1950s laureate now in her 90s
The Maj Lind Piano Competition was still just a small-scale event in the 1950s, open only to students at the Sibelius Academy. After the sixth competition, it began being held every other year.
No first prize was awarded at the fifth Sibelius Academy Maj Lind Piano Competition (October 27–28, 1950). The second prize of 40,000 marks (nowadays equivalent to about €1,500) went to Sirkka Harjunmaa. The newest member of the Jury was Kurt Walldén (1906–1979), who was both a pianist and a district court judge.
The competition was an all-ladies’ event. Taking part with Sirkka Harjunmaa were Liisa Karttunen, Maija-Liisa Liikkanen, Anna-Liisa Mäki and Kerstin Pettersson. The repertoire was all-male: the compulsory B&Bs were Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Flat and Beethoven’s Sonata in E Flat op. 31, no. 3. As her elective piece, Sirkka Harjunmaa played Brahms’s Scherzo in E-flat Minor.
Sirkka Harjunmaa (née Rytkönen, b. 1926) lives in Helsinki. When she took part in the competition, she was 24 years old and five months pregnant with her second child. A pupil of Ilmari Hannikainen, she had come down from Tornio in Northern Finland to study at the Sibelius Academy five years earlier. After obtaining her piano diploma in 1952, she went on to study composition and orchestration. Her debut concert in 1961 was followed by two more recitals at the Sibelius Academy and by nine solo appearances with orchestras in other parts of Finland. Her most recent public performance was with the Lauttasaari Orchestra in Helsinki, as the soloist in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Sirkka Harjunmaa retired from her lectureship at the Sibelius Academy in 1995.
The sixth Maj Lind Piano Competition was held on October 12–13, 1951, in the autumn before the Helsinki Olympics. There were three competitors: Arja Forsman, Matti Rauhala and Paavo Soinne. The new name on the Jury was Rolf Bergroth (1909–1995), who taught the piano for many years at the Sibelius Academy. Standing in for the secretary was Joonas Kokkonen (1921–1996), who had himself twice taken part in the competition. He had by then completed a BA degree, obtained a piano diploma and studied composition with Aarre Merikanto.
Arja Forsman was proclaimed the winner. The prize was worth 75,000 marks (nowadays equivalent to about €2,400), and for her elective programme she played Debussy’s La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune and Feux d’artifice. The compulsory B&Bs were Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in F-sharp Minor (DWK II) and Beethoven’s Sonata in E Flat op. 27, no. 1.
Arja Forsman (1928–2004) was 23 when she won the competition. For a while she had a career as a pianist and recorded for the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle). While on a trip to Switzerland, where she studied with Nikita Magalov, she met and married Francis Charbonnet, an industrialist. Their home was in time blessed with the addition of two grand pianos, a 12-stop domestic organ and three children. Arja also played the organ, having studied it with Guy Bovet.
No competition was held in 1952.
Three pianists entered for the seventh Maj Lind Piano Competition on October 24, 1953: Meri Louhos, Vuokko Skarén and Arja Sohlberg. The compulsory works were Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D Minor and Beethoven’s Sonata in F Sharp op. 78.
The Jury was now joined by Veikko Helasvuo, MA (1916–1993) and the winner was Arja Sohlberg, who played Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor op. 23 as her elective work.
Arja Sohlberg (b. 1932) was 20 when she won the competition and a student of Ilmari Hannikainen. She then went on to study with Vlado Perlemuter at the Paris Conservatoire and the following autumn gave her debut concert in Helsinki. She was the soloist with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and appeared in concerts around Finland. She played the last concert of her admirable concert career in 1964. Four years after her Maj Lind victory she married Kari Kairamo, later Director of Nokia. They had in fact first met at a piano recital given by Timo Mikkilä. In the 1960s, the family lived in Brazil, and for the first three months in São Paulo they were unable to find a piano either to buy or to hire. Life became easier when they moved to New York, where Arja studied privately as a pupil of Beveridge Webster, then a Professor at the Juilliard. She made her first TV appearances while in New York and collaborated with such artists as Anita Välkki, Pekka Nuotio and Tom Krause when they were guesting at the Metropolitan Opera. On returning to Finland, Arja Sohlberg taught at the Sibelius Academy from 1981 until her retirement in 1995.
No competition was held in 1954.
Pilot TV transmissions began in Finland in 1955. The film The Unknown Soldier directed by Edvin Laine was first shown in cinemas.
The new member of the Jury for the eighth Maj Lind Piano Competition held on October 22, 1955 was Yrjö Selin (1894–1965). Only two pianists took part: Ritva Antila-Seppä and Ethel Ruotsalo. One witness reported that the backstage list of competitors was much longer but that those who were pupils of Ernst Linko did not show up. Ritva Antila-Seppä (b. 1930) was a pupil of Margaret Kilpinen.
According to the minutes, the situation led to some serious discussion in the Jury: “The Jury considered the overall standard of the performances, especially of the compulsory assignments, so poor that the question of whether any prizes could be awarded was raised. But because the Rules do not allow for such a contingency, it was decided that the Maj Lind prize would be awarded without any score assessment to the seemingly stronger contestant Ritva Antila-Seppä. The decision was unanimous.” The Chairman of the Jury was Ernst Linko. Did he forbid his pupils to take part rather than disqualifying himself from the Jury? Or did he doubt whether his own pupils were up to the standard of Ritva Antila-Seppä and Ethel Ruotsalo? In those days, there was open and bitter scheming among members of juries.
The prize was worth 65,000 marks (nowadays equivalent to about €2,000).
No competition was held in 1956.
1957 began with the first New Year’s Day speech by Urho Kekkonen, who would be President of Finland for the next 25 years. Jean Sibelius died in the autumn.
The ninth Maj Lind Piano Competition coincided with the 75th anniversary of the Sibelius Academy, and once again there were only two competitors. The winner was Tellervo Ravila.
Tellervo Ravila (1935–2015) was 22 when she won the competition and she obtained her piano diploma in the same year. She had begun her piano studies in Turku as a pupil of Astrid Joutseno and taught the piano at the Sibelius Academy from 1957 to 1961. A soloist with the Finnish Radio Symphony, the Helsinki Philharmonic and other orchestras, she also recorded for the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle). Further study led her to Leningrad, and then to New York, where she met her future husband, Gustav Bayerle. Her last public performance in Finland was in 1963, after which she never lived permanently in Finland. Instead, she settled in Bloomington, Indiana, where her husband was a Professor. Tellervo was a piano teacher for the Bloomington Teachers’ Association, a member of Indiana and US piano teachers’ associations and a lecturer. Her hobbies were the visual arts, literature, sewing and cooking, and she died in Indianapolis at the age of 80.
No competition was held in 1958.
A statue (by Wäinö Aaltonen) of former Finnish President K.J. Ståhlberg was unveiled in front of the Parliament building, opposite the entrance to what is now the Helsinki Music Centre. A month before, only a stone’s throw from the statue, Finnish pop fans had been treated to a mega-event when Paul Anka appeared at Linnanmäki Amusement Park to an audience of 25,000.
There was only one contestant – Barbro Bergqvist – for the tenth Maj Lind Piano Competition, and she received a prize. Petri Sariola wrote in a blog about the ‘missing piano ladies’: “All in all, there weren’t many advanced piano students at the Sibelius Academy at that time. – It posed something of a problem for the Jury: can any prize be awarded if there hasn’t been any competition? Barbro Bergqvist played her repertoire with great proficiency. I particularly remember her assured and unfaltering performance of Chopin’s D-minor Prelude. Rolf Bergroth quipped: ‘She’s poor, she needs the money.’”
Barbro Bergqvist (b. 1939) was 19 when she took part in the competition. The fact that she was the only competitor came as a great surprise and she only realised this was so on the day of the competition. Barbro had entered the junior department of the Sibelius Academy when she was eight to study with Clara Grenman. Later, her teachers were Rolf Bergroth and Timo Mikkilä, and she obtained her diploma in 1962. She also studied in the school music department. Her career as a pianist was to be short. After being the soloist with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3, she decided to dedicate herself to teaching, taught music in schools and was principal of Tammisaari Music School (nowadays the Raseborg Music Institute). In 1998 she moved to Norway, where she worked as a choir leader.
Text: Katri Maasalo
Sources: Essay (in Finnish) by Petri Sariola on Arja Forsman and Barbro Bergqvist: The Enigma of the Missing Piano Ladies (16.2.2016); Obituary (in Finnish) of her sister Tellervo Ravila by Salme Kurki, Helsingin Sanomat 14.6.2015