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Checkpoint Viitasaari

This summer, the Time of Music festival will once again convert the sleepy little town of Viitasaari in the heart of the scenic Finnish lakeland into a nexus of contemporary music for creators, trends and audiences.
Boat Singing, Time of Music 2013.

Boat Singing, Time of Music 2013.

BY Hanna Isolammi


Now in its 34th year, Time of Music is the only annual festival of contemporary classical music in Finland. Held at the turn of June and July, it has achieved international awareness and recognition, and nearly all major Finnish and international contemporary composers have visited the festival.

In its early years, the festival profiled itself through its workshops and courses, but over time the focus has shifted to concerts. Johan Tallgren, artistic director since 2013, notes that this year the festival is expanding in a number of areas, particularly training. Four courses will be held at the festival this summer: masterclasses in composition and ensemble playing, and courses in improvisation and percussion. The record number of applications for the courses testifies to high demand: for example, the number of applications for the composition masterclass was six times higher than in the previous year.


Meetings between avant-garde generations

Johan Tallgren says that he wants the 2015 festival to be a forum where historical, political and aesthetic dialogues on contemporary music emerge from the various perspectives brought to the table by the participants. Instead of a specific, narrow focus area, the Time of Music festival prefers to work with broad, comprehensive themes. The theme for next summer, Checkpoint Viitasaari, allows for open and freely associating discussion among composers, musicians and audiences.

To bring a historical perspective to the festival, Tallgren invited a number of top names in contemporary music with long, distinguished careers, including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Brian Ferneyhough, George E. Lewis and Steven Schick. Long-established and appreciated contemporary ensembles Quatuor Diotima and Ensemble Modern are also among the guests, along with ensembles from the younger generation such as Ensemble Nikel and Looptail. Checkpoint Viitasaari will bring together various generations of the avant-garde, composers and performers alike, in a true meeting of minds.


Ferneyhough mentors composition masterclass

The composition masterclass proved to be the most popular item on the festival programme this summer, judging by the number of applications. The masterclass will be given by Brian Ferneyhough, a British-born composer who has lived in the USA for almost 30 years. This will be Ferneyhough’s second visit to Viitasaari after his first in 1993. That Ferneyhough’s masterclass would be so popular is no surprise, as he is one of the most important composers and composition teachers of his generation. He has taught many contemporary composers, and is currently working as Professor of Composition at Stanford University. His own works are known for their extreme complexity.

Ferneyhough’s masterclass will include both private tuition and group lectures. At the end of the masterclass, the students will have the chance to have their works performed by top ensembles: the string quartet Quatuor Diotima from France, which specialises in contemporary music; the Looptail sextet from Amsterdam; and Ensemble Nikel from Israel, which combines acoustic and electronic instruments. These will perform works created in the masterclass at a concert on the last day of the festival. The ensembles and Ferneyhough are coming to Viitasaari with support from the EU-funded and IRCAM-coordinated Ulysses Network, the purpose of which is to increase mobility of young composers and musicians within Europe, cultural exchange, world premieres and cross-discipline artworks.


Theseus Game

Another prominent British contemporary musician visiting Viitasaari this summer is Sir Harrison Birtwistle. He is one of the world’s most highly appreciated living composers, with performances all around the world. His composition style is often associated with ritual, metaphor and journeys. This will be his first visit to Viitasaari, spending a couple of days attending rehearsals of his works and participating in public discussions.

Birtwistle’s Theseus Game for 30 musicians and two conductors will be rehearsed in the ensemble-playing masterclass, which will be mentored by the well-known Ensemble Modern from Germany and conductors Frank Ollu and Steven Schick. Theseus Game is in the core repertoire of Ensemble Modern; it is said to be the best-known work of Birtwistle’s late period. Ensemble Modern premiered the work at the Ruhrtriennale festival in 2003, but this marks its first performance in Finland. Ensemble Modern will also appear at several concerts during the festival. Indeed, the ensemble’s visit to Viitasaari is one of the most ambitious performer residencies in the history of Finnish contemporary music festivals. Ensemble Modern previously visited Finland in 1987.


Premieres and future classics

As usual, the Time of Music festival will feature world premieres. The ensemble-playing masterclass will focus not only on Birtwistle’s Theseus Game but also on his new work fix, commissioned by the festival from Lauri Supponen. The festival also commissioned Heinz-Juhani Hofmann, composer of the widely noted miniature opera Ahti Karjalainen – elämä, Kekkonen ja teot [Ahti Karjalainen – life, Kekkonen and times] (2012), to write a choral work. Omakuva [Self-portrait] is a setting of the composer’s own text where he reflects on his background and his experiences of being a composer in today’s Finland. Omakuva will be premiered by the Helsinki Chamber Choir.

The Helsinki Chamber Choir will also be premiering another significant new work at Viitasaari, The Ancient World by George E. Lewis. He has enjoyed an extensive career, but this work dedicated to the Helsinki Chamber Choir is his first choral work. Lewis will also be coaching an improvisation course intended for composers and musicians, with topics such as free improvisation and open form materials, e.g. combining notation and text.

There will also be plenty of performances of works by guest composers Birtwistle, Ferneyhough and Lewis, performed by musicians including pianist Nicolas Hodges and UMO Jazz Orchestra. Ensemble Modern and other ensembles will be performing pieces from their core repertoire, many of them receiving their first performance in Finland. On the percussion course, Professor Steven Schick from the University of California will rehearse a cult classic, Drumming by Steve Reich, along with the percussion ritual For O, for O, the Hobby-Horse is Forgot by Sir Harrison Birtwistle.


Time of growth and time of expansion

Time of Music seems to be in an interesting transition. Not only is it expanding its concert programme and training palette, it is also attaining greater international awareness: about half of the course participants are from abroad. The fact that the festival has a long history and has become an established institution in its own right is not a burden: from one decade to the next, Time of Music has shown itself to be a vibrant festival with a capacity to reinvent itself.


Hanna Isolammi is a musicologist and music author. She is working on a doctoral dissertation on the orchestral works of Väinö Raitio at the University of Helsinki.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi


The Time of Music festival will be held in Viitasaari from 30 June to 5 July 2015.