On the evening of 19 July 1970 Seppo Kimanen was in the vestry looking into the nave of a church. Kuhmo Chamber Music’s first concert was just starting and Kimanen was checking to see how many were in the audience. He counted eight.

Twenty-three years on, in the Chamber Music office they were counting how many concert seats had been sold for the festival that had just ended. It was 47,507. A huge international festival had grown from a very modest beginning. How so?

Kimanen thinks it is this modest start that lies at the heart of the success story. “There was time to try out ideas with little interference; to fail and then try something new,” he recalls.

“It was a quiet period of evolution, with small audiences and no competition from other festivals and no real expectations. The first years were a time of experimentation.”

An uncertain beginning

In the early years hardly anyone thought that Kuhmo would become the international success it did. When each festival ended people were not even sure if another would take place the following summer. “It was almost as if someone was twisting our arm to do those first summer festivals,” says Lea Kallio, who has been involved in the project from the start. “There was no money, and in his summing up Seppo Kimanen would wonder – almost tearfully – how we could go on. We always had the feeling that that would be the last one.”

A few years later, however, the situation began to change rapidly. One major factor was the completion of the new school in its scenic surroundings in 1974. Something happened right away in the new hall with its modern acoustics – something that made Kuhmo different from other festivals. When Kimanen stood up on Saturday 3 August to introduce the concert he fell flat on his face. He got up off the floor and told the audience that this had been the famous piece Kimanen’s Flight (as opposed to that of the bumble bee!), and everyone burst out laughing. Surely this could not happen in a concert of serious classical music! But at Kuhmo it did, and since then audiences have been moved but have also been able to laugh.

The very next year another important step was taken when Kuhmo Chamber Music became a member of Finland Festivals. The Kuhmo event gained visibility, and by 1976 audience numbers had doubled. When enough money had been collected for a decent grand piano, Kuhmo Chamber Music acquired an altogether new status.

Enormous budget increases

While the Festival gained a reputation it was also easier to obtain funding. The budget increased 10 times in the first five years, and even those responsible for putting the Festival on marvelled at the way it had become such a big happening’, as Sohvi Kemppainen called it. But she had a good explanation for its growth and success: when something genuine is done in a generous, heartfelt way for the benefit of genuine people, the message gets through.

Its rapid development was not even halted when Seppo Kimanen went off in 1977 to direct the Helsinki Festival. Yoshiko Arai became a very able Artistic Director and Tuulikki Karjalainen was responsible for practical matters.

“Kuhmo could become the new Salzburg,” said Yoshiko Arai in an interview, and that was actually the way it was starting to look. Nevertheless, no one believed it would go on forever. Tuulikki Karjalainen was afraid that, if it got bigger, it would lose its original appeal and there would not be enough resources left to organise a large event.”

But a further success factor was the new approach to planning the programme. Seppo Kimanen returned to Kuhmo in 1979 and came up with a new idea: first they would plan what to play, and then decide who would play it. This notion would not necessarily suit everyone, but soon Kuhmo started to attract a group of versatile and flexible musicians. The regulars were able to adapt to playing with unknown musicians but then break away to do their own thing in new, less conventional concerts. The Festival now lasted two weeks and had reached a mature stage, both externally and internally, and there was no longer anything stopping it now.

The stars arrive

With the arrangements in place, all that was needed were well-known musicians to raise standards and boost interest globally. In 1979 the violinist Gidon Kremer came as a guest and two years later the pianist Krystian Zimerman performed at Kuhmo.

What on earth attracted them to Kuhmo, though? Seppo Kimanen thinks it was the stress-free atmosphere that allowed them to be themselves. He mentions the saunas, views over the lake, the forest landscape, the sheer tranquillity of the place. He says he pampered the artists terribly, and Yoshiko backed him up. If someone wanted a hamburger at four o’clock in the morning they always somehow managed to oblige.

Artists who tour the world knew very well how lonely hotel rooms can be. But at Kuhmo there were sauna evenings, people could meet one another, and they could play music together. That is why Kuhmo was so popular, even if the fees paid were not great. Kimanen admits that both Kremer and Zimerman played for free. “They felt that Kuhmo was something unique for them.” Gidon Kremer was keen to tell the world that Salzburg was not the most important music festival on the planet – Kuhmo was!

More illustrious players were booked in 1982, with Oleg Kagan and Natalia Gutman appearing at Kuhmo for the first time. And when the violinist Pavel Vernikov, pianist Konstantin Bogino and multiartist Radu Chisu joined the group, it made many of the summers in the 1980s unforgettable.

Radu Chisu proved to be vital as, at the end of the 1980s, there were no fewer than four unscheduled late night concerts that had to be filled with a lot of frankly silly entertainment. The Artistic Director turned to Radu Chisu. “You only had to ask him to go on stage and think of something that would make the audience laugh, and he did,” recalls Seppo Kimanen.

Need for a new hall

Now there was everything needed for success and the Festival expanded continuously. The number of concerts put on increased to more than 80, the revelry went on into the small hours, and eventually in 1989 a 24-hour concert was organised.

But expansion was now restricted. The church and school could no longer serve as adequate venues and the organisers started to think about a new concert hall. That felt like a daunting task, since the town of Kuhmo was in dire straits with the Kostamus Project in nearby Russia coming to an end. But once again Kuhmo made the impossible possible.

Several times construction of the new Kuhmo Arts Centre seemed imminent. At the last moment a suitable site was secured, just before work on a new block of flats was due to start. At the same time Finland was hit by a deep recession. In the end, that only turned out to be of benefit for the construction project, as state funding was received to boost employment. Autumn 1991 was a stressful time, however, because Kuhmo was losing its special status as unemployment rose everywhere. The building work had only two weeks to start before the additional state support would be lost, but in July 1993 the splendid new hall was ready to receive festival guests.

Kuhmo was now established as one of the more outstanding events in the summer festival calendar. It was much lauded in the international press and was described as “probably the world’s best chamber music festival.” Audiences flocked there. Thanks to the new concert hall, 1993 saw a record 47,000 seats sold – one that is unlikely ever to be broken.

The people of Kuhmo an important success factor

The Festival’s success was essentially based on the fact that it was the right idea at the right time. Of course, other people had similar ideas elsewhere, so why was Kuhmo such a unique success story? One important factor was the willingness on the part of local people to make the Festival work.

Tuulikki Karjalainen said at one point that the people in the community were interested in it and wanted it. They discovered something in it for themselves, and this had been the case ever since. She said the Festival would not work if it was produced by outsiders.

“We brought something unique to Kuhmo, and the local people, for their part, brought us something that you would not find in Paris or London,” says Seppo Kimanen. “In a fairly small place like this there are no artificial barriers between the audience and the performers. A sense of community grew naturally in a restricted space surrounded by wilderness.”

The people of Kuhmo were keen to be involved and generally muck in. Executive Director Sari Rusanen points out that it is always the Artistic Directors and the artists themselves that stand out as those who make the Festival what it is, but without the staff and the voluntary input there would be no Kuhmo Chamber Music. “Chamber music is not a solo performance but a collective effort and a show of strength.”

Eye of the storm

People coped even if the pressure was on. “Cleaning, helping out in the kitchen, office work, borrowing and transporting pianos, ticket sales, ushering – all hustle and bustle,” says Tuulikki Karjalainen recalling the 1970s.

“Things happened: some of them funny and some completely crazy,” producer Ritva Eerola says about the early years. “It was a chaotic lack of organisation. When the Festival was on it was like being in the eye of the storm – all around you there was always noise, information and changing situations. It went on like that for two weeks.”

The pace of work is still upbeat, but there are still people willing to lend a hand from one year to the next. Where does such enthusiasm come from? Sarai Rusanen has an answer: “Together we are doing something that is not merely mundane. We get our strength from the music and working in an organisation. I tell the young folk that you rarely get a chance to do something that is just about the best thing in the world, but here you do.”

Is there anything to threaten continued success?

Kuhmo Chamber Music is now an established organisation and has a team of skilled employees. For that reason, the Festival’s success no longer even depends on key personnel or a change of Artistic Director. When in 2004 Seppo Kimanen decided to quit as Artistic Director after three decades of hard work, a successor was required who would know Kuhmo, have extensive international contacts and still be a first-class musician. The obvious candidate was Vladimir Mendelssohn, a tireless polymath, whose brilliance as a performer has been one of the main draws at Kuhmo since 1983.

In 1989 Tuulikki Karjalainen, Kuhmo’s original powerhouse, retired. Sari Rusanen took over, and she has worked full-time for the Festival since 1990.

The Festival has also solved its space problems, The church was refurbished in 1985, but that did not mean smaller audiences. Now Kontio School is no longer being used, and some of the concerts will now take place in the new school at Tuupala. The loss of the old hall is no threat to Kuhmo’s success, however.

“And no building has stood in the way of success,” says Sari Rusanen.

“If we can offer people the world’s finest music, the unexpected, and something new and fresh, as we have done so far, we will have everything we need to carry on.”

Marja-Stiina Suihko, chairperson of the Kuhmo Music Society, also has faith in Kuhmo’s future success: “As long as the repertoire remains of a high standard and continues to delight audiences under a summer sky, the future is guaranteed. Music will always be with us, as will audiences who love it.”

Juhani Koivisto

The writer has followed Kuhmo Chamber Music since 1985 and is the author of Kamarimusiikkia Kuhmossa, viisikymmentä ihmeellistä kesää (Chamber Music at Kuhmo, 50 Amazing Years, in Finnish), which appeared 2019.