Not so much epic as out of this world...

The internationally renowned composer Einojuhani Rautavaara is at last being acclaimed by his fellow Finns.

AT FIRST glance, the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara looks like a weathered Native American chief in civvies. He has the aura of a venerable sage; he speaks quietly, authoritatively, often candidly, and with a wry twist of humour that delights his audiences. Two weeks ago he celebrated his 70th birthday by presenting a young local composer - 28-year-old Jani Kaaria - with the kind of scholarship which, 40 years earlier, he himself had received via Jean Sibelius from the American Koussevitsky Foundation. Rautavaara used the money to study in New York; Kaaria - who has already completed an opera - will go to Miami.

"Jani is very obstinate," says Rautavaara, with a knowing nod of the head, "because instead of following exactly what his teachers taught him, he has forged his own way. He has much to learn - and it's important to give the scholarship to someone who has much to learn. But he also has an urge to follow his own path. That too is very important."

The night before the scholarship ceremony, fellow Finn Leif Segerstam conducted the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus in the world premiere of Rautavaara's concise choral epic, On the Last Frontier, with words adapted from the last section of Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. It is a big sound and an easy listen, a little like Vaughan Williams in choral mode, save for the change in climate. The audience's response was uncharacteristically instantaneous: an immediate standing ovation, something that Finns don't usually go in for.

But then it was only recently that Rautavaara's national reputation began to equal his high standing abroad. "It's the same old story," says Reijo Killunen, managing director of Finland's Ondine CD label. "No one is ever a prophet in his own country. The whole Rautavaara thing was born outside of Finland. Ten or so years ago, Rautavaara was recognised as an important composer, but he wasn't any better known than, say, Joonas Kokkonen, Aulis Sallinen or Erik Bergman. The current wave of enthusiasm started with Angel of Light, a piece that, when I heard it performed for the first time, struck me as potentially attractive for a wider public."

Killunen wasted no time in forging a fruitful professional relationship with a composer who has subsequently become a world-wide best-seller. Forthcoming attractions include a gritty Third Piano Concerto, written for Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Chatting to audience members at the renovated Finlandia Hall revealed a host of diverse reactions to the other Rautavaara work programmed at the concert: the earlier, equally mellifluous Adoration or Aphrodite. "Quite slow and comfortable... quite easy," said one; "a bit romantic, maybe a little too `even'," was another response, while a third thought the piece "typically Finnish". Killunen, on the other hand, thinks Finnish influences are secondary to a "cosmic" element. "Rautavaara's latest music doesn't go north, east or west," he says, "it goes upwards. There's no calculation to his style, no `grand plan' to pander to public taste. He is both sincere and uncompromising."

Rautavaara's celestial dreamscapes (quite different to the barbed modernism of his earliest pieces) provide nourishing food for the mind's theatre, a fact that was not lost on the Helsinki Philharmonic, which commissioned 500 local schoolchildren to draw or paint their own "Angels of Light". Many of their efforts hang in the Hall's spacious foyer: pregnant angels, boss-eyed devils, black angels against a setting sun, heroes battling a monster, crotchets and quavers around a ball of flame - dazzling images all of them, and sure evidence of the music's evocative powers.

Much of Rautavaara's music is highly pictorial. His biggest hit here is the Cantus Arcticus, or Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, in which taped birdsong enjoys an exquisitely modulated orchestral backdrop. As with Angel of Light and the grippingly dramatic Angels and Visitations, Segerstam - a Brahms lookalike with a delightfully outsize personality - has recorded the work for CD. Angels and Visitations even calls for a "lion's roar", which the leonine Segerstam was on hand to provide in person.

He refers to the "extraterrestrial" element in Rautavaara's music, though he's not averse to talking about his own two dozen symphonies - the latest of which dispense with the conductor altogether. Like Rautavaara and, indeed, Sibelius and the fledgeling Jani Kaaria, he's very much his own man. It seems that Finns relish a strong sense of personal identity. "Rautavaara is always Rautavaara", as Segerstam himself puts it. "You know his music, and you understand his style. It's like with Mahler. If you've done all the symphonies, you can also do the Tenth."

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