The Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival has undoubtebly had more of an impact on me as a musician than any other musical event. Its broad profusion of music has moulded my profile as an artist.
It is thought Kuhmo that I have acquired the bulk of my chamber music repertoire. I first performed at Kuhmo in 1981, when I was 22. Before that I had, however, attended a music camp in the 1970s at which the teachers included chamber music gurus Eli Goren, William Pleeth and Ralf Gothóni. Over the years I have heard innumerable fine performances at Kuhmo. Among those that have particularly stuck in my memory from the early 1980s are Krystian Zimerman’s effervescently free and romantic Schumann piano quintet (still to my mind the perfect interpretation of this work) and a Schubert Trout beyond compare in its bubbling clarity. Or then Oleg Kagan’s fiery glow as leader of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence sextet. In the mid-1980s there appeared in the packed hall of Kontio School, where the temperature was little short of that of a well-heated sauna and the mood was already hectic, a monster in a black dress coat (also permissible outfit in Kuhmo!): Grigori Sokolov! After a performance of breath-taking intensity of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata the hall was as if struck bu lightning. If I remember correctly, this was Sokolov’s first visit in Kuhmo.
During my first years at Kuhmo I was naturally something of an apprentice, and I was not always entrusted with the assignments that, keen and ambitious young man that I was, I coveted. The standard repertoire, the popular works fell to the stars from abroad. On the one hand there was Gidon Kremer and friends or one year a (Soviet) Russian crowd, and on the other hand the Finns. Being by nature more or less easy-going, I accepted this. Looking back, I feel it was of primary importance that I was playing, say, contemporary Finnish music, Kokkonen, Martinů or Copland even then. That apprenticeship laid the foundations for diversity that would appear to be one reason why I have been invited, year after a year, to take part in this magnificent event. The pace of work at Kuhmo has sometimes been truly frenzied, especially in the 1990s. At its busiest, the day would take in rehearsals, teaching and performances from nine in the morning to ten in the evening. During the night there might further be a sponsor disc to make. To say nothing of the soirées where I might sometimes find myself pllying at three or five in the morning. But the work has always been inspiring and challenging, and the audience reception rewarding and stimulating. Which is why I have not found working at Kuhmo hard, and if there has been any stress, it has been of positive kind. I remember one year when the thene was contemporary American music. An American pianist had cancelled and I had two days in which to learn seven new contemporary works. On top of my other commitments, pupils and rehearsals! I have since completely forgotten the names and the composers of the works. (Such tremendous faith one part of the festival’s director is ofcourse flattering, but it could be risky. And I must say Seppo Kimanen never gave himself an easy time either during the festival.) As regards my present Kuhmo repertoire, now that I’ve been able to rummage through music of all kinds and my favourite pieces, too, many times over for a couple of dacades, I long to be presented with some unfamiliar good compositions (regardless of style and period). Yet it is always a great pleasure to play the Trout or the Brahms piano quartets and to try to give them freshness and new perspective.
How, then, does one relax during an intensive two-week spell such this? Sauna evenings are, of course, one way. To me the presence of my family was, especially in the 1980s-90s, important when there was a vast amount of playing at every festival and all the evening sessions. The fact that I might see my family daily for even a short time at least, cut myself off completely from the festival fever for a while and do such ordinary summer things as swimming, picking berries, jogging. During the two weeks at the height of the Finnish summer holiday season I did get at least a whiff of a holiday… At the beginning I mentioned a few of the fine performances and artists I have heard at Kuhmo. I could put it another way: there have at Kuhmo been countless undoubtedly fine concerts (lots, lots more) that I have not heard. A few years ago the festival’s present Artistic Director, Vladimir Mendelssohn, once repilied to collegue who apologized for not getting to hear his concert, In principle we don’t listen to each other. This comment, delivered with the dry humour typical of Vladi, contains more than grain of truth. Even though there was now and then time to listen to concerts, my receptivity was most often under great strain because the days were already so full of music, playing and listening.
Why do I use the past tense so much? Because many things seem since to have changed at Kuhmo, and not just with the new Artistic Director. The chamber music soirées and Chamber Music Fever went out even in Seppo’s day, and the number of concerts has been reduced. This has naturally made the musicians’ load easier and even permitted them to abandon (or at least relax) Vladi’s in principle; they have the energy to listen to and even enjoy concerts now and then. Another thing is how the audience experiences the event. Has the festival lost some of its spontaneity now that the soirées and Fever have gone? The trend in the attendance figures does not appear to indicate any problem in this respect. (The spontaneity of a performance is maybe not enhanced by not choosing and rehearsing a piece until the day of the concert, whereas the quality may suffer.)
Although regular solo work, playing piano works and concertos is important to me, I could not imagine being without chamber music, making music with others. The rehearsals and performances with musicians from all corners of the world and varied backgrounds have taught me just how many different ways there are of playing well. The very fact of seeing other aspects of a work is richness in itself. One’s omn interpretations do not need to be cast in stone or invariable. Deviating from them, compromising, does not mean relinquishing one’s identity.
True, there has sometimes been fiction: the bossy or know-all attitude of some musicians might cause tension at rehearsals. It is wisest to encounter such situations with a shrug and without getting hot under the collar: the performance will soon be over, and then with any luck never again. Maybe these musicians are vanishing species, because I cannot now remember coming across any for years. Despite the vast number of fine music festivals in the world and in Finland, too, the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival has often been the high point of the year for me. There are many reasons for this: the familiar, peaceful milieu, the intimate interaction and closeness between the performers and the magnificent audiences, the copious repertoire that always sports something new I have never heard before in addition to the old favourites, and the two excellent concert halls. There have been first-class facilities for practicing and teaching at the Tuupala Museum, which has allowed me to use one of its buildings for many years now. And last but not least: the brilliant festival organization that sees to just everything. Thanks to this, the musician can concentrate entirely on the whole reason for coming there: to make music.