Elina Vähälä

My Kuhmo

"The Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival is part of me, just as I am part of Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival."

My Kuhmo

Thirty years with a violin, 22 of them under the spell of the spirit of Kuhmo. My image of Kuhmo is of a trinity: The Kuhmo Violin School, the Virtuosi di Kuhmo and the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festilval. One could say that the Virtuosi are descended from the Violin School, and all made sacred by the festival's sacred spirit.

I treasure the Kuhmo Violin School in my heart. I cannot stress too much what it meant to me. Seppo Kimanen's vision was absolutely brilliant: young violin students meeting at Kuhmo five times a year for five years to be tutored by three of the finest Russian teachers. The courses were, with the exception of the summer one, held right out in the wilds at Petäjäniemi Holiday Village at Lentiira. The athmosphere was intense, intimate, warm and inspiring. The beautiful setting and the hospitality of Eija and Toivo Heikkinen guaranteed marvelous conditions both for learning and for a pleasant time together. We had the most magnificent teachers imaginable. Zinaida Gilels, a solid rock with X-ray eyes who untiringly saw to technique; Ilja Gumbert, an astounding virtuoso and a tremendously original artist, and Pavel Vernikov, a darling with festival audiences, a divinely gifted musician and comedian – what a loss to the theatre he has been!

In summer the Violin School went out on the festival beat. The world of chamber music opened up before me, new and wonderful, for music in my home town, Lahti, centered mostly on its symphony orchestra. At Kuhmo we greedly devoured concerts, sitting out even the late-night sessions with drooping eyelids until the early hours of the morning. With ears pricked and beady eyes we followed the performances, especially those by our teachers. Looking back, I can only wonder how Gumbert and Vernikov had the stamina. For in addition to their numerous performances they gave a considerable number of violin lessons. Only once in the whole five years did the otherwise always so amenable Grubert act more like Harmonica than a violin professor. This was at the height of the festival, a few hours before he was due to go on as the leader in the Tchaikovsky Sextet. I came out virtually unscathed, but the next victim was driven to a tear or two.

Vernikov, at the hectic height of the festival, had the amusing habit of expressing what he thought if his pupil's lesson performance failed to impress him. He simply turned to the window and began practicing something of his own. And it's amazing what punch this put into the pupil's playing! All in all I can say that without the Kuhmo Violin School my own studies would simply have progressed along the safe, well-beaten track, at the steady, grey pace demanded by the Conservatory exam programme. The Violin School put a far brisker wind in my sails and set my studies on a completely new track.

In 1990 the Violin School students became the violin sections of a chamber orchestra in which the other players were festival artists. We played Mozart's Adagio and Fugue, Haydn's Cello Concerto in C starring Natalia Gutman, and R. Strauss's Metamorphoses. The repertoire was, to put it mildly, difficult for us violinists, many of those only experience of orchestral playing was at conservatory level. Getting this repertoire up to concert standard turned out to be a hard-labour camp such as I've never known before or since. The conductor was the man who was later to be one of my foremost musical mentors – Peter Csaba. At around that time Peter looked just like a pirate, beard and all, and his character was stormy, too. A formidable guy!

The violin sectionals began at nine in the morning. Peter grilled us until lunchtime, after which the orchestral rehearsals proper began. They easily stretched until ten at night. With all the stops out. Hard work calls for hard play, so of course we had to lark around a bit with the others, if not quite until the wee hours, then almost. Then set the alarm for five to nine, clean your teeth, leap into your trousers and short trot to the rehearsal, which was very handy, being downstairs in the house where we were staying.

I remember one morning when Peter was going on at great length of the violinists. I was resting on the music stand behind me. I don't know how long time I'd been like that when suddenly I was dragged back from my distant land of Nod to hear Peter saying: “Wakie, wakie!” I reckon that was the first time I'd seen a smile fighting its way out of Peter's pirate mask. The concert in Kuhmo Church was a success. Metamorphoses was a thrilling foretaste of what can be achieved in music with a string orchestra.

The Virtuosi di Kuhmo got launched on its present stage in life soon after Metamorphoses, in 1992. Along the way we have passed countless works, concerts, recordings and the tremendous sense of all being in on something together. In the early years Peter ruled with a rod of iron, but we were, after all, very young and we needed a lot of practice. On the other hand we were also promising material, excellent musical Plasticine. We spent hours seeking just the right tone and phrasing and polished our intonation at countless sectionals. I can recall the butterflies in my tummy before the first time we played Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence or Bartok's Divertimento. Even back then a trail typical of the orchestra was already visible: we blossomed out in concerts.

The virtuosi di Kuhmo have now been an independent ensemble for nearly 15 years. We give concerts all year round, we do the programme planning ourselves in partnership with our visiting artists and the concert organisers, we enjoy the skills we have honed by playing together over the years and we come prepared to work our fingers to the bone. Yet there is always very special feel to coming to Kuhmo: a tight schedules, short nights, puffy eyes in the morning and the atmosphere that hits the ceiling at the concerts, the sauna evenings and the Salakamari. I also have memories of numerous exotic lodgings. Or how does a fortnight spent at a welfare center sound (some lucky soul always got the sample room with a hatch to the toilet)? Or a former police station (yes, with a lockup downstairs)?

I warmly congratulate the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival on its 40th anniversary. And I'd like to congratulate myself as well just a tad, because the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival is part of me, just as I am part of Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival.

Elina Vähälä
2009