Musical, motherly and moral support

Competitors in the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition like staying in private homes. It’s less stressful than staying in a hotel, and it gives them a more true-to-life picture of Finland. The competition pianists’ main job is to give their singers musical and moral support.'

Competitors met their host families
The competitors met their hosts at the Sibelius Academy.

“We try to sense whether they want company or to be left alone.”

When asked to rate the organisation of the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition, the singers are generally effusive in their praise. One thing they particularly mention is the chance to stay with a local family.

Lispe and Yrjö Palotie have been offering a home for competitors ever since the 1989 Mirjam Helin Competition. “We’re happy to do anything for the arts,” they purr. “There’s always a demand for hosts, and the competitors appreciate it no end.”

This time the Paloties acted host to the promising young Ukrainian baritone Dmytro Kalmuchyn, who took home the fourth prize for men. “Of course we always follow our guests closely in the competition, to see how they are doing, and it’s always very exciting,” says Yrjö Palotie.

Over the years, the Paloties have met some very different singers. Being with young people from very different cultural backgrounds is always rewarding. “We well remember one very keen young Turk. He was a pleasure to talk to, and terribly considerate. He even offered to do the ironing!” the Paloties recall. “And we’ve been in touch ever since.”

The Paloties have always been impressed by the young competitors’ commitment. This applied to Kalmuchyn as well: everything, even down to what he ate, was governed by his singing. “Despite being only 21, he was very independent, open and easy to get on with. Even though his English wasn’t very good, he was very active and keen, so we were able to communicate.” Lispe Palotie says they always try to sense their guests’ need for their own space. “We don’t force ourselves on them, and we try to sense whether they want company or to be left in peace. On the day he sang in the Preliminary Round, Dmytro was very chatty and wanted to discuss all sorts of things with us.”

The world of music competitions is very familiar to the Paloties, because Lispe has worked at the Finnish Cultural Foundation for over 20 years and Yrjö at the Paulo Foundation. They have also had competitors in the Paulo Cello Competition to stay. “For some ladies of the parish, providing a home for competitors is nothing short of a mission,” they grin.

There are, the Paloties point out, as many different hosts and homes as there are competitors. Some years ago, one of the key hostesses was Aino Bergholm, a lady with numerous contacts. Many of the hosts are already getting on in years, and it’s not very easy to find people prepared to take their place.

The competition’s Executive Director, Marja-Leena Pétas, agrees that homes are not always easy to find, especially as many Finns are away in August. “This year, many of the competitors also brought their own pianist, or their husband or wife, and we always try to find accommodation for them, too. We do our best to please everyone – it’s all part of the competition ethic,” she says. When Beomjin Kim, winner of the prize for men, announced that his wife would be coming as well, Marja-Leena had her son’s bed sent round as there was only one spare bed in the host family’s home.

Delightful musical situations

Lied occupies a leading role in the Mirjam Helin Competition, and especially the Semifinals. The partnership between pianist and singer is of paramount importance in Lied, yet in a competition they have only a few hours to rehearse together. Welding this partnership together is, in Kiril Kozlovsky’s opinion, quite a challenge, which is why some singers like to bring their own pianist. “Sometimes I may know nothing whatsoever about a singer apart from what I’ve gathered in a few emails,” says this specialist Lied accompanist. “Luckily the singers are professionals and stick to their chosen interpretation, which means we can establish some joint ground rules. The ability to adapt and to relate to the singer’s musical mind-set is in any case most important of all.”

Kozlovsky has experience of a number of singing competitions both in Finland and abroad. The more he can get to know the singer, the more rewarding their partnership will be. Before the Semifinals, he and Canadian mezzo Rihab Chaileb went out for a beer together and chatted about everyday things. “Being able to trust their pianist helps them throw off their inhibitions and take risks, and that’s important as the competition progresses,” says Kozlovsky. “I want my singers to feel they have my support both on stage and off.”

Tuula Hällström also says that giving the singer musical and moral support is one of the most important things for a competition pianist. “It’s essential to keep calm, otherwise you’ll make the competitor more nervous than ever,” she says. “It’s up to you to try to encourage the competitor in every way, and to tune into their mood: do they want a sparring partner or to go it alone?”

The biggest problem is, in Hällström’s opinion, the vast repertoire, not so much establishing contact with a singer she’s never met before. “It’s interesting, actually, that since you don’t have time to agree all the details beforehand, you find yourself in some of the most delightful musical situations.”

Matija Meiç and Leon Kovasic
Tuula Hällström and her "proteges", Matija Meić and Leon Kosavic.

It just so happened that Tuula Hällström was assigned the competition’s popular baritones Dmytro KalmuchynLeon Kosavic and Matija Meić. In the Final, she sat in the front row, keeping her fingers crossed for them. “It’s fantastic and inspiring to make music with good musicians. All three baritones were highly individual, and I did different repertoire with each.”

Kiril Kozlovsky agrees: a competition is hard work, but all the more rewarding. But does the work tend to become routine if you have to perform the same songs over and over again? Kozlovsky’s cure for this is to seek out new angles on even familiar songs. All in all he likes to study the music carefully beforehand.

“I try to forget I’m in a competition and to create a concert-like situation. Some competitors want the pianist to be as unobtrusive as possible. That’s OK by me, but the best musical moments arise when the singer is aware of the pianist’s presence.” The Shadow Jury blog made a point of mentioning Kozlovsky’s strong musical presence. “A pianist can simply execute a figure or charge it with a musical message.”

Text: Auli Särkiö
Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Photos: Heikki Tuuli