One of Central’s most famous graduates

November 6, 2012


Kathy Laakso
Zenith City Weekly

Superior’s Central High School launched a remarkable number of gifted students, including sports legends Ernie Nevers and Bud Grant, award-winning photographers Esther Bubley and Ray Jones, and WWII hero Dick Bong.  

Another talented graduate was Sylvia Backman Aarnio, who went on to become an accomplished concert singer in the U.S. and Europe, performing with the Philadelphia Philharmonic, the Boston and Dallas Symphonies, and the Finnish National Opera.

Born in 1920 to Finnish immigrants Carl and Kate Backman, Sylvia grew up in Superior’s North End. Her singing debut was at the age of five and she began taking piano lessons at the age of seven.

During her high school years at Central, she took voice lessons from Elizabeth Terry, a concert singer and voice teacher at Superior State Teachers College. Her graduation picture in the 1938 Echo yearbook was accompanied by the caption: “Studious and brilliant.”

A lyric soprano, her love was classical music, saying the Jitterbug was only good for dancing. But it was her love of music from her parents’ native Finland that led her to meet the famous Finnish composer Jan Sibelius.

One of her talents as a soprano was the ability, “on a good day,” to hit the G above high C. When Sylvia was 19, having attended two years at Superior State Teachers College, Elizabeth Terry knew her student needed to move beyond Superior.

She and several others in the community sponsored programs and concerts to raise money for Sylvia to attend the Juilliard School of Music. In 1940, saying she would “sing or starve,” she left for New York.

But starve she didn’t. In fact, when she graduated from Juilliard, Sylvia was chosen to sing at commencement. In a letter to Terry, she wrote that this honor “is a down payment on the great debt I owe you and others directly...the people who have had faith in me and to you who ignited the spark, encouraged me and finally even freed me to attempt something bigger than what Superior could offer.”

In her third year at Juilliard, Sylvia met her husband, Reino Aarnio. A native Finn, he was already a successful architect who later designed the Hawaiian Pavilion for the 1964-65 World’s Fair.  

Through a friend of her husband’s, Sylvia Aarnio heard about a talent search to perform Sibelius’ “Tone Poem for Piano and Orchestra” with the Finnish Radio Orchestra.  

She collected Sibelius’ work and had studied this one in particular, making her the natural choice. It was broadcast on radio in Finland and the United States.

Finnish radio critics said of her performance, “Sylvia Aarnio is a name to keep in mind. A young warm, evenly developed soprano voice which has depth and intensity and soulful expression with regards to music as well as the text.”

In 1953, she was invited to be the soloist at the annual Sibelius Festival in Helsinki, after a private audition for Jan Sibelius at his home, where she sang “Luonnotar” (Creation of the World). The composer was 87 years old, living in seclusion at his villa. “When I first entered the room where he was sitting,” Aarnio said in a newspaper interview, “I had such stage fright that my vocal cords were paralyzed.” But when she finished, he asked her to sing it again.  

Three years later, he invited her to perform at his birthday celebration in Carnegie Hall. So impressed by her singing, he wrote in his memoir, “I hear you singing in my heart; I know you know how to interpret my music.”

Although she was a Finnish language professor at New York University and the Berlitz School, Aarnio’s passion was to introduce the world to the music of her heritage. As a tribute to the composers, she recorded an album called “Finnish Songs.”

In the 1960s, she toured with Ulla Katajavuori, who played the Finnish kantele, a string instrument Aarnio described as played like a zither, but which sounds like a harpsichord. “The record of the Finnish people was passed on by singing these epics to the plucking of the kantele, a sort of telegraph system of communication.”

Although her mother and father didn’t sing, their relatives in Finland were talented. Aarnio’s cousin, Mia Backman, was considered an equal to Ethel Barrymore.

When reporters reminded her of the days when she was pleased to hit the G above high C, she said, “Since my beginning studies [at Juilliard], I learned that the quality of the voice is more important than its range.”

In 1963, she performed for her “most critical audience” at her Central High reunion. “They’ll all want to see what their hometown girl has learned in these years.”

In 1986, she was made a Knight of the Order of the Lion of Finland for furthering Finnish culture and decorated with the Order of the White Rose of Finland.

When she died in 2010, at the age of almost 90, Aarnio’s wish was that memorials go to the Finlandia Foundation, one of many cultural organizations of which she and her husband were board members.

Kathy Laakso is the director of the Douglas County Historical Society. With Teddie Meronek , she co-authored Central A-Z: A History of a Superior School. Although the book covers many of its alumni, there wasn’t enough room for Sylvia Aarnio! Hopefully, this article makes up for that.

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