An intimate exploration of Nordic and American songs, an adventurous collaboration between Juilliard School and Sibelius Academy

Brian Zeger, Director of Vocal Arts at Juilliard School, and Markus Lehtinen, Professor of Opera at Uniarts Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy bring together young vocalists and pianists from both institutions to perform a repertoire of classical Nordic and contemporary American pieces in Helsinki and New York City.

Photos by Karoliina Pirkkanen and Jared Slater Markus Lehtinen and Brian Zeger

The artistic and educational exchange between Juilliard School and Sibelius Academy is the culmination of a long-held vision cultivated by Brian Zeger and Markus Lehtinen.

“Our discussions have centered around the idea of uniting vocalists in smaller, intimate settings, diverging from the typical large-scale collaborations involving hundreds of performers and a single performance,” Markus Lehtinen says.

The new programme concept involves two vocalists and a pianist from each school.

“It’s a select group of individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds, each technically skilled and motivated to work with the material with openness and curiosity. The pianists are working with the singers from the other institution,” Brian Zeger says.

“The central idea is to open up their worlds, awakening awareness in each other’s cultures and educational processes. We’re talking about young people getting new landscapes, new ways of working with the material. It’s an adventurous approach.”

An open space for interpretations

The group had its initial meeting online in early April. Before coming together for the first time in Finland, the students are learning the music, languages, and styles of repertoire with coaches from both sides.

“The pandemic taught us that some things, like language study, can be done online. Just this week, Martina Roos from the Sibelius Academy was coaching our students in Swedish on Zoom,” Zeger says.

“We’re also about to bring the American composers in, all three of them involved in music education. They contribute contemporary works to our repertoire, including music that was written very recently.”

In May 2024, all the students travel to Kallio-Kuninkala, to workshop and rehearse the work in an iconic cultural milieu located in Järvenpää, Finland, also renowned as the site of composer Jean Sibelius’ historical home.

“We’re facilitating genuine exchanges of ideas on vocal topics and experimenting with diverse interpretations, which are all valid,” Markus Lehtinen says. “None of us knows how the repertoire develops in our small group. Every person is equally important, and there is no standard interpretation. It’s really healthy for everyone.”

The first performance is scheduled to take place at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki on 24 May 2024. The group will reconvene in New York City for a concert on 13 September 2024.

Embracing the feeling of not knowing

For Brian Zeger, this collaboration marks his first visit to Helsinki and Finland.

“You can’t pick up the New York Times without seeing an article about conductor Klaus Mäkelä. Sibelius Academy has a great reputation, and you have an incredible richness in music education,” Zeger says. “I have an open canvas. I’m eager to learn fresh and challenging approaches to education from you. I’m looking forward to being surprised. I like the feeling of not knowing.”

“Juilliard is a big deal for our students. It’s great to study together and share what we both know about the repertoire,” Lehtinen says. “Pedagogically, I’m inclined away from replicating grand productions where we tend to be effective and work under a predefined framework of what is right and wrong. Small-scale collaborations can have a greater impact on our teaching and curriculum, how we think and work.”

“I hope this creative process will deepen the connection between our institutions, marking the beginning of a series of future collaborations in many inspiring forms,” Lehtinen concludes.

The collaboration is supported by Finlandia Foundation National and Finland’s Swedish Cultural Foundation.