Commissioned Kokkola Winter Accordion & Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra
Publisher Gehrmans Musikförlag
Category Soloist and Orchestra
Year 2023
Duration 22 min
Orchestration Accordion and string orchestra (min. 55432)
Opus Number 87
Nomination Representing Finland at the 70th International Rostrum of Composers 2024

Program note

Permafrost is soil or underwater sediment that remains continuously frozen for two or more years. Permafrost underlies approximately 15% of the Northern Hemisphere or an area equivalent to 11% of the Earth’s total surface. As the global climate warms, it causes the previously frozen soil to thaw for the first time since the last ice age, reaching temperatures conducive to renewed decomposition. This process accelerates the permafrost carbon cycle. It is estimated that about 1500 gigatons of carbon is locked by permafrost that now becomes available when it thaws. That is about two and a half times of what humanity has emitted so far, and is one of the first major climate tipping points that human emissions could trigger.

The accordion concerto Permafrost is divided into three movements named after the three biggest forms of permafrost thawing that are a danger to our climate. They are Retrogressive Thaw Slumps, a type of landslide that occur in the terrestrial Arctic’s permafrost region, when an ice-rich section thaws. They are the most active and dynamic feature of thermokarst—the collapse of the land surface as ground ice melts. Thermokarst Lakes, also called thaw lakes, tundra lakes, thaw depressions, or tundra ponds, refers to a body of freshwater, usually shallow, that is formed in a depression formed by thawing ice-rich permafrost. Some lakes have been discovered to be bubbling due to enormous amounts of methane leaking into the atmosphere, a potent greenhouse gas 25 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Thermokarst lakes are estimated to emit 3.8 teragrams of methane each year, increasing methane emission by up to 63%. Methane Craters are a rather new phenomena (discovered in 2014) which indicates that when permafrost thaws, there can occur huge methane explosions, that leave enormous craters in the ground. The first methane crater was found in 2014 but so far around 20 methane craters have been found. The craters ​​are symptomatic of climate warming.

Permafrost was commissioned by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra and the Winter Accordion Festival. It was composed for accordionist Sonja Vertainen and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, who will premiere the piece conducted by Jan Söderblom on the 16th of February 2024. The piece includes video art by Irene Suosalo. The premiere will also be broadcast by the Finnish Radio.

For further information on permafrost I would recommend this video.


Cecilia Damström: Permafrost, soloist Sonja Vertainen, the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jan Söderblom – Listen on Yle Areena. Available until 1.6.2024.



Sonja Vertainen, Jan Söderblom, the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra and visuals by Irene Suosalo at the premiere of Permafrost 16th of Feburary 2024 in Kokkola, Finland. Photo by Tomi Hirvinen for the Kokkola Winter Accordion 

Composer Cecilia Damström, accordionist Sonja Vertainen, visual artist Irene Suosalo, after the premiere of Permafrost 16th of Feburary 2024 in Kokkola, Finland. Photo by Tomi Hirvinen for the Kokkola Winter Accordion 


Top-notch at Kokkola Winter Accordion – “Permafrost” is a Supreme Masterpiece with Sonja Vertainen Shining as Soloist

The composition commissioned from Cecilia Damström by Kokkola Winter Accordion and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra stands out as a remarkable achievement from the composer.


Kokkola Winter Accordion: From Three Eras. Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, cond. Jan Söderblom; sol. Sonja Vertainen, accordion. J.S. Bach, Cecilia Damström, Reinhold Glière. Central Ostrobothnian Conservatory Concert Hall, February 16, 2024.


Cecilia Damström’s compositions invariably embark upon societal themes. Her repertoire delves into subjects such as chronic illnesses, the dissolving polar ice caps, and the recycling of clothing. Damström consistently unravels these themes within the piece’s description, shunning any inclination to cloak her creative origins.


Critics occasionally disparage this so-called program music, contending that it excessively guides the listener’s interpretation. However, from my perspective, the inclusion of programmatic elements is akin to extending a genteel hand to the listener. Armed with a clear understanding of the underlying theme, one is invited to explore and discern echoes of the intended aspects encapsulated in the title. Importantly, this engagement is entirely voluntary, allowing the mind to wander into realms as diverse as the streets of Berlin or the operating hours of a local establishment, as one fancies.


The movements of the “Permafrost” accordion concerto are named after forms of permafrost thawing: landslides, thermokarst lakes, and methane craters.


In the first movement, earth and ice converge through the resonance of low strings and the sparkling, luminous sound of the accordion. The transformation is gradual, yet as the landslide commences, it accelerates relentlessly. Descending melodic lines challenge the dexterity of the soloist, but Sonja Vertainen played them very skillfully. In the final descent, the soloist and the orchestra create a lush, scrumptious harmony.


Damström exhibits a remarkable command in handling the orchestra and exploring its sonic capabilities. At times, she seamlessly integrates the accordion into the string section, requiring meticulous focus to discern the origins of the sound. Naturally, the composition also allocates distinct solo segments for the accordion.


In the second movement, Damström demonstrates the artistry of how a top-tier composer uses extended playing techniques: a tap of the wood side of the bow on the strings evokes imagery of a drop falling or a bubble bursting. Conductor Jan Söderblom masterfully handled the rhythmically challenging section.


The accordion has serene, heartrendingly beautiful, simple melodies in the tranquil second movement, melodies that one could listen to endlessly.


In the third movement, the atmosphere is immediately threatening: within the music’s growing intensity, one can sense the imminent danger of methane discharge. It’s worth mentioning that Damström has incorporated into the notes the chemical formula of methane, CH4. The fervent glissandos of the strings depict the immense forces within the earth’s crust.


In the hastening, ascending motifs, the soloist adeptly upheld the bellows with meticulous precision.


And what an ending Damström presented! Not the eruption of a methane crater, nor ultimate destruction, but the solitary ascent of the accordion. Absolutely  a magnificent resolution. Permafrost presents the facts and prompts us to contemplate how we envision the culmination of the piece, the situation in the world to conclude.


Permafrost stands as a truly exquisite and masterful creation, impeccably crafted with no superfluous elements. Its accessibility is remarkable; making it a true pleasure to listen to. I dare say, it’s a musical gem that is bound to grace many stages in the years to come. The commission by Kokkola Winter Accordion and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra is an unsurpassed success!


I was apprehensive beforehand that the video projection might detract from focusing on the music, but that was not the case. On the contrary, it felt like Irene Suosalo’s visual world was a vital component of the composition. Due to the abstraction inherent in the video, the piece seemed to be intricately intertwined with the present moment in a completely different way than if it had featured, for example, overhead shots of natural landscapes.

Anni Saari – Keskipohjanmaa Tuesday 20.02.2024


2024 February 16th  World Premiere – Sonja Vertainen and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jan Söderblom  – More info