The Helsinki Music Centre Concert Hall Organ – an unparalleled work of art

The Helsinki Music Centre will soon receive a handcrafted Rieger Concert Hall organ in its concert hall. The instrument will be completed during the fall of 2023 and brought into play on 1 January 2024. A truckload of instrument parts has just arrived on the orchestra stage for this summer’s construction work. In this interview, two organists and Church Music faculty members, Jan Lehtola and Pekka Suikkanen at the Sibelius Academy of Uniarts Helsinki, tell the story of the long-awaited instrument.

Harald Schwartz and Wendelin Eberle 2020 Illustrative drawing of the Helsinki Music Centre Concert Hall Organ

At the construction phase of the Helsinki Music Centre (which opened in 2011), a space was designed for a concert organ. It was the aspiration of the resident symphony orchestras, as organ is included in many works as an orchestral instrument. However, for budgetary reasons, the building of a concert organ was delayed, and an electric organ has been used in the Concert Hall to this date.

Jan Lehtola, university lecturer in Church Music at the Sibelius Academy’s Kuopio unit, talks about the first critical step that changed the course of events in 2015.

“In March 2015, I played Kaija Saariaho’s “Shadows of the Earth” Finnish premiere at the Radio Symphony Orchestra’s concert at the Helsinki Music Centre. Performed with an electric organ, the work was crushed in critiques. Even before that, I had outlined some ideas for an organ project, and in an article in the Rondo magazine, argued that we need one party to provide an economic basis to build an organ in the Concert Hall”, Lehtola says.

The necessary foundation was laid two years later, in 2017, when composer Kaija Saariaho donated one million euros to the Helsinki Music Centre Foundation to acquire an organ. Saariaho is an organist by background; organ was one of her early instruments at the Helsinki Conservatory.

Saariaho’s donation was followed by additional funding from the City of Helsinki, the Ministry of Education and Culture and foundations. In addition, a campaign organised by the Helsinki Music Centre Foundation has raised more than 200,000 euros in donations from citizens.

An instrument that fills the space

The Concert Hall organ will be an exceptional instrument with 124 registers and state-of-the-art technology. The Austrian Rieger Orgelbau crafts the organ by hand. In terms of size, it will be one of the largest contemporary concert hall organs in the world.

“The acoustics are promising. Normally, the acoustics of a concert hall are unfavourable to organ, but in the Helsinki Music Centre, it seems to be the opposite. The instrument fills the concert hall and comes close to the audience, to the listener’s skin”, Lehtola rejoices.

The organ will suit myriad genres: old music, symphony music, modern music – both alone and with an ensemble and a full orchestra.

“In addition, the organ gets an unprecedented monumental façade that the builder calls sculpture. Its design language changes the image of the entire instrument”, says Pekka Suikkanen, a lecturer in Church Music at the Sibelius Academy.

“It is an unparalleled work of visual art making the Concert Hall a design living room of a new era. On Instagram, it will give inspiration for many and make Helsinki known in a novel way,” Jan Lehtola foresees.

The Helsinki Music Centre Concert Hall organ in construction
Pekka Suikkanen: Concert Hall Organ in construction in the summer of 2021

An instrument with two consoles – one with a surprise

The building of the organ has taken place during the summers, always after the concert season has slowed down. The work began with preparations for the structures in the summer of 2019. The first actual parts of the organ arrived at the concert hall last summer. A fresh truckload of instrument parts was recently received for this summer’s construction work.

“Above the orchestra stage, there is a hollow where the frame structures and the largest pipes of the back of the organ were installed last year. This summer, the structures will expand a couple of meters outward to the Concert Hall side. The visible part consists of an organ cabinet and 3D-printed front pipes” says Pekka Suikkanen.

As a specialty, the organ has two consoles, one mechanically attached to the organ and the other to be placed freely on stage. The movements of the keyboards are transmitted to the organ electronically.

“The organ factory will keep the layout of the mobile console a surprise. It’s exciting to see the outcome as Rieger has used some pretty bold designs. The most stirring phase for the manufacturer is when the last pipe installations are done in the summer of 2023 and the pipes have been voiced and the sound is in balance. That’s when we get the final ‘playing picture’ of the organ”, Lehtola says.

The same manufacturer has recently delivered a new organ to Gothenburg – but also the first concert organ in Helsinki, to the R Building of the Sibelius Academy in the 1930s.

“The circle closes as they now return to Helsinki almost a hundred years later to build the organ of the Helsinki Music Centre”, Suikkanen sums up. He has taught at the Sibelius Academy since 1981. From 1984 to 2014, Suikkanen also worked as an organist at the Old Church in Helsinki.

A living instrument for everyone to play

From the opening in 2024, the organ is meant to be a living part of the Music Centre’s activities and at the heart of concert life. For this purpose, the group of experts responsible for the organ building established an association in the autumn of 2019, the “Play the Organ Association” operating under the auspices of the Helsinki Music Centre Foundation.

The association is responsible for the use of the organ after its delivery, organising and producing concerts and new music.

“The residents of the Helsinki Music Centre, the general managers of the orchestras and the foundations want the organ to be played and serve the entire cultural field. It is a living instrument that everyone can play. All this time, we have had a great spirit of organising things, building cooperation and raising resources for future activities” Lehtola says.

The first major effort is the International Kaija Saariaho Organ Composition Competition, which ends on 29 October 2022. The competition is open to everyone, regardless of age or nationality. The new works – about 30 concerts – will play in the Concert Hall throughout the opening year of 2024.

“The new instrument revolutionises organ composition. We find new music. We don’t know what it is yet – we will find out when the organ is playing”, says Lehtola.

The concert Hall organ in construction
Pekka Suikkanen: Concert Hall Organ in construction in the summer of 2021

An instrument that transforms organ music studies

The new organ also creates a different dimension to organ music studies and international cooperation at the Sibelius Academy.

“We will immediately integrate our organ music students into the concert hall world. Together with the Academy Symphony Orchestra, we will organise concert periods for which organ music students can apply as soloists. Daily practice time is also important for students – but also for the organ. It stays in the best condition when it is played a lot”, Lehtola says.

“Our top musicians will soon be able to play the large stage organ here in Finland. During my own studies, we reached out to all over Europe, for example, for authentic baroque organs to learn more about organ music and ways of playing it. The organ stock in Finland has diversified so that it is no longer necessary to go abroad, and the large concert hall organ in our own educational institution is expanding the selection of instruments to a whole new level”, says Suikkanen.

All in all, the Helsinki Music Centre is an exceptional study environment, a subject of wonder for many international students.

“We work in a wonderful institution – the Helsinki Music Centre – this alone is a specialty. Nowhere else can you study like here. That is also one of the reasons why we are one of the best music schools in the world”, says Lehtola.

The sum of many happy things

The construction of the organ in the Concert Hall is an exceptional project for Finnish organ music. Worldwide, concert hall organs are currently being built in the Far East, across Europe and China.

“All the major concert halls come with a great organ. The organ of the Helsinki Music Centre raises Finland to the organ world map: a wonderfully sounding instrument that looks personal in a magnificent hall. Many concert halls are recognised for their organs – for example, the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s organ façade that resembles French fries”, says Pekka Suikkanen.

“This story has a happy ending. I owe it to Kaija Saariaho that the instrument will be successful and that it will be used. Now we need action – and that is coming”, says Lehtola.

* * *

Jan Lehtola and Pekka Suikkanen have worked in the Expert Group responsible for the organ building of the Helsinki Music Centre since its establishment in 2017. The group is chaired by organ artist Olli Porthan, Professor of Organ Music and at the Sibelius Academy.

Learn more about the Helsinki Music Centre Organ here.



  • Construction of the Helsinki Music Centre begins
  • Organ Expert Group sketches space and facade plans for the Concert Hall organ


  • Organ project is suspended for budgetary reasons


  • Helsinki Music Centre is opened on 31 August 2011


  • Kaija Saariaho donates one million euros for the organ of the Concert Hall
  • City of Helsinki, the Ministry of Education and Culture and foundations provide additional funding
  • Helsinki Music Centre Foundation sets up an Expert Group responsible for the organ building
  • Helsinki Music Centre Foundation launches a donation campaign for the organ


  • Contract for the construction of the organ with Rieger Orgelbau is signed


  • Play the Organ Association is established to be responsible for the live use of the instrument
  • Preparations for the organ structures begin in the summer in the Concert Hall


  • Construction of the instrument begins in Austria
  • International Kaija Saariaho Organ Composition Competition organ composition competition opens in March
  • Preparations for the organ structures continue in the summer in the Concert Hall


  • The first concrete parts of the organ arrive at the Helsinki Music Centre in the summer and the parts are installed in the Concert Hall


  • The donation campaign has raised more than 220,000 euros to provide resources for the active use of the instrument
  • The organ’s 10,000 pipes and machinery arrive at the Concert Hall for construction work


  • Results of the organ composition competition are announced
  • The organ’s sound is balanced and its façade built in the summer
  • The organ is tested for the last three months


  • Opening ceremony of the Helsinki Music Centre Concert Hall Organ on 1 January 2024
  • A TV documentary about the birth of the organ is published