Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, Finland – review

Imagine watching a juggler weave four balls through the air like music. Imagine a violinist playing a Bach chaconne as if he were caressing the notes into being that instant. Now imagine both these things. Simultaneously.

Who but the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto would be insane enough to join forces with a juggler for a chamber music concert? And where but Kuhmo would be crazy enough to programme it? Far from trivialising Bach, this act joins two unlikely artforms for a moment of revelation. Jay Gilligan, head teacher of juggling at Stockholm’s circus school, has the ability to make inanimate objects appear to defy gravity. Kuusisto can do the same thing with notes. There is an iconoclastic nonchalance to his Bach, an affinity to the folk dance origins coupled with technical brilliance and gaudy musical imagination that makes him able tease the breath of life into every note. And so he can bend a phrase to mirror the curve of a ball in flight, without ever losing the music’s heartbeat.

Peter Hoeg’s Nordic noir novel The Quiet Girl draws parallels between Bach, listening, circus skills, risk and the supernatural. All these things seem present in Kuhmo when Kuusisto weaves his magic. And then Lauri Sallinen dons a harlequin costume and pirouettes his way grotesquely through a Stockhausen solo, following it with Mulhaud’s Scaramouche; all this in a school sports hall with basketball hoops and climbing ropes behind rows of plastic bucket seats, while an audience packed shoulder-to-shoulder maintains rapt silence.

Tiny Kuhmo, perched on the edge of a lake in the northeast of Finland, is a long way from everywhere, unless you count the Russian border. Its population of 10,000 is vastly outnumbered by summer’s voracious mosquitoes. In the surrounding forests you might encounter bears, wolves, deer or even wolverines. When the July sun dips briefly below the horizon at midnight, the sky remains a luminous bowl. The endless daylight breeds the kind of manic euphoria perfectly suited to a fortnight of musical excess.

Founded in 1970 by young Finnish cellist Seppo Kimanen, Kuhmo is now Finland’s oldest and largest chamber music festival. More than 200 artists and 100 students draw local and international visitors, giving more than 70 concerts over 14 days. Most festival-goers stay for four or five days and return year after year. They fill local hotels, hire summer houses, pitch tents, or, in the case of the students, sleep – if at all – in the classrooms of the local school. The ferocity of focus on the music itself is intensified by the remoteness. The nearest train station is 100km distant, and Helsinki is more than six hours south. There are no distractions.

Eight years ago, Kimanen handed over the artistic reins to Romanian violist and composer Vladimir Mendelssohn. He brought a maverick edge of invention to the programming. Kuhmo today is a paradise for the musically insatiable and the curious. Though most tickets cost about €17 and the most expensive concerts sell for €35 a seat, half of the total budget comes from box office takings. Artists receive a low communistic flat rate, and locals pitch in to keep things running. In the absence of commercial pressure, unfettered creative idealism reigns.

Mendelssohn’s programming has a hallucinogenic quality. Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance is played one-to-a-part in an organ loft. A lone pianist performs Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, almost drowned out by the offstage cannons. Fragments of obscure Wagner and Beethoven bookend works by Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Stephen Hartke and Miloje Milojević. If you only like to hear music you already know, stay away from Kuhmo.

A panoply of performers from around the world – young or old, specialists in baroque or contemporary style, soloists or chamber musicians – are united by unassuming musicality, technical mastery, and the intellectual rigour of their approach to the scores. They are slotted around Mendelssohn’s unorthodox programmes, which contain themselves and each other like so many matruschka dolls. Scheduling rehearsals and classes is such a complicated business that a computer programme has been devised for the task. Pianos are trucked in from elsewhere. The dramaturgy is tight as a drum. There is a rhetorical coherence to each musical outing, and a clear direction to the entire journey. There are English translations and wheelchair ramps. There are sauna parties. There are few locks and fewer keys; in more than four decades of festival history, there has never been a single criminal episode in Kuhmo. If there are fewer gold ornaments and expensive watches on display than in Salzburg or Verbier, there are more dawn conversations around open fires, more bicycles, and far more smoked fish.

If you care about music more than you care about being seen, you are addicted to integrity, and you prefer discovery to the comfort zone of the familiar, there is simply no reason not to go to Kuhmo in July. Pack the bug spray and ink it into your diary for 2015.


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