The year 2020 began with a bang, as WeJazz invited world-renowned and award-winning drummer Makaya McCraven from Chicago to the Ääniwalli club in Helsinki. The venue was filled to capacity, and the crowd stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the stage, where McCraven and the band raised the roof. This experience of collective ecstasy in a throng must be the best live gig memory of this extraordinary year for those who were present.
In another international guest appearance of high calibre, three fantastic musicians – the Hear in Now ensemble (in the photo) – arrived in Finland against a backdrop of ominous noises of a pandemic emerging from China. Cellist Tomeka Reid, bass player Silvia Bolognesi and violinist Mazz Swift performed a powerful programme in Käpylä Church on Friday 21 February. I posted on Facebook: “We are fortunate to be living at a time rich with live gigs!”
A cluster of live gigs occupied the beginning of March. Within one week, I heard Journal Intime from France in Tallinn, then Tom Harrell and Joyce Moreno with UMO at the Savoy JAZZFest, and on Sunday I attended the Women’s Day concert organised by Anna-Mari Kähärä at the Music Centre in Helsinki. On Monday 9 March, I took photos at the PuKama Chamber concert at G Livelab, where soprano Anu Komsi and violinist Minna Pensola (in the photo) performed György Kurtág’s impressive Kafka Fragments. Little did I know that this would be the last concert photo shoot that I would be doing that spring.
On 16 March, Finland went into lockdown as the coronavirus pandemic finally reached northern Europe.
April Jazz was completely cancelled at first, but in the end the Finnish ensembles on the programme performed live-streamed gigs.
The Tampere Biennale was cancelled but replaced with a radio festival, Tampere Biennale 2.0, organised jointly with the Finnish Broadcasting Company. Sitting at home, trying to get in the mood with a live stream, sometimes just the audio. Listening to recordings, walking, walking, walking... the city was deserted.
The only busy spot in Helsinki was the footpath around Töölönlahti bay, occupied by joggers as soon as the sun came out.
Streaming was gradually becoming the new normal. Large orchestras performed in small, chamber-sized ensembles and with no audience. The Helsinki Philharmonic (in the photo) invited me to document this strange practice on 15 May. The only people in the 1,700-seat auditorium of the Music Centre apart from the orchestra were myself and two camera operators working the live stream. The mood was puzzling but intense. It was wonderful to hear live music again – as a perk of the job!
The restrictions worked, they were eased at the beginning of June, and public events made a cautious comeback. DANTCHEV:DOMAIN, Anna Dantchev’s band (in the photo), held their postponed album release concert at Culture Centre Caisa. The gig was streamed, but there was also a live audience: a well disinfected and distanced crowd of 20. No one was allowed to move around during the concert, but an audience – however small – clearly made all the difference for the band.
All the major summer festivals were cancelled: Sideways, Pori Jazz, the Helsinki Festival, the Savonlinna Opera Festival, Flow and many minor ones too. But the small and agile Our Festival in Tuusula and Järvenpää, no stranger to unconventional solutions in past years, went ahead! The festival held micro-concerts repeated multiple times outdoors and in large halls with distanced seating. The organisers, musicians and listeners were all perceptibly grateful and happy for these intimate and precious moments. On 30 July, Mirjami Heikkinen (in the photo) recited poetry at Halosenniemi while the sun set over Tuusulanjärvi lake.
Coronavirus cases were on the uptick again as the Musequal festival was held in Janakkala, two concerts in one day. At Janakkala Church on Friday 7 August, the audience was well spaced apart; only a few wore face masks. The concerts were broadcast on radio by the Finnish Broadcasting Company. The audience liked what they heard, and the musicians clearly enjoyed it too. In the photo, the last notes of Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet are disappearing into the lucid August night.
At Kerava Jazz on 12 September, face masks and hand sanitiser were distributed to the audience, and the seating was distanced.
New practices had been taken on board, and everyone still wanted to hear live music: after all, a face mask does not cover the ears. Towards the end of the month, on 23 September, Sid Hille (in the photo) gave his 500th concert at Temppeliaukio Church and released a new solo piano disc. The audience of this matinee concert was treated to an intense, soul-bathing hour of piano music in a church acoustic.
The coronavirus situation was getting worse, but music event organisers were responding with robust measures.
VocalEspoo was held with strict safety measures in place. Audiences were guided through a hand sanitiser dispensing point, and everyone wore face masks (provided by the organisers for those who did not have one of their own) and were seated with only members of their own group close by, all groups a safe distance apart. Some of the performing choirs also wore face masks, which had a surprisingly negligible impact on their voices. The festival culminated in a concert of modern hymns by Sirkku Rantamäki at Olari Church on 25 October (in the photo).
The Tampere Jazz Happening, a classic of All Hallows’ weekend, was held with a fully Finnish programme. The duo of Timo Lassy and Teppo Mäkynen (in the photo) highlighted the consistently high quality of the ‘Made in Finland’ theme. The audience was limited to a handful, but the concerts at the Old Customs House were also streamed. On Friday 20 November, new coronavirus restrictions for Uusimaa were announced: all public events with more than 20 people were banned for three weeks. People in the music business cleared out their calendars once again, as nearly all events in the Helsinki metropolitan area for the rest of the year were cancelled.
Finland was on lockdown again, and the second wave of coronavirus wiped gig calendars clean. Sax player Daniel Erdmann and his band Velvet Revolution (in the photo) managed to have eight gigs on their tour of Finland before clubs and venues were locked up. Their last, streamed gig on 1 December was at Hietsun paviljonki in Helsinki, organised jointly with the Hietsu is Happening concert series and Vapaat Äänet. I was there taking photos and trying to stock up on the energy from live music for another long dry spell.
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Velvet Revolution at Hietsun Paviljonki in December.
All photographs by Maarit Kytöharju