What does it mean to be Finnish in contemporary America? That’s the question FinnFest USA sets out to answer every year.
Founded in 1982 in Minneapolis, the 35-year-old nonprofit has staged annual celebrations in dozens of U.S. cities, always with an eye to Finnish-American history and culture.
The festival returns to its Minneapolis roots this year for an especially weighty occasion: marking the moment 100 years ago when the Grand Duchy of Finland cast aside the shackles of Russian domination, declaring itself an independent nation. Joining the party will be Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, whose visit marks a major coup for Minnesota’s FinnFest planners.
“We moved heaven and Earth to convince him this was the place to be,” said Marianne Wargelin, Finland’s honorary consul in Minneapolis. “The president chose to come here because it is a strongly Nordic community. Because Minnesota is a place where Nordic immigrants were welcomed, where their culture was given a place of respect and visibility.”
In addition to workshops, lectures and demonstrations on subjects as varied as politics, rug weaving and saunas, the four-day celebration boasts strong contributions from the Twin Cities arts community.
Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra’s Finnish music director, leads the festival’s marquee cultural event: Friday and Saturday evening performances of Finnish orchestral works, including Jean Sibelius’ Second Symphony.
“This music is what Osmo lives and breathes,” said Kevin Smith, the Minnesota Orchestra’s president and CEO. “We really feel we can play this repertoire as good or better than any orchestra in the world.”
7 best FinnFest events
1. Bus Tour to Cokato, Minn.
Located 50 miles west of Minneapolis, Cokato (pop. 2,700) is the nation’s oldest continuous Finnish community. FinnFest offers a bus trip with guided visits to historic churches and even a stop at the TyloHelo sauna factory. The tour also includes a picnic lunch of Finnish pasties. (8:15 a.m.-4 p.m. Thu., $30, finnfest.us)
2. ‘Tale of a Lake’
Finland, like Minnesota, is a land of lakes — well over 50,000 of them. Finnish director Marko Röhr’s beautifully filmed documentary “Järven Tarina” (“Tale of a Lake”) tells their story, with many wonderful images of the animals that live there. Röhr and cinematographer Teemu Liakka will attend the screenings. (7 p.m. Thu., 1 p.m. Sat.; St. Anthony Main Theatre, Mpls. $7-$10, stanthonymaintheatre.com)
3. Traditional Finnish supper
Pannukakku is a Finnish pancake. Eat it here with pea soup for an authentically Finnish experience, with traditional Finnish music provided by Twin Cities-based Finn Hall. (5 p.m. Thu., Danish American Center, Mpls. $5-$16 at door.)
4. Vänskä conducts Sibelius
Not only is Vänskä a proud Finn, he’s one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Sibelius. Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra play the composer’s Second Symphony along with works by Kalevi Aho and Jaakko Kuusisto. (8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Orchestra Hall, Mpls. $12-$79; 612-371-5656, minnesotaorchestra.org.)
Tori means “marketplace” in Finnish. And this year’s FinnFest tori focuses on crafts by Finnish-American artisans. Writers, painters, weavers and designers will exhibit their wares, with a different music group providing entertainment each hour. (Fri.-Sat., Orchestra Hall and Peavey Plaza, Mpls. Free.)
6. ‘The Reading Room’
Finnish writer Ann Toumi’s one-act play “The Reading Room” is set in 1968 in the Duluth City Library, focusing on the story of two Finnish men whose dreams as American immigrants dissolve into homelessness and isolation. Theatre Fiasko from Finland’s North Karelia region gives two performances, one in Finnish, the other in English. (10 a.m. Fri. in Finnish, 11 a.m. Sat. in English; Orchestra Hall Atrium, Mpls. $5 at door.)
7. Finlandia Forever
The VocalEssence Ensemble Singers celebrate Finnish independence with “Finlandia Forever,” a concert featuring music by Sibelius, Rautavaara, Mäntyjärvi and Saariaho — plus Vänskä guesting on clarinet. (4 & 7 p.m. Sun., American Swedish Institute, Mpls. $40, 612-371-5656, vocalessence.org.)
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.