2/2009

Professor on the operetta stage

Yli-Harja 1

One of Olli Yli-Harja's favourite roles is that of the deceitful Baron Weps in the classical
operetta The Bird Seller (Der Vogelhändler) that he played last year.

Lecture halls at TUT became Professor Olli Yli-Harja's primary stage instead of the opera scene.

Professor Olli Yli-Harja heads the Computational Systems Biology research group at TUT. The group develops and applies computational methods to model complex biological phenomena at the Department of Signal Processing. In the weekends, however, the professor transforms into a black American jazz singer called Jim Boy to belt out a solo in Paul Abraham's operetta "Flower of Hawaii" performed by Jukola Amateur Operatic Society in Yli-Harja's home town Nurmijärvi.

For Yli-Harja operetta singing is a hobby, one way to use up excess energy that he has even after heading a group of 50 researchers.

"Time management? That's easy. If you focus on one thing only, you often end up getting involved in trivial matters, too. It's in the best interests of my research group that I do other things as well," grins Yli-Harja.

Interest in accordion music inherited from  father

Yli-Harja got his first introduction to music from his father Juhani Yli-Harja, who taught him to play the accordion. As a boy, Yli-Harja's father had had to play a makeshift accordion made of cardboard for a year before he was allowed to buy a real one. Nowadays the son, who got to practice with a real instrument right from the start, has five accordions.

Yli-Harja 2

"Spending the whole week with artists, ranging from professionals to local eccentrics,
counterbalances working with engineers."

Yli-Harja, who recently turned 50, started singing at the age of 30. His motive for joining a choir was to train his voice to withstand the strain of lecturing and to manage stage fright.

"These days the audience may be more nervous than the singer," laughs Yli-Harja.

For 15 years, Yli-Harja has taken classical singing lessons and participated in week-long solo signing courses arranged in Joutseno during the annual Art Summer event.

"Spending the whole week with artists, ranging from professionals to local eccentrics, counterbalances working with engineers."

In the 1990s, Yli-Harja sang in the Finnish Philharmonic Choir that specializes in major productions and, for example, got to share the stage with such names as Luciano Pavarotti and José Carreras.

More fun to perform without pay

In the end, lecture halls at TUT became Yli-Harja's primary stage instead of the opera scene. And so much the better, for he has no regrets about not becoming a musician.

Research excellence with an international flare

The Computational Systems Biology research group headed by Olli Yli-Harja is part of the Signal Processing Algorithm Group (SPAG) operating at the Department of Signal Processing. The department is one of Finland's most international university units and it is renowned for its creative, relaxed atmosphere.

SPAG is a Finnish Centre of Excellence in Research appointed by the Academy of Finland and the leading group in signal processing and digital systems design in Finland. The Computational Systems Biology research group comprises experts from a wide variety of fields - cell and molecular biology, biotechnology, signal and image processing, statistics, mathematics, and computer science. The group develops and applies modeling and simulation tools for studying complex biological phenomena.

Yli-Harja also visits retirement homes to sing and play to the residents without a fee. His repertoire consists of old Cuban songs  and songs by Finnish musician and composer Georg Malmstén and the Dallapé orchestra from the 1930s. Over the last couple of years, Yli-Harja has given about 50 such gigs.

"When I go on holiday I often contact the local city hall and ask if I could go and perform for senior citizens. They've never turned me down."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Text: Kati Vastamäki
Photo: Kari Tiainen

 

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