THE OTAVA MALE CHOIR
(VIGNETTES OF THE LAST 50+ YEARS)
The Otava choir was originally organized in 1938 by Finnish Vice-Consul Kosti Koivukoski as a mixed choir and was to be a Finnish cultural, politically neutral organization. Concerts and other performances held in the city and surrounding communities helped to support a variety of Finnish causes. Many of the practice sessions were held at the Koivukoski residence, homes of various members and at times at Port Arthur Collegiate and the Orange and True Blue Hall (no longer in existence). Records indicate concerts were held in Nipigon, Terrace Bay, Nolalu, Kakabeka Falls and Mokomon as well as in the twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William (now Thunder Bay).
Choir ranks began to dwindle by 1950, particularly in the sopranos and altos, so in 1951 a decision was made to establish an all-male chorus. Thus began our "Mieskuoro Otava" or Otava Male Choir, which has retained its all-male membership to this day. The choir has also maintained its political neutrality, as demonstrated in 1958 when it turned down an invitation to sing at a Progressive Conservative campaign rally.
Early records show that in 1952, Otava sang at a benefit concert held to raise funds for the Helsinki Olympics. Choir membership fees at this time were a whopping ten cents per annum but this fee was noted to be purely voluntary. In 1956 admission to the spring concert was sixty-five cents, and during one year in the fifties, the choir held a total of ten dances. Considering the astronomical membership fees and admission prices, one can readily see why this may have been financially very necessary. lt sure speaks well for the energy and commitment of the group.
In 1959, thirteen voices strong, Otava performed in Timmins at the Laulujuhlat (Song Festival, actually Laulu, Urheilu, Osuustoiminta (LUO) Juhlat) as they were then commonly called. Having not yet acquired choir uniforms, the men wore white shirts and dark trousers for the performance. To assist with travel costs, each man received the sum of ten dollars from the choir's coffers.
However, anyone who follows the stock market for several years knows that investors can experience some very good years as well as some lean years. So it has been for Otava. As late as 1971 we experienced a somewhat lean period. We invested our time and efforts, (as well as that of our wives who made all the lunches) for a Choir Concert at the Finlandia Club. The return on this investment? - total net proceeds, twenty-five cents.
The first choir uniforms were purchased in 1962 and the Otava crest, designed by Ilmari Murtokorpi in 1963 was then affixed to the jackets. The crest has undergone some changes, redesigned by Pertti Raty in 1968 and finally modified to its present form in 1974. The Otava banner was also designed by Murtokorpi in 1963, and sewn for the choir by Tilda Tuomi, wife of one of the members.
Our first participation in the Male Choir Days event took place in Toronto in 1962. Here the combined chorus totaled a magnificent 200 voices. Since then, we have been represented at each of these events. We have had the privilege of hosting Male Choir Days on four occasions.
Another facet of choir activities, and that of our choir director, has been our participation in the concert tours of Finland arranged by the Finnish Male Singers of North America. This participation began as early as 1956 at which time Kaarlo Karttunen was the lone member representing Otava on the initial Amerikan Laulajat tour. Since the beginning of the Finland tours, the following number of Otava members have been in the Amerikan Laulajat ranks; 1956 - 1 member; 1964 - 5 members; 1971 - 8 members; 1978 - 17 members; 1983 - 8 members; 1988 - 9 members; 1992 - 6 members; 1996 - 8 members; and 2002 - 4 members.
From 1978 to 1996 Anja Haavisto has accompanied the choirs on each concert tour as one of the directors. Anja received the prestigious title of Director Cantus in 1994. Awarded by the President of Finland, the presentation was made by a representative of the Finnish Embassy at the Finnish Canadian Grand Festival in Thunder Bay.
Otava became a member of the Finlandia Club in 1967. lt was during this same year we purchased the "Jussi" vests and "hela vyöt" (belts) along with the traditional "puukko" (knife) as an added accoutrement to the uniform.
A review of the seventies shows it to have been a rather varied and busy period. Activities included:
1970 - participation in "Sound of Men" concert with the Fort William Male Choir
and the Ukrainian Male Choir (individual and combined choir performances)
1971 - Otava concert in Virginia, MN, U.S.A.
- participation in Concert tour of Finland.
- purchase of burgundy uniform jackets which made their debut at the spring concert.
A burgundy blazer is still part of the choir uniform today.
1975 - concert trip to Florida by 23 singers.
1977 - participation in "Invitational Big Sing" at Fort William Gardens.
This included male choirs from all northern states performing individually and as a combined chorus.
1978 - participation in Finland Concert tour.
1979 - three Church concerts in Thunder Bay
1979 - participation in Male Choir Days in Florida at which time Otava accepted the role of Executive of the Finnish Male Singers of North America.
The foregoing merely highlights some of the choir s activities but is by no means all-inclusive. For example, the choir has had representation at the annual Finnish Canadian Grand Festivals, and has performed at each of the local Finnish Independence Day and Estonian Independence Day celebrations.
Other annual events have included Christmas season performances at a number of local churches and other holiday gatherings. Over the years Otava has also sung at Folklore Festivals both locally and in Dryden, at seniors' homes, hospitals, shopping malls, on local television as well as the public broadcasting television station in Duluth, Minnesota, and at the local midsummer festivities sponsored by the Kiikurit (Finnish Folk Dancers).
In 1981 the choir attended the Male Choir Days in Los Angeles. It was here our Otava Quartet won first place in the quartet competitions being held for the first time. Since then our quartet has won first place another four times - a well-deserved honour by this talented group that has become so well-known around Thunder Bay. Keep on singing, boys!
The year 1983 was memorable in that we organized the first St. Urho's Day celebration here in Thunder Bay. The official date selected was March 16 (the day before St. Patrick's Day) and this celebration has been held every year since - a source of friendly rivalry with our Irish friends. St Urho's Day has attracted the attention of media both locally, nationally and internationally and draws visitors from near and far. Official colours for the day are royal purple and nile green and the main menu items are "kala mojakka" (fish soup) and "suolakala" (saltfish) sandwiches. Falling on the heels of a long winter, it's time for fun and laughter as shamrocks and grasshoppers vie for prominence in and on establishments around town.
1983 was also the year that the choir agreed a Scrapbook should be compiled to chronicle choir activities over the years. This has now been done and for the terrific job of compiling these books we owe our thanks and gratitude to Sirkka Tuomisto and her late husband, Heimar.
In 1984 we recorded our first cassette, a copy of which has been placed in the time capsule in the cornerstone of the Thunder Bay Multicultural Centre, to be opened in sixty years time. (Kind of neat to think of Otava being heard so many years from now.)
It was in 1984 that we once again joined the Fort William Male Choir in a concert "The Sound of Men '84." Choirs performed individually and combined, directed by Kendall House and Anja Haavisto.
In addition to hosting Male Choir Days, it has been our pleasure to host a number of musical groups and choirs from Finland; the Aikamiehet, Espoon Mieskuoro, Köyhät Ritarit, and the Finnair Choir to name only a few. Old friendships were renewed, new friends were made and all were musically enriched by these events. Our summer "Suomi Vieras" or "Finnish Visitor" dances, held for a number of successive years, proved to be quite popular with locals and their visitors. All seemed oblivious to the heat (no air conditioning) as they energetically "tangoed" and "stomped" around the packed dance floor.
Four of our members received special awards in 1985. Pentti Hirvonen, Pentti Junni, Heimar Tuomisto and Lauri Maijala were presented with the coveted "Kukko Merkki" pins attesting to successful completion of the requirements established by the Male Choir Association of Finland - memorizing one's part, both words and music, to 40 songs. We should also note that Pentti Hirvonen has been with the choir continuously since 1956 and Pentti Junni since 1958, commendable records indeed.
More awards accrued in 1987 when Maino Mannila, Niilo Saari and Eric Hautala were presented with "Kukko Merkki" pins while attending Male Choir Days in Sudbury - a praiseworthy accomplishment by these faithful choristers. The year 1987 was also marked by the opportunity to perform for the visiting Tellervo Koivisto, wife of the then President of Finland. Such opportunities don't just crop up every day.
Actually, the 1980's seemed to be the time for awards. In 1988, our Director, Anja Haavisto received the Distinguished Citizen Award from the City of Thunder Bay. It was in 1988 that we decided to purchase the bright red pullover sweaters as an addition to our uniforms. It was felt this would add a bit of brightness to our Christmas season performances.
The 1990's started with a bang when Matti Rissanen, (then a member of our choir) successfully completed requirements for the "Mestari Merkki" (master singer) designation. Matti, the only choir member in North America to achieve this honour, received a beautiful lapel pin (bearing the design of a rooster wearing a golden crown) attesting to his special achievement. Well done, Matti!
A couple of noteworthy events occurred in 1992. The Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra held a concert featuring the music of Sibelius. Otava, together with the Oras ladies choir and the Symphony Chorus sang the "Finlandia" hymn for the closing number - a moving performance as attested to by the standing ovation which followed.
As Finland was celebrating 75 years of independence in 1992, local Finns organized a Finlandia Ball to mark this special anniversary. The ball was held at Lakehead University where both the Otava Quartet and the Pelimanni Orchestra (in which several of our members play) distinguished themselves with an excellent performance. Guests enjoyed a great dinner, an address by Peter Nygard and an evening of dancing to good music - a truly elegant affair.
In February of 1994, the Auditorium rang with "Nordic Voices," a concert at which Otava, together with a visiting Swedish Chorus, the Oras, and the Symphony Chorus again performed "Finlandia." Following the concert we hosted a reception for all the performers at the Finlandia Club.
The World Nordic Ski Championships were held in Thunder Bay in 1995 and we had the honour of singing at the medal presentation ceremonies.
Our 1995 St. Urho's Day celebrations were also marked by an Olympic-class event - a "kickmobile" (potkukelkka) race between the Mayors of Thunder Bay and our sister city, Seinajoki, Finland. Who won? - The Mayor of Seinajoki! Perhaps one day St. Urho's Day will become a paid holiday and kickmobile races a part of the Winter Olympics (just some Otava optimism).
In 1996, we once again had the opportunity of singing with the Thunder Bay Symphony Chorus. We always came away from such shared experiences with renewed interest and enthusiasm.
In 1997 Otava was asked by the Executive of the Finnish Male Singers of North America to accept responsibility for arranging for storage of all its records and memorabilia here in Thunder Bay. Several of our members spent considerable time reviewing mountains of historical data and artifacts. Arrangements were made for display of some materials in the Finlandia Club Heritage Room and storage of other records at the Lakehead University Library.
In 1999, an "Exemplary Choir Member" plaque was designed for and given to the choir by Heimar Tuomisto, - this plaque to be presented annually to a deserving member selected by the membership. By unanimous vote the plaque was first awarded posthumously to Heimar, and presented to his wife Sirkka at our Spring Concert 2000.
Our major contribution to millennium celebrations was our participation in the Finn Grand Fest held in Toronto in July 2000, an event members will long fondly remember.
As was done in the early years, we have continued to support and donate to a number of institutions, organizations and causes through benefit concerts, guest performances, and a variety of fund-raising activities. Recipients of our support have included local Lutheran churches, Suomi Koti, St. Joseph's Heritage, the Community Auditorium, the Lakehead University Finnish Chair, and a number of other Finnish organizations.
As we look back over the years, we cherish many fond memories of those members who have departed from our earthly choir. For them we sang our last farewells. Among this group we remember a former choir member and ardent choir supporter, former Finnish Consul Art Kajander, at whose memorial service we sang at the request of his family.
No historical overview of the Otava choir would be complete without mention of our Ladies Auxiliary - the stalwart women that have stood by their men through thick and thin. This group, through their untiring efforts have kept us in sheet music, kept us well dressed, on time for practices and concerts and financially viable, if not wealthy. Not only have they faithfully made and served the lunches at our concerts, but have cheerfully provided tasty banquets for a number of receptions for visiting choirs, for our Christmas parties, and for any number of choir-sponsored activities such as St. Urho's Day. They have haunted the city malls selling raffle tickets, have baked by the truckload for bake sales, spent many a night on crafts for bazaars, and made and collected hundreds of items for flea markets. One year they manufactured out of yarn and fabric a total of 1,000 mini dolls, "Humppilan Miina." These were distributed to the various Finnish choirs for sale to raise funds for the Finnish Male Singers of North America. Frequent behind-the-scenes-activities have included the sewing on of a button just before a concert, the letting out of a too-tight waistband here and there, the straightening of a tie, even the provision of twist-ties for those who forgot their cufflinks (these work just fine - but don't look too classy!). In addition to these numerous and greatly varied activities, they have never failed to applaud the loudest and the longest, or to add a "well done, boys" after each performance. To the ladies for their moral and very significant financial support the choir owes and offers a heart-felt "Thank You!"
In these latter years membership has grown more in girth than in numbers, and our ladies support group has dwindled not only in numbers but in vim, vigor and steam. The choir's "economic analysts" are once again issuing profit (or is that prophet) warnings, and predict an "economic slowdown" in the very near future. However, a few of our "eternal optimists" are confident there is life in us old boys yet and that Otava will experience a "soft landing" and nowhere near a full-blown recession.
We conclude these vignettes with a look back at past choir directors, presidents, and membership totals.
Ruth Kuokkanen 1951-56; Vieno Rita 1957-58; Ruth Kuokkanen 1959-62; Armas Laakso 1963 (Jan-Feb); Anja Haavisto 1963-75; Olavi Roinila 1976 (Jan-Aug); Anja Haavisto 1976-present
K. Tolvanen, I. Paukkunen, J. Niemela, E. Kuokkanen, I. Murtokorpi, V. Parviainen, A. Tuomi, M. Mannila, R. Raty, H. Tuomisto, P. Hirvonen, R. Erkkila, T. Miettinen, E. Hautala, J. Sjoholm, P. Roininen, M. Harju (present)
1950's: 15-26, 1960's: 25-32, 1970's: 25-32, 1980's: 32-35 , 1990's: 16-22, 2000's: 18-23