at FinnFest USA '99



By John Stephens


Airline employee chorus--celebrating its 50th anniversary--to take the stage at FinnFest USA '99, the seventeenth annual Finnish culture and heritage festival slated for July 22-25 in Seattle.

Among the many challenging features of Finnish language, for English speakers at least, is the commonly used verb "harrastaa." "To hobby" would be the direct translation, if English had such a verb. How many of you have been asked the question, "What are your hobbies?"-soon after being introduced to a relative or a new acquaintance from Finland. I suspect that many of us from North America might hesitate, wondering if couch potato would qualify. Others among us might answer conditionally, "Well, if I had more time I'd like to be involved with a singing group," or some other avocation.

The music program of FinnFest USA '99, to be held in Seattle on July 22-25, will feature the Finnair Singers (Finnairin laulajat), a classic example of the seriousness and success that Finns achieve through "hobbying." Members of Finnair Singers have been pursuing their singing hobby for 50 of the 75 years that their employer has been in the business of commercial aviation.

Finnair Singers traces its roots to a male choir formed in 1949 within Finnair (then known as Aero oy), at the initiative of its general manager Leonard Grandell. The choir's main objectives were to cultivate the hobby of singing and to perform on various occasions within the company. On one such occasion--Finnair's 50th Anniversary ball--the choir had a shortage of singers, an opportunity seized by female employees to petition membership. The organization responded quickly in 1974 by changing the 25-year male tradition to a mixed choir called Finnair Singers.

Accustomed to about 40 members, a recent recruiting effort to enlist tenors expanded the group's ranks to nearly 50 singers. Average tenure in the group lies somewhere between 10 and 15 years. Sirpa Uusiheimala, project manager for the Seattle engagement, commented, "If new members complete their first year, then they are likely to stay with it for many years."

What accounts for this singing tradition? According to Ahti Koponen, himself a 26-year veteran singer, "making music together is our hobby." Uusiheimala adds, "We enjoy being together. Many long-lasting friendships have been formed here." Both singers admit to experiencing a personal satisfaction that comes from the process leading to a well-performed program, as well as the enjoyment of entertaining co-workers and their families.

Finnair Singers is an independent organization with bylaws that limit membership to Finnair employees, though the conductor, pianist, and guest soloists are exempt from the requirement. This arrangement entitles the chorus to use its employer's name as part of its identity. Most of the company's departments contribute talent to the chorus. On Thursday evenings, mechanics, secretaries, pilots, programmers, engineers, flight attendants, and customer service representatives converge on Finnair headquarters, located on the perimeter of the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, to rehearse and "to hobby."

Koponen and Uusiheimala suspect that the chorus has few peer groups in the airline industry. The concept of a group of musicians within an airline is not unique, but Finnair Singers' longevity is; most similar organizations in other airlines have disbanded.

Each year the Finnair Singers perform at least two concerts internationally, one involving long-distance travel, for example its FinnFest debut in Florida in 1991, and a second engagement somewhat closer to home, such as last autumn's concert in Warsaw. In recent years the group has appeared in Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, Germany, Greece, Kenya, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. Usually the programs of these international concerts are geared to local Finnish communities.

At home, the chorus performs spring and Christmas concerts, as well as other appearances and company functions. The group's popular Christmas concert last year drew a capacity crowd to the Helsinki Cathedral. "The attendance was really gratifying, considering the many concert opportunities in Helsinki during the holiday season," Uusiheimala observed. Wanting to offer Christmas music to a wider public, the group follows the tradition of caroling in the transit halls of Helsinki-Vantaa Airport during the holidays.

Finnair Singers can boast six recordings to date, featuring selections from its repertoire of Finnish folk music, lighter pop tunes, and Christmas music. This year the chorus added Saturdays to its normal Thursday rehearsals in order to prepare for a spring recording of a new CD to be released in July.

Märt Krell serves as the conductor of Finnair Singers. A native of Tallinn, Estonia, the conductor received his musical foundations at Tallinn Music School, followed by training as a choir leader at the Estonia Music Academy, and a degree in choral conducting from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki in 1995. Since then, he has participated in master classes in choral and orchestral conducting with Eric Ericson and Jorma Panula, respectively. In Estonia, Krell was affiliated with the State Academic Male Choir and held the post of Choirmaster with the Estonia Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. In addition to Finnair Singers, Krell has conducted several choirs in Estonia and Finland.

Koponen emphasized that Finnair Singers is perhaps the best known of many hobby traditions within the company. Finnair employees weave a complex web of hobby group affiliations. Established interest groups range from darts, hockey, tennis, skiing, choral singing, to travel for which Finnair staff would seem to be well qualified. Uusiheimala, just about to leave on a Finnair Ski Club outing in the Italian Alps, confessed to membership in three other Finnair clubs.

The number of Finnair hobby groups has grown to 31 in recent years, so many that another group was formed with their hobby to track and chronicle the activities of the other 31 clubs. Together, this hotbed of hobbydom is known as "Finnairin harrastus kerhot r.y."

When Finnish acquaintances or relatives inquire about your hobbies, you now realize that they are not engaging in small talk. They will expect to hear about pleasurable pursuits resulting in lots of accomplishments, much like Finnair Singers.

For more information about FinnFest USA '99, the seventeenth annual festival celebrating Finnish culture and heritage, call 425-401-7000, or write to: 4122 - 128th Ave. SE, Suite 305, Bellevue, WA 98006. Program and registration information can be found at


FinnFest USA '99
4122 – 128th Ave. SE, Suite 305, Bellevue, WA 98006
Phone: (425) 401-7100   Fax: (425) 641-9983

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