mon 15/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: violinist and music director Pekka Kuusisto on staged Shostakovich, Sibelius, sound architecture and folk fiddling | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: violinist and music director Pekka Kuusisto on staged Shostakovich, Sibelius, sound architecture and folk fiddling

theartsdesk Q&A: violinist and music director Pekka Kuusisto on staged Shostakovich, Sibelius, sound architecture and folk fiddling

Al fresco talk around 'Concert Theatre DSCH', playing at the Southbank Centre

Pekka Kuusisto and members of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in 'Concert Theatre DSCH'Production images by Magnus Skrede except for moon image by Thor Brødreskift. Portraits by Bård Gundersen

Lilac time in Oslo, a mini heatwave in June 2023, a dazzling Sunday morning the day after the darkness transfigured of Concert Theatre DSCH, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra’s from-memory Shostakovich music-drama. Pekka Kuusisto and I decide not to enter the café where we’ve met but cross the road to the Royal Park and sit on a park bench talking for two hours.

Kuusisto in conversation is exactly the inspirational, enthusiastic and galvanizing person you may have seen spellbind Proms audiences in a song-and-fiddle encore, transform a classic or cross supposed boundaries into folk music. I’ve also seen him conduct a full symphony orchestra (the Philharmonia), a relatively recent development, with clear guidance and strong results. When I meet him, he’s not long taken over as artistic director from the inspirational Terje Tønnesen, who had already established a new way of memorized performing with his fellow string players.

DAVID NICE: I first to came to see the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra in Oslo with Terje and Leif Ove Andsnes. I was amazed by the two events they gave in Gothenburg’s Point Festival, and especially by how they played the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony [Rudolf Barshai’s celebrated arrangement of the Eighth String Quartet] from memory, preceded by Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, where they had the scores, but you didn’t see when the stands got set aside. Now there’s this, which I wouldn’t have believed Shostakovich with image and movement could work as well as it does before I saw it. In what ways is it different from the way you worked with the ensemble before? How will you move on? Is this another step? Pekka KuusistoPEKKA KUUSISTO: It's about four years ago that I came for the first time, maybe more. We did something quite regular, I think we played Haydn 88 and the Beethoven Violin Concerto. We played a few shows outside also. I’ve been doing play directing [playing and directing] since my early 20s. There’s a couple of people who invented the language. There’s not such a clear method for it, there’s no proper education for it, there’s no school that teaches directing from an instrument the way you teach conducting, that’s something that’s been wrong with the world. But Terje and Anthony Marwood and Richard Tognetti with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Jonny Morton at the Scottish Ensemble, and of course Iona Brown, these are people that have done so much to turn it into a focused specialized part of the profession, directing from the fiddle. I think now also more and more bigger orchestras are trying to find projects that they would do with us, because of the added listener response from everyone, but I consider Terje one of the pioneers of modern play-directing, so I’m able to continue what he started.

Terje’s approach of getting the players to have coaching with actors, to project and communicate seemed so novel. Maybe the Aurora Orchestra does, they can play by heart, but I didn’t like the Symphonie fantastique with the masks, it looked a bit naff, and I haven’t seen any British orchestra get that thing right yet. I knew there was a tradition here, but last night it went further than I could have imagined.

I’m really, really happy to hear that. There is a readiness among the players. Because the orchestra used to be ad hoc, where you collected extra players other than the strings, but now there’s more of a set ensemble. I think it allows for even quicker development, and it allows the set group of players to take a responsibility, investing also in the planning of the orchestra in the future, and as a by-product, everyone feels more ownership. It’s sort of Utopian, but the amount of input that we get from the players about what we should be doing and how challenging we should be making this for everyone, it’s unique. And because of the moral groundwork that Terje has done and the way that the orchestra is built, it’s not about a single person, everyone feels that this is something we do together. It’s tricky but it’s really, really wonderful to have that feeling.

And the luxury of good funding, which allows a project like this to flourish. The first rehearsal, I gather, was in January 2021, unheard of to us. And that makes it possible. We’re lucky if we have one or two rehearsals.

We learned a lot during the rehearsal process, it follows more the logic of a theatre performance, we build so much within the rehearsals. And there had to be room for Mikkel [Harder Munck-Hansen the Danish theatre director] to experiment, and of course orchestral players are musical animals, we are used to things getting done rather quickly. When we do a normal concert here it’s three, four days of rehearsals, and that’s three, four times more than you would get with Philharmonia, but the players’ minds are built – the Philharmonia players are incredible in their ability to improvise. When you see them play with Santtu, it’s almost criminal how much fun it is.

And you see them expressing their enjoyment, which is something London orchestras have long had a difficulty with. It helps an audience so much more. And the fact that you’re not acting but learning a means of communication that shows people what you're feeling. Pekka KuusistoThat was one of the more difficult things to experiment with here, because Mikkel had this idea for a couple of numbers of not showing anything, for the Piano Quintet they had these transparent masks on, but they worked hard to express such powerful stuff. It’s against everything you’ve learned. And also the snippet of the Eighth Symphony,

That was incredible, really stony,

It’s difficult for a musician to feel it – why are we doing this? And then one person gets to go out, one musician sees how it works. After this we go back to more regular concerts, we have all these tools that we understand now.

Moving around in the dark can’t have been easy,

And with expensive instruments! There are four exits on each side, and they’re marked with musical note values, and that’s how I memorise them, because people are coming out when you’re going in, and it’s pitch dark so you might crash into a Grancino cello or a Strad violin – not ideal!

You don’t even see a very dark stage often.

The only thing comparable to this is a theatre show I wrote and played the music for in Finland, five or six years ago. It was based on a 1970s Finnish book set in a northern Finnish village where a mother is raising a daughter by herself, the father is dead and along comes a drifter, the mother falls in love with the drifter, he gets the daughter pregnant – she’s 12 – and then he leaves. The book ends with deadlock between the pregnant daughter and the furious mother. What we did was that 60 years later the daughter is in her 70s, having built a career in a very masculine profession, she runs a shipyard, but it was an installation rather than a play, we had 40 seconds of dialogue on tape. The actress is well known in Finland, everyone came to be magnetised by her, it was an hour and a half containing 15 minutes of total darkness at the beginning and end, and we ran it every Sunday afternoon for a season, basically, whenever I was in Finland, at the end all the windows and doors of the National Theatre were open, so daylight would come in, except when we were in November, December, January, there was none. And it was great for us performers to get that kind of rhythm to it. When the spring season comes, the ending becomes uplifting again.

We’d spend about three hours together before each show, just to have the same pulse, because we didn’t have any connection during the show, there wasn’t any eye contact with anyone. It was just super abstract. One hour before the show the entire group, 16 of us, we would lie down on the stage and they would switch off the lights, we would see daylight coming in from somewhere, an alarm light or a lamp showing some little red glow, You could not see your own hand in there. A lot of people had panic attacks, so we had firemen and helpers with soft flashlights, helping people out in each show. We thought it was funny because we’re Finnish, we should be OK with complete darkness. It's underappreciated in performing spaces.. Scene from 'Concert Theatre DSCH'How did you decide on the Shostakovich pieces to be used? Did that evolve over the process?

Very little, actually. It came very much from Øystein [Sonstad], the cellist-arranger, and Katrine [Sonstad], our double-bass player. I think Mikkel listened to more or less everything that possibly could be arranged, and it very much came from them.

They weren’t just transcriptions. That  stretch with the voices, the cellos and basses playing the tune, elevated it into something else.

We’re lucky to have Øystein. And we’re in such a nice place with the orchestra now where everyone’s personalities are there, no one’s diminishing themselves in order to fit in to an ensemble. They manage to make it work with everyone 100 per cent there. We played a show about a month ago with a wonderful young Sami artist from Umeå in Sweden called Katarina Barruk. Her songs are mostly in a kind of folk-song, chamber scale, five minutes, with very clear verses and choruses, and occasional use of sami traditional material. So we found movements from Action, Passion, Illusion by Erkk-Sven Tüür and the lament by Sir Michael Tippett from Sellinger’s Round and a really sinful Max Reger arrangement of a Bach organ prelude. And then we had Øystein arrange the Katarina Barruk material for us in a way that would work with the other repertoire. We zig zagged. She sang a few songs in the second half, then we played Shaker Loops by Adams. There’s a really interesting and partly painful relationship between organised religion and the Sami culture, it’s kind of confusing, and Shaker Loops has this wonderful reference to the shakers and almost like a self-destructive religious system where having children is not allowed and work is very important. Just having someone like Øystein say, OK, I’ll do it, and a couple of weeks later we have arrangements, it’s such a secret weapon for an orchestra like this.

As I remember in the Chamber Symphony in Gothenburg, Terje was protagonist and the orchestra was attacking him. Yours was different, but the visuals were perfect, these black clouds moving forward and then retreating in a sulphurous yellow…

The production team sat in on all these rehearsals where they didn’t have a chance of doing much, the orchestra has this lovely rehearsal space up in Montebello, they just sat there observing and listening to the interpretation coming together, and that was quite interesting because the orchestra has Terje’s interpretation so clear in their memory, and it keeps popping up in some places, and the one we do now, I try to have it shaped so that it would really work as the final piece of this concert. When we play it again in a regular concert, we will then shape it differently again according to what’s been happening around it. A couple of nights ago in one of the run-throughs we stayed as statues for the entire Chamber Symphony, that was when Paul Hughes [formerly of the BBC Symphony Orchestra] was there, and Tabita Berglund [the conductor], and I think it was Paul who said, why don’t you try letting loose a little bit when the second movement starts. We tried it and the entire team seemed to agree, and it became a lot freer, but stlll musically it’s quite strict. There’s the DSCH, the phatic sign that keeps popping up, there’s such a natural instinct for players to sing it [he does so with legato and leanng on the last note], to wait for it, but the way he marks in the dynamics, it really feels that’s not what he wants, that it’s again not something that you do, it’s something that happens to you.

You went off string just before the finale, that very eerie moment, that was an idea of yours, presumably.

Yeah, because I felt there is a moment almost of relief when the last movement arrives, like, ouf, we made it through.And then when you put the mutes on and the opening comes back, it’s like – we didn’t learn anything, it will happen again.

The general feeling of movement was the best I’ve ever heard it, not too slow. I didn’t know the piece before the Chamber Symphony.

This came in about four days ago. So simple and peaceful. I’m wondering – it does have a Bach flavour to it in a couple of places. And then a modulation goes to the end that could only be Shostakovich, really dirty, really criminal. It’s very good that they found it – it came from Mikkel, and Bjarke [Mogensen, the accordionist] had another piece in his repertoire that he could have just pulled out and played, but the character was exactly right. Then there’s the slight disrobing of the orchestra, and there’s a very useful prolonged C major and D major where we can tune quietly in the background, our microphones are switched off so it sounds like a distant hum. It’s very practical.

I wasn’t sure if there was amplification, more directional miking with individual players, because the sound was so homogenous when you were all playing together. It all sounded almost unearthly beautiful. Sometimes one’s aware of sound treatment: I’m thinking of the system at Leif Ove Andsnes’ festival in Rosendal, which needed sorting the first year.

I haven’t been to Rosendal but I think the processing is essentially the same. There’s a handful of different systems – sometimes they’re called active architecture, I know the Australian Chamber Orchestra moved into a new hall a couple of years ago and they have a Yamaha system of the same basic idea. I think what’s in the opera is the Meyer Sound Constellation system, so you have the regular speakers but then around 60 around the room. The small hall has a much more advanced sound system, and then we have a room full of computers calculating the reflections and the delays between the different speakers. And I think when you use it in the simplest way you press a button and it indicates Concertgebouw or Musikverein, and it’s very addictive to do that, and it might have been what they did in the first year at Rosendal. Because it feels very luxurious to play into it. But then because we are visual animals if the sound really doesn’t correspond to the room you see around you, it will feel artificial. I have this strange role, I’m meant to come up with stupid ideas for them, then they decide if they want to try them or not. There’s eight of us doing this.

I was just in San Francisco a few months ago in a venue called SoundBox, you can fit 500 people in there, and it has this active architecture or artificial acoustics from Meyer Sound, and I played a couple of concerts, some solo things, some electronic things, some ensemble things, and I got this idea that – I’ll be surprised if in 20, 25 years anyone still wants to build a concept hall with a set acoustic, because these systems are evolving so fast now, and becoming so natural for musicians to play in to, it recognises where you are, it changes the programming for the speakers instantly, where you’re playing, how you’re moving. And the system you heard yesterday is just the current version of a system which is rapidly evolving.

Because when I went into the space, I thought, this is going to be quite a dead acoustic, and apparently it is by itself.

Same in this space in San Francisco, I went in and a group of string players were playing a Purcell Fantasia, and I thought, why did they put in such a system, this really sounds amazing, and then someone switched it off, I hadn’t realised it was the system. The Norwegian Opera famously costs something like 700 million, I think it’s also going to take the price down in these projects when you don’t constantly have to worry about the size and shape of the hall. It is risky, because we are all very close-miked in this show. There’s this guy Asle Karstad who’s been working with the orchestra for a long time, also record engineering, but very much with the live sound, and I think he’s cracked it. And now he’s educated this younger gentleman, Bodvar Tornes, who is behind the faders in the actual show. I was also worried that it’s going to sound like a bunch of close-miked, scratchy violins, but it sounds like an orchestra. The level of amplification goes gradually up during the show, it’s a dramaturgic trick, I suppose.

The fmovement in one of the Cello Concerto, that was amazing choreography, that’s the one that would hook people if you said, come and see this, when you’re stamping. And the bass drum as well, which I first wondered, is this a gimmick? But no, it’s absolutely right.

That’s wonderful to hear. Because the audience reaction – we don’t do test groups, focus groups, so we didn’t know what was going to happen.

A standing ovation was almost immediate – do Oslo audiences do that as a matter of course?

No. My dad’s jazz-pianist brother-in-law often talks about a walking ovation, where people leave during the performance.

You’re demanding a lot with this – 90 minutes is a long time, and yet because of the contrasts and the fact you can do the big piece at the end.

I used to study at the Indiana University School of Music in my teens, and my chamber music teacher, the regular one, was Rostislav Dubinsky, who used to play in the Borodin Quartet. And he’s no longer with us, and I really wish he would be because there’s a confusion I’d like to clear up. They worked on this music with the composer, and the composer has marked very specifically which notes are short and which notes are long. The Borodin Quartet doesn’t really do any of that. In the second and third movements they have more or less one length of notes, and it’s terribly effective, and it sounds like one fist, but it’s really not what’s written. I’m sometimes maybe too much obsessed with articulation markings, but this one really baffles me, because they had him there, and he would have put the markings for a good reason.

But he was so receptive if people did it differently, he wasn’t prescriptive. And he said, do it as you feel it.

But then if I were a composer, I’d maybe erase or make a change in the score. And the significant thing I suppose is that the second and third movements are in the same tempo [sings the waltz], quarter notes are the same, and very rarely do you hear it played like that. I think Terje made an incredible art form of turning the characters into something completely different when the third movement starts, and the Borodins made it significantly so. So you have [sings again], and if you get it right, it increases the sarcasm, like a forced smile.

I was worried there would be a narration – I didn’t want more of this “he had a hard life under Stalin” stuff, no images of Stalin, and it was such a relief, apart from the fact that Bjarke had the glasses, so he could have been Shostakovich. Yet the images were brilliant – especially the train image for the Seventh Quartet.

That was a tricky one to memorise.

And the costumes, I wondered about the kilts. And there’s only Burns and “Macpherson’s lament” which Shostakovich set. The androgynous mix was wonderful.

It’s the most comfortable concert dress I’ve had. I hadn’t worn jackets or tails for a long time because there’s so much material between me and the instrument, but this – I just wish I could take it with me and wear it all the time. There’s nothing extra, everything has been trimmed down to what’s absolutely necessary, down to a clever pocket for the transmitter. Also they were with us for a couple of weeks of rehearsals, so a lot of editing was done. Pekka KuusistoYour appointment was announced just before lockdown in 2020, so that must have been a tricky start.

We were meant to have a residency during the first pandemic year at Milton Court. We released an album with Nico Muhly’s Violin Concerto, our first album together, we were going to do that. Our first concert before the announcement being made was the day before lockdown. We played Beethoven 7 and the Muhly Concerto in the Aula [of Oslo University, with amazing Munch frescoes], we were meant to have two shows and the second one got cancelled. We filmed that concert, and I watched it a few times, because of the very ominous coughing in the second movement of Beethoven Seven. We had no idea after the concert that it would happen. We went to a nice Irish pub we often visit after concerts in the Aula, Nico Muhly was here and he was going to London for a huge project which didn’t happen, then we got the message that it’s all cancelled and you can all go home. Then we found out that a bunch of Norwegian MPs had been at the Irish pub a couple of hours before we showed up, and they had all got the virus, and there were people that had come from a skiing holiday,

I went back to Finland, I flew up to a northern festival that my brother was running, it was the opening day, I went into rehearsal with a wonderful Finnish soprano, we were doing a late night duo, some traditional songs, some Joni Mitchell, she had this incredible cold, she said, it’s such a tragicomic thing that I have this cold now that everyone’s talking about this mystery virus, she tested and she had it and the festival got cancelled that night. “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell was the last song we performed at the festival. I got Covid, so did half the orchestra she was performing with, so I had it right at the beginning. I was Patient One in my home village. I’ve had this strange thing for many years that when I’m about to get the flu, or when I had food poisoning or got dehydrated, I have a very sore right leg, and I had it this time for two weeks. That was bad because I couldn’t sleep, I had to use proper sleeping pills, but that was the strongest symptom. Then I had the antibodies for ages, so I could travel to places like Iceland where they wanted you to have antibodies, this is before the vaccines. It was such a wild moment.

I was so sorry to hear about your brother. [Jaako Kuusisto died from brain cancer in February 2021, aged 48]

And now Kaija [Saariaho]. Kaija had the exact same tumour.

I didn’t know about it when she came on stage at the end of Innocence at the Royal Opera in a wheelchair…

She didn’t say, they didn’t talk about it, but now in the family statement they named the disease. In Kaija’s case it affected her balance, she had a couple of falls, she broke possibly her hip. We still had all these birthday concerts for her in Finland, she was there, she’d known since February 2021, she lived way longer than what is the average. I wish I didn’t, but I know a bit more about the nature of the tumour because of my brother. It is a terrifyingly fascinating disease. There is no cure for it at the moment, but some of the cases have a genetic mutation in the tumour that makes it slightly more receptive to treatment. [Innocence] travels a lot – it gets a resonance now that she probably would not have wanted.

It has a marvellous libretto too by Sofi Oksanen,

Have you read anything else of hers?

Not yet. I have Purge sitting on the shelves and waiting to be read.

That’s the really famous one. She’s been a very active commentator on current affairs. She studied the system underneath Putin and the connections with certain sections of organised crime in Russia and the money flows.

So she’s written a lot of factual books as well.

Yes. And a lot of elements she’s used in her novels are based on how things happen in real life at the moment. And she writes a lot of columns for newspapers She’s great.

Would you do another such evening as this? Or is it unrepeatable? Because I heard Sibelius’s "Voces Intimae" Quartet at Sheffield Chamber Music Festival, it’s a total masterpiece, isn’t it? That Adagio is one of the greatest ever, isn’t it?

Yesss.

And I read that you’d done a transcription for strings, and I’m wondering if you could do a similar thing for Sibelius with that at the end.

We had a big planning, dreaming meeting with the orchestra a few weeks ago, now that we see it can be done and we have the necessary dedication, what would be the next thing to look at, would it be an era or another composer, and of course 2027 is the 70th anniversary of Sibelius’s death, I’m assuming there are a lot of things quietly being planned. It is a good idea. One of the Sibelius family members is a violin professor, he was just here a month ago, we had dinner and spoke quite a lot about things like the original version of the Violin Concerto, and he was incredibly encouraging to just take it and run with it, meaning the whole repertoire of Sibelius, just invent new things around it, and when you grow up in Finland, it’s easy to be over-respectful, you don’t want to do anything to disrespect his music. Or his life story. But yes, based on that conversation, and the fact that you just mentioned “Voces Intimae", I think we should definitely give it some thought.

Because again you can have the dark and the serious alongside the lighter music.

We just assembled a bird suite by Sibelius for orchestra from "Scene with Cranes" and the Swanwhite music, with the peacock and the robin, and the Tuonela swan. It’s a wonderful thing but almost a bit of a cliché now when a Finnish person goes outside of Finland and has an orchestra, there’s an obligation to do a Sibelius cycle and record it

I think Klaus Mäkelä’s cycle is really amazing.

It IS really amazing. And the Philharmonic have been playing a lot of Shostakovich with him recently.  We’re doing the Humoresques in the opening of the autumn season, so we bring in some extra players. We’ve done Rakastava. We haven’t done "Voces intimae" yet but we definitely should. When you play it with big strings, it’s a string symphony.

What other projects from memory in the short term?

Some of us started thinking about John Adams’s Shaker Loops now that we’ve done it, because that’s something that would lend itself to a different kind of presentation. One thing I’m curious about is to have musicians wearing a hidden earpiece, like a guide track for an entire evening, to do things that the system tells you to do. When we started talking about this, I wasn’t certain my brain could handle the memorising, because it hasn’t been a significant part of my life, so my first instinct was to get in touch with Google and try to get the glasses that project on to the lens, they don’t make them at the moment. They did a first version and it was available for a while, I don’t think it worked quite well enough, but I’m sure it’s in development, and Google glass version 2 will appear at some point. But I was dreaming about having Shostakovich shaped Google glasses for the whole orchestra, but then they said no, we can memorise it, not a problem. So I couldn’t stand apart. Pekka Kuusisto and NCOWhat difference do you think it does make? They can relate to each other more directly?

It gives the freedom to be in character. The first time I worked with Aurora, they were memorising Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, and I felt that during the first few rehearsals they looked at where the music stand usually is, and then something clicked and they all started observing what was necessary musically, it took us a while to get there but that’s where we are now in the Chamber Symphony. And we are able to stand further apart, it’s acoustically ideal for us to hear each other. Because we are doing more and more of this synchronizing, so when I need to lock into the violas or the seconds, I look at them, whereas in normal life I would be reading music and I would have to lock in by listening. And it’s an interesting gear shift in the brain, and it does allow for an entirely new level of communicating gestures when they’re about to happen. Because the nature of the preparatory movement tells so much. There’s always this secret mechanism – it does create such a confidence. Now they just click.

Will different things happen on each night?

Certainly. There’s a freedom about the exact nature of vibrato, bow speed, places where we don’t want to create an unwanted amount of emphasis, and the exactness of those things is on an entirely new level. Because we’re doing five in a row now we’ll probably end up on an ensemble level that we haven’t experienced before. It’s very exciting. Something spectacular is going on here, and things like the loan of instruments from the Dextra Musica Foundation. There was this wonderful idea in Finland by this comedic writer a couple of years ago that we should declare war on Norway and surrender after one second so they would have to take us, then we’d be fine.

Finland is doing pretty well, I think.

We’re doing all right.

You have the conducting. You had lessons with the great Jorma Panula, right? Your conducting of the Philharmonia at the Festival Hall was very clear.

I try to not be confusing! It’s a good starting point. But yes, I did go to some of his masterclasses, and I intend to go to more of them, I’ve been around long enough so I can do strange stuff, but I have a job with Helsinki Philharmonic starting this autumn as a principal guest, and it’s not usual that someone who has a job like that goes to conducting lessons

There’s never any end to what you can learn from someone like that.

Exactly, there’s always a good reason to go and talk to him. He has this ability to say one extremely focused thing that then grows into a garden of things in your head, he just says it at the exact right moment, so you won’t forget. Very, very simple things, and then he very easily teaches you how to observe what you’re doing and catch the unnecessary things, the things that send a confusing signal to the orchestra, But it’s only until very recently that I’ve felt the conducting goes into my system the way violin playing does, that I can allow it to happen rather than having to do it.

Panula allows freedom, doesn’t he?

There is this old-fashioned TV-screen sized shape and rather small box where you can ideally operate, but it’s like a phase that you go through, but then people advance and shape their own languages. So many are in good shape now. We have Jukka-Pekka Saraste taking over from Susanna Mälkki at the Helsinki Philharmonic. We’re doing something that I want to bring to this orchestra too, I have a friend who’s an extremely gifted chef, he’s very young, he’s worked at Noma in Copenhagen for most of his professional life, so when the pandemic hit a couple of restaurant owners in Helsinki decided to invite him over to Finland and give him a team of maybe 30 people, and time and space to do what he wanted, have a pop up restaurant but build it the way you want to. So he got the team and one day they would have ballet lessons, the next day they would have yoga, ice hockey, running, sauna, swimming, do things together, and in the evenings just cook for each other. Then they opened a restaurant for a few weeks, and they basically sang and danced through the service each evening, they were the happiest bunch of underpaid chefs! I got to go and dine there one evening, because I knew the guy, and I started thinking, we should do this.

Helsinki Phil is 102 musicians, so I introduced this idea to my boss there, who is absolutely lovely, that we give a portion of the orchestra to someone who brings something absolutely extraordinary to the table, and gives this team the freedom for a couple of weeks to do whatever they want, to give them a space, just to have a process. So we’re doing it, the first one I think is in spring next year, it’s a dance theatre choreographer person from Finland who does something slightly related to Punchdrunk, immersive theatre where you’re not really aware who is a performer and who is an audience member, so he will get 20 members of Helsinki Phil for three weeks, and who knows what will happen? In a way Mikkel our director here has had something like that for this project, he came up with a concept and he showed up and made us do it.  I think particularly in the bigger orchestras one of the problems is that too many people feel like they’re not being heard, they studied for 15 years and then they play 40 years in the violin section. And there are some brilliant ideas to fix this. There’s actually a lot of research going into it in Finland at the moment, Swedish Radio have been doing brilliant things with big pieces being prepared by small groups of orchestral members, in various constellations, so you might be rehearsing Bartok Concerto for Orchestra in a small room with viola, trombones, percussion, bass, and you get reminded of what fantastic colleagues you have. Then when you eventually put it together at the end of the season with everyone, you feel much more connected and appreciated. This is something I think the entire symphonic orchestra community should pay more attention to, and we are. But also in a smaller orchestra, they are all brilliant people – they all could have my job, basically, the idea of presenting ideas and having the orchestra take them on board,

In the UK it only happens in smaller ensembles.

Also it takes time

And money. Things are getting healthier in Ireland.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra is marvellous, They have this wonderful situation where there was a trad music composer, pianist, educator, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, he made the Chamber Orchestra a part of the University of Limerick. They’ve had Jörg Widmann a lot. Years ago I went to the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, Francis Humphrys was running it, and we would play some concerts in Bantry House, and I asked him about how much he takes concerts out to the more rural areas he said not so much. He felt that in many regions there was the feeling that chamber music was something they didn’t want too much to do with. There as in Finland the wealth of traditional music and the playing styles that we could learn from, and gradually more through baroque players collaborating with trad music players, the talents and the styles and the expressions, are coming gradually together.

I met the Danish Quartet for the first time in Bantry House, and we went to a pub where they had a music room, and we had to wait while they were playing, and we were all trying to work out Irish tunes based on listening. Wwhen you go to a Scandinavian dance festival one of the main points is trying to make it as orchestral as possible, everyone inventing voices and playing bass lines and harmonies, and there it’s not like that, you play the tune, and they were making grave mistakes by playing a chord and the experts turn to look at you in a way that will stop you. But I think in a way what we do has become more uniform in partly sad ways, in that the local dialect has been erased too much, and this movement, learning from trad players, might be one way of reinstalling some of these things, and observing maybe more things like Beethoven 7, the fact that he was arranging a lot of Scottish and Irish trad tunes and then [sings the main dotted rhythm of the first movement], maybe what he’s doing is figuring out a way of notating this, the very crumpled little pile of notes you will find in Irish and Scottish tunes. And I think the last movement of Seven there s a tune [sings, and it immediately sounds Scottish] that’s dangerously close to that. I might be inventing it all, but I like the idea. And in Sibelius, the same thing, it’s probably not something that he would have been happy with, for people to talk about, the nearness of his melodies to certain trad tunes. But now we are.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters