THE OTAVA MALE CHOIR
The following vignette by Pekka and Velva
Roininen appeared in the 2001 Otava 50th anniversary program
booklet. Historic items were gleaned from Heimar Tuomisto’s scrapbooked
collection, choir archives, and reminiscences of long time choir
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. Consul
Koivukoski conducted the choir for 12 years. 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 one year during 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. (Just a little
note, these festivals began in 1940 in Sudbury, originally the proceeds
went to help Finland’s war effort – later to help war widows and
orphans, then to help wounded veterans. Now known as the Finnish
Canadian Grand Festival, this event currently supports Finnish culture
in Canada. Finnish communities throughout Canada host this event on a
Otava has seen some very good years as well
as some lean years. Back in 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.
Our first participation in the Male Choir
Days 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; the latest was in 2001, our 50th anniversary. Otava
became a member of the Finlandia Club in 1967.
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. From 1978 to 1996 our choir director, Anja Haavisto, has
accompanied the Finland tour choirs 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
Otava has provided a contingent in every AL
Finland Concert Tour. In 1979, Otava accepted the role of the governing
body of the Finnish Male Singers of North America (Amerikan Laulajat).
The choir has been represented 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
include 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). 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 prerequisites established by the Male Choir
Association of Finland (Mieskuoroliitto) — memorizing one‘s part, both
words and music, to 40 songs. We should also note here 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 at the 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
prerequisites 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. When Finland
celebrated 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 Nygård and an evening of dancing to good music — a
truly elegant affair.
In February of 1994, the Community
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
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 Seinäjoki! 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 come 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 first international Finn Grand
Fest held in Toronto in July 2000, an event members will long fondly
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
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, membership totals, and at examples
of the content of an early and later year concert.
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, M. Harju, P. Roininen
1950's: 15-26; 1960's: 25-32; 1970's: 25-32; 1980's: 32-35; 1990's:
16-22; 2000's: 18-23