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Matthew Whittall (b. 21. January 1975 in Cowansville, Québec) began his studies in Montreal as a hornist, earning degrees in performance and composition from the University of Massachusetts and Stony Brook University, before settling in Finland in 2001. There he studied at the Sibelius Academy, receiving his Doctor of Music degree with distinction in 2013. His principal teachers include Robert Jones, Salvatore Macchia, Perry Goldstein, Eero Hämeenniemi and Veli-Matti Puumala. His works have been performed at Helsinki’s Music Centre Hall, Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, Opera City in Tokyo, and on international festivals such as Nordic Music Days, Helsinki Musica nova, Tampere Vocal Music Festival, Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival and Ottawa Chamberfest.
Whittall’s orchestral music includes several major works commissioned by Finland’s leading orchestras, among them a viola concerto The heaven that dwells so deep (2010), for Ilari Angervo and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the cantata Dulcissima, clara, sonans (2011-12), to the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, for soprano Mia Huhta, conductor Hannu Lintu and the Helsinki Philharmonic. The latter work was awarded the 2013 Teosto prize in Finland and was a recommended work at the International Rostrum of Composers. The Architecture of Happiness was commissioned by Lintu to open the FRSO’s 2014-15 season. Other works include Solen (2006-09) for large orchestra and Northlands, for horn and strings. The Return of Light (2015) was commissioned by the Helsinki Chamber Choir and Tapiola Sinfonietta. According to Whittall, it is possibly his most programmatic work, sparked off by an account by Arctic explorer Julius von Payer of the first time he saw the sun rise after the long winter darkness. The piece has been released on the CD ‘Northlands’ and according to the enthusiastic critics “the soundscape conjured forth by Whittall is fascinating, and the way conventional music-making is gradually approached and the sun at last shines forth is magical. Whittall has, in the past few years, created an aesthetic mode of expression that is not only extremely personal but also truly unique, and this may be just the prelude.” The piano concerto Nameless Seas was equally well received. It was co-commissioned by the National Arts Centre Corporation and Piano Espoo Festival. The world premiere took place on 5. October 2017 in Ottawa, Canada by the NAC Orchestra with Angela Hewitt as the soloist. Whittall’s Silence Speaks (Hiljaisuus puhuu, 2022) was commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra as part of the Helsinki Variations work series commissioned from six composers.
Whittall’s chamber music covers a broad spectrum of styles and ensembles. Key works include the hour-long cycle of piano preludes, Leaves of Grass (2005-09), written for Risto-Matti Marin and recorded for Alba in 2015. He has also written string quartets such as Bright Ferment – String Quartet No. 2 (2019) commissioned as the compulsory piece for the Banff International String Quartet Competition in Canada. Other chamber pieces include Event Horizons for alto saxophone and piano, Devil’s Gate for oboe, bassoon and piano as well as The City in the Sea for alto flute, harp and piano.
Matthew Whittall’s choral music has rapidly gained international recognition. He is Associate Composer of the Carice Singers, and the Vancouver Chamber Choir has also performed his pieces. One of his most recent large-scale works is These Things Remain for baritone, chorus and orchestra commissioned by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The text is drawn from poems by Canadian soldiers deployed in Europe in World War II. Whittall has also been deeply involved in Finland’s choral scene as both a composer and a performer since his earliest days in the country. He has created a large and varied body of choral works for some of Finland’s top amateur and professional vocal ensembles, including the cycle Shiki (Four Seasons), for the HOL choir, and ad puram annihilationem meam, for the Helsinki Chamber Choir. One of his latest published pieces is Christmas Hath a Darkness – Four carols for Advent, a cycle of carols for mixed choir to the poetry of Christina Rossetti.
“I always strive to pay attention to the passing moment of beauty and, in appreciating it, allow it to expand beyond the moment, to fill my whole mind with its exquisiteness. In being mindful of those rare moments, we touch on the eternal, something larger than ourselves” writes Whittall. His music is marked by this attempt and also by the attempt to fuse its various disparate influences – Old and New World, Western and non-Western, sacred and secular, classical, folk and popular – into a single, variegated expressive language by a use of extramusical imagery ranging from natural phenomena to poetry and landscape art.
Leaves of Grass, for piano (Book II: Thou orb aloft full-dazzling, extract)
Risto-Matti Marin, piano
(Alba Records ABCD-333)
The Return of Light for mixed chorus and chamber orchestra (extract)
Tapiola Sinfonietta, Helsinki Chamber Choir/Nils schweckendiek
(Alba Records ABCD-416)
Northlands – album for horn and strings (extract)
Finnish RSO/Nils Schweckendiek, sol. Tommi Hyytinen, horn
(Alba Records ABCD-416)