
Olga Heikkilä arrived out-of-breath at the front door of my fifth-floor walk-up apartment. I eyed her bare shoulders peeking out from her sleeveless shirt, and pushed a bottle of sunscreen into her hands. “You’ll smell like vacation for your concert later,” I said, laughing. “But at least you won’t be a lobster.” On that Sunday afternoon, she was going to tell me about Finnish Midsummer traditions from the vantage of one of Berlin’s most iconic summer spots: Mauerpark.
The sun shone directly overhead (bad for pictures), and we were already sweating by the time we reached the bridge that leads to the park. Halfway across, a child was standing to one side with her father, excitedly awaiting the next train that would appear out of a tunnel a few hundred feet in the distance. The girl shifted from one foot to the other as she peered through the metal fence, and shrieked with glee when an express ICE train appeared, whizzing by underfoot. Heikkilä smiled at the sound of her laughter. “That’s what midsummer was like—a whole day of being that excited.”
Entering the northern end of the park, we walked past a farm for children to the left, a hutch full off cooing messenger doves to the right, and continued through a wood of birch trees casting speckled light onto people resting on blankets. We found a mostly shaded bench to rest, where faint sounds from a nearby violin and guitar wafted over.
Since her graduation for the Royal Danish Opera Academy in 2013, Heikkilä’s international career has kept her on the move; she’s in Berlin until mid-July performing Wolfgang Rihm’s “Jakob Lenz” as part of the “Infektion!” festival at Staatsoper Berlin’s Schiller Theater. “But I should be used to traveling,” she admits. The Tapiola Children’s Choir, which she joined at twelve years old, took her on tours to the United States, China, and even Australia. “But somehow, I always made it home to celebrate Midsummer,” she says. “I guess our chaperones wanted to be home in time, too.”
From her description, Midsummer in Finland was a child’s paradise. Family and close friends would gather in the countryside, convening in the sauna (the ultimate Finnish social activity), and building a huge bonfire. They would grill meat, sing songs—and of course, stay up late. One particularly charming tradition is when, just before bedtime, little girls would hunt for seven different types of wildflowers, which they then silently—(no talking once you’ve found them!)— would place under their pillows with the hope of dreaming of their future husbands.
Countries across Scandinavia share in Midsummer festivities: in Norway, both adults and children stage make-believe weddings; for Danish “Sankthansaften,” a witch made of straw is burned at the stake; and in Sweden, Midsummer is considered a national holiday, with business and shops closed for business–their traditions include dancing around a Maypole, grilling a lamb on a spit, and swimming naked. (Many of these traditions are also shared between the countries, Heikkilä explains.)
A boy raced by to retrieve an over-shot frisbee, sending it sailing back toward his friend. Of course, I was reminded, summer in Berlin isn’t so bad either. “But that’s exactly right!” Heikkilä told me excitedly. “We’re bringing Midsummer to Berlin!”
Together with Finnish pianist Anni Laukkanen, (they’re both graduates of the Sibelius Music Academy in Helsinki,) Heikkilä will sing a Midsummer art song concert at the Finnish Center in Berlin on Sunday, June 25th. The program highlights four composers representing each of the countries most bound to their summer solstice traditions: Sibelius, Nielsen, Grieg, and Rangström. The music is folk-song based, highlighting the vibrance and vivid energy of nature–sometimes violent and passionate, and other times soft and intimate. “Singing makes me feel connected to the world around me, and I think it’s important to share these sensations of honesty and gratitude with the audience,” Heikkilä describes.
Later that evening, I watched Heikkilä and Laukkanen perform an evening of Schumann, Grieg, and Sibelius at another Berlin cultural relic: the Spiegelsaal at Clärchen’s Ballhaus. Amidst dim lighting bouncing off large mirrors, cracked during World War II, the mysterious atmosphere set the tone for the lieder to stir. As Heikkilä sang German and Swedish text, I was reminded that music has always been a catalyst for exchange between cultures; art is made to share with others, and traveling artists such as Heikkilä provide a selfless gift to the diverse audiences they meet along the way.
After the concert, I got Laukkanen’s perspective on missing Midsummer in Finland this year. “I’ve missed it for the last five years,” she admits, “ever since I’ve lived abroad. But,” she adds, “I always wind up playing a concert that day, so I’m too busy to be homesick.”
But Laukkanen does tell me about one early memory of Midsummer that leaves me wide-eyed: once the pit that her family dug for the bonfire at her grandparents’ farm was so huge that a bear made a nest inside of it. “Eventually the bear left on its own, but we were all really surprised,” she says, her eyes sparkling.
Heikkilä is just as inspired to share Finnish tradition with the Berlin audience as she is to experience Berlin’s summer cultural offerings for the first time. With a child of her own and a busy travel schedule, exploring flea markets and trying new foods is more appealing than dancing the night away at Berghain night club—(even if heathen traditions like jumping over fires and swimming naked might not be far off from a regular night at Berghain). “But that’s the beautiful thing about Berlin,” she admits. “I love the energy and openness of this city, and how it attracts so many forms of expression.”
As I leave Clärchen’s Ballhaus at around 10:30 PM, twilight is only just casting a dimness over the sky. Farther north it will probably stay light for at least another hour. But as I ride my bicycle through the balmy evening, my head still buzzing from the beautiful music I’d heard, I’m glad that it’s Midsummer, and that tonight we’re in Berlin.
Olga Heikkilä, photo by John Bishop
“Midsummer’s Night Music” at the Finland Center Berlin, 6/25 at 4:00 PM Schleiermacherstraße 24 +49(0)307818189
Tickets and sauna reservations: click here
“Jakob Lenz” at Staatsoper Berlin am Schiller Theater on 7/5, 7/8, 7/10, 7/12, and 7/14. Tickets: click here