For Jorma Silvasti, the 2009 Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition marks a return to the world of competitions. He last competed in 1982, then winning the Timo Mustakallio competition in Savonlinna, Finland. Art and competition, Silvasti says, can mix, although the idea is not without its contradictions. On the one hand, competitions offer welcome exposure to young artists. Then there are the financial considerations: the prize money may well be what enables the youngsters to continue to pursue their studies. On the other hand, Silvasti is conscious that, at the end of the day, the decision must often simply come down to a matter of taste.
"You cannot possibly profess to say who is the best soprano, tenor or bass in the world, he says. "In the competition, a group of very young and very talented singers must be ranked according to their performance. We, the jury, work independently, each of us forming our own opinion of what we are seeing and hearing. The only fair way of arriving at the final decision is to resort to maths, pure and simple."
A highly demanding form of expression, singing requires both excellent technique and psychological strength. Even seasoned professionals find their instrument a mystery. "Each performance is unique, influenced as it is by personal circumstances and emotions, even chance. Our role as the jury is to judge that one moment in time, the competition performance. This is when a group of very young, very talented people are giving it their absolute best.
"Winning in itself offers no guarantees whatsoever. It may be that those who finish second or third are in fact inspired by the defeat. A win is useful in that it does bring publicity but the real accolades are earned over time, during your professional career - and that is a much tougher nut to crack."
A balanced mix
International singing contests are themselves competing with one another for the best participants. A number of criteria can be applied to evaluate their performance: previous winners who have gone on to forge successful careers, the level of prize money on offer and the jury line-up. "I would say that the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition certainly offers an excellent overall package," Jorma Silvasti says.
Although traditional in its make up, the 2009 jury will also include a number of new faces. Some of the members continue to pursue active careers while some of the hugely experienced artists are already in retirement. "In 2009, we will see the average age of the jury drop considerably," Silvasti says. "I am confident that we have put together a balanced team capable of reaching excellent decisions.
"During the selection process, we were disappointed when a couple of potential jury members had to decline the invitation due to diary clashes. However, I am delighted to say that we are certainly not short on talent this year. It will be a genuine pleasure to work together with my esteemed colleagues!"
The Heart and Soul of the Competition
Jorma Silvasti knew Mirjam Helin personally. "It is a great loss indeed to no longer have her with us; she really was the heart and soul of this competition. What that will mean in practice and whether we will see the competition atmosphere change, we simply do not know," he says.
Mirjam Helin took an exceptionally keen interest in her protégés, both during and after the competition. She would often travel to see their performances, maintaining a busy correspondence with them. "Mirjam was almost like a mother-figure, caring for these children of music. She brought a certain softness and a real sense of humanity into the competition, Silvasti says.
"Although Mirjam is no longer in the audience, we have tried to follow her example and soften the atmosphere by offering family accommodation, master classes and many other opportunities for socialising. Not forgetting, of course, that this is a competition, first and foremost."
Jorma Silvasti is in no doubt that the 2009 Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition will be a hugely exciting and rewarding event for all involved - perhaps precisely because of its contradictory and yet creative mix of art and competition.
Text: Sini Koskimies
Photo: Heikki Tuuli