- 19 Jul 2023 1:38 PM
Photo: Gyula Zaczfalvi
The close relationship between the Finnish and Hungarian languages is often mentioned in acknowledging their mutual difficulty, though the fact that they belong to the same language group does not mean Hungarians and Finns understand each other in practice. However, strong links have existed between the two nations in a language that requires no translation: music.
Anni Kallioniemi grew up in the small town of Kuusamo in northern Finland, “near Father Christmas,” she says. She then moved first to Oulu and then Helsinki to study. “My plan was to become a cello teacher, but I began to feel that maybe I’d like to learn more and perform more. Living in a small town, I didn’t realise how big the world is, in a way, and so I applied to study in Budapest as an exchange student for a semester.”
The fact that Anni’s brother had earlier studied in Budapest meant she had had previously been to Hungary. “When I visited, I just loved the city; I saw all those statues of Liszt and Kodály, and this was music I’d loved as a young musician – Hungarian music culture has always been a part of Finnish musical education. It’s very respected. And I saw here the streets and squares named after musicians – we didn’t have that where I’m from.”
Thus, in 2011, Anni arrived to study at the Liszt Academy. “I made lifelong friendships during those months here,” she says, “and I met Luke, who later became my husband. I studied the cello with Ottó Kertész, and chamber music with Gábor Csalog.”
She also met a violinist from Finland with whom she would later come to form TrioMe, together with a Finnish pianist. “That exchange visit opened a new door for me,” Anni says.
At the conclusion of her semester at the Zeneakadémia, Anni returned home, yet knowing that she wanted to go abroad once again. She applied, and was accepted, to complete a Masters in Copenhagen, where she subsequently went in 2013.
“I had a great couple of years, but Copenhagen is so expensive, I had to get a student job. I worked for an online, second-hand fashion shop – I learnt a lot about online marketing and social media…I didn’t realise then how useful that was going to be later.”
Anni’s relationship with Luke was ongoing, and together they decided she would return to Budapest where Luke was employed, and where Anni still had her musical connections.
“For the first couple of years, I did a lot of chamber music,” says Anni, “and I recorded with some bands – not just classical music – and I had a lot of cello students. But I had the feeling that I really wanted to work in an orchestra.”
The overriding message imparted to music students in Finland was that this path was the one to follow. It would provide a safe, regular salary – something of a luxury to musicians. Thus, Anni decided to audition with Hungarian orchestras, including the Savaria Symphony Orchestra. She had only meant this to be an initial practice audition since she had neither the intention nor possibility of decamping to Szombathely where the orchestra is based. However, they offered her a full-time post.
It transpired that the orchestra owned a flat in the town where Anni would be able to stay during the week to save commuting from Budapest, and so she accepted their offer. “They were super nice,” says Anni, “and there aren’t so many jobs, they’re very sought after and very competitive.”
So it was that Anni spent most Mondays and Tuesdays rehearsing with the orchestra in Szombathely, with Wednesdays given over to playing to children from local schools, and Thursdays and Fridays performing in concerts.
“Sometimes we would travel to Italy or Germany or Austria – we did a lot of concerts in Vienna, Graz and Salzburg – and in Budapest at MÜPA, the Vigadó and the Music Academy. They were so nice to me, they always put me in the concerts that were in Budapest, and they also made allowance for my chamber music concerts.”
Anni playing with the Savaria Symphony Orchestra
It was just as Anni’s three-month trial period with the orchestra was coming to an end, that a freakish accident occurred. “I was getting undressed for bed when I caught my finger in my jeans and broke it,” she explains. “I’d finally got a job in an orchestra, and I’d passed my trial period, and now I’d broken a finger on my left hand!”
Doctors at the hospital refused to confirm that her finger would heal sufficiently for her to continue with her career. Two months followed of having it in a splint, in addition to a further month of physiotherapy. Fortunately, since Anni had a full-time position, she was entitled to sick pay.
“I felt that I was finally on the right path, that my skills had improved, that my colleagues liked me…I had a lot of concerts which I then had to cancel…I laugh about it now, but then it felt like life was ending.”
Although the finger healed and she was able to resume work in the orchestra, the accident had caused Anni to consider moving on to a new stage in life, of having a family and spending less time away from home.
She decided to audition for another orchestra which she had always admired, and which was based in Budapest. However, on the day of the audition though she was not nervous, she felt unwell and vomited repeatedly. Unsurprisingly, Anni’s audition was not successful.
“I felt terrible,” she recalls, “and I had to go to the doctor’s – but there it turned out I was pregnant!”
As the new year (2020) began, the Savaria orchestra was scheduled to play in northern Italy just as news of Covid began to circulate. It was decided that Anni should not travel but begin her maternity leave early.
Anni gave birth that June though her family were unable to visit, and she and Luke were alone with their new daughter. “Luke was doing online school and there was no music – everything was in lockdown.”
Anni with her daughter, Lumi
It was at this point that a classical music organisation in Finland named Musequal, whose intent it is to make classical music more equal (playing more women composers and ethnic minority compositions), asked Anni for her help.
She had already worked with them since 2016, and now their Artistic Director and Founder, Linda Suolahti, approached Anni for assistance with their website, social media and press releases for their annual festival.
“We also organised an international competition in 2021 for a resident composer, so I was acting as an organiser for that,” says Anni.
“I found it very interesting: there’s all this production side to music that I seemed to have knowledge about because of the job in Denmark where I’d learnt about graphic design, how to build a website, how to make a press release or a newsletter – lots of skills.
I decided at the end of 2022 that I was going to make myself a website and build myself a personal brand where I could help other musicians. I wanted to do something that was my own. I had already learned a lot: how to make a poster, who to contact to make a logo, how to make a concert pamphlet, how to work with websites... But I needed to spend hours and hours on Youtube watching tutorials to learn all the rest!"
“It is is very time consuming,” she explains, “and busy musicians who are touring and practising don’t have the time to learn these skills to promote their careers.”
Anni began to make tutorial videos, posts and social media posts for musicians. “In just a few weeks I started to get clients!” she says.
“For example, I had a soprano from the Netherlands who had an album release concert and she wanted help with what to post, and how to advertise it to reach as many people as possible.”
Using the knowledge she had acquired in Denmark, Anni soon had her own webpage and Instagram account, as well as many new clients. “And because I’m a musician, they don’t have to explain every little detail to me – there’s so much jargon, it would be impossible for someone who’s not a musician to do this. It’s very exciting!”
Anni, Luke and Lumi in Finland
Inevitably, with a small child, Anni resigned from her orchestral job and now works freelance. She is still involved with the festival in Finland, and will be playing for them in August, and she still plays chamber music concerts, teaches cello students and occasionally works in orchestras, alongside her newest venture.
It is now eight years that Anni has been living in Hungary. Though both she and Luke are expats, they have learnt Hungarian and feel at home.
“We absolutely love it here,” she enthuses. “It’s so family-friendly, child-friendly, so cultural with all the concerts and exhibitions. Our Hungarian friends are so loyal and open-hearted. At first people can seem a bit stand-offish,” she laughs, “but when you get past that, they’re amazing. I feel they appreciate it, not just that I speak the language, but that I’m familiar with their culture. Lumi [their daughter] loves Hungarian food, particularly Gulyás soup! She’s very happy in her Hungarian nursery.”
Anni admits to missing both Finland and her family, who nevertheless visit regularly. But she explains her enduring desire to remain in Hungary, describing a phenomenon most likely familiar to all those who have been settled here for a longer time:
“A German teacher I had here told me that I would notice that people come to Budapest for two weeks, and then they’re here for twenty-five years – which is actually what happened to her. I didn’t really know at the time what she was talking about, but I’ve kept meeting people here who’ve got that ‘Budapest fever’, as I call it. And all I can say is that I’ve got it, too!”
Marion Merrick is author of Now You See It, Now You Don’t and House of Cards and the website Budapest Retro.
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