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It’s fun at the top

by Karoliina Vesa

Pekka Kuusisto is an explorer on whose world map music has no borders. He is equally at home in concert halls and cosy clubs. The joy of music is in interaction. For the rapidly ageing world of classical music, personalities like Kuusisto are oases in a desert.
A couple of years ago, Finnish media received a strange sort of message. A very serious and credible press bulletin announced that violinist Pekka Kuusisto had changed his name. “From now on, the performer will be known as ‘Meidän Pekka’, ‘Our Pekka’ in English and ‘Vår Pekka’ in Swedish,” the e-mail message read. This was followed by the reasoning that the new name better reflected the musician’s immediacy in his relationship with himself and his audience.

It could almost have been true. Pekka Kuusisto is known as an all-purpose violinist with a bold disregard for musical borders and more than a bit of a twinkle in his eye. The only thing was that the bulletin was dated 1 April and was in fact a prank by his music festival, Meidän Festivaali (Our Festival). Nevertheless, it was deadpan enough for some journalists to take it at face value, and the announcement was duly published on the website of the Finnish Broadcasting Company, for instance.

Pekka Kuusisto, 37, recalls the joke with amusement backstage at the Musiikkitalo in Helsinki. “That was so much fun,” he says with a broad smile. He has been recording Sebastian Fagerlund’s Violin Concerto with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hannu Lintu. This session is the culmination of a busy autumn during which Pekka has been performing in Britain, in central and eastern Europe and in Singapore, besides receiving two distinguished music prizes.

“It’s been high flying for the past couple of months,” he says, but continues: “Then again, I never really have a normal autumn.” But he shows absolutely no signs of stress as he patters around the stage in his comfy lamb’s wool slippers and keeps the orchestra entertained with funny stories. Because that’s who he is: Our Pekka.


Pastures new

Pekka Kuusisto became a household name in Finland when he won the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition at the age of 18 in 1995. But he had actually already been something of a celebrity before that. He and his brother Jaakko had appeared as child violinists in the hugely popular Viuluviikarit (Violin Rascals) educational TV series. The two stolid brothers in their corduroy trousers became an enduring image for many. The Kuusisto family has made a major contribution to Finnish music over many generations. Pekka’s father Ilkka Kuusisto, like his late grandfather Taneli Kuusisto, is a composer who is also involved in Finnish musical life in many other capacities. Pekka’s mother Marja-Liisa is a music teacher, so music was very much present at home. “We listened to a lot of different kinds of music, classical and jazz and what have you. We also did a lot of improvising, which I am now really happy about,” says Pekka.

This broad understanding of musical genres learned at home was Pekka Kuusisto’s salvation, in a way. After winning the Sibelius Competition, he went to the USA to study and returned to Finland with his calendar booked solid. But the twenty-something young man was not attracted by the life of a young star violinist, with endless Tchaikovsky and other classic violin concertos. He was losing the joy of making music. The turning point was the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, where he was taken by a friend. “That was just insane,” he recalls. “The swing and joy of making traditional music swept me off my feet. I started improvising more at that time, particularly in rock bands, and of course I then also started using various electronic gadgets.”


If you play it, they will come

As a result of his childhood experiences and the Kaustinen epiphany, Pekka Kuusisto has made a trademark of ignoring genre boundaries. Within the space of a single week he may be found both playing Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto and performing with a folk music band. He also plays with a number of more or less regularly meeting ensembles, such as the four-member folk music group The Luomu Players, not to mention his work with performers of pop, rock, hip hop, metal and electronic music.

Pekka himself says that he just wants to make good music, nothing more. “Messing about with different kinds of music keeps you healthy, and it’s good fun!” he says. Other people have caught on too. In October, Pekka received the Music Prize of the Nordic Council of Ministers for his broad-mindedness and his stage charisma. At the prize gala, he charmed his audience – improvising, of course. Less than a month later, he received the State Prize for Music in Finland, this time on behalf of Our Festival.

A question about whether he consciously plans his career makes him thoughtful. “No, I don’t have a plan,” he finally admits. “My work philosophy is about people. Some people just have the sort of personality that makes a light go on in your head, and you feel that this is something I want to be part of.” But playful though it may seem, commuting between genres is by no means easy. The world of classical music operates on a much longer time span than, say, folk music bands. A certain portion of Pekka’s calendar is blocked off for years ahead, but he keeps part of it deliberately blank to give room to his own projects. “It’s a balancing act,” he sighs. “You also have to trust that people will still ask you to perform in the future even if you say no today.”

For the time being, however, this is not something that he has had to worry about. He has been on the books of HarrisonParrott, a respected London artist management agency, for more than 15 years. They let him be himself and pose for photos in anything he likes, white tie or sweater. “My agent knows me and knows what I need. They probably turn some things down without even telling me, which is fine,” says Pekka with a smile.


Dusting off the concert halls

Over the past couple of years, Pekka has been working hard to rejuvenate classical concerts. His interest in dance plays a part in this. He was inspired by Minna Tervamäki and Kaari Martin, who created choreography to his recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. This was followed by live performances where he performed the concerto to piano accompaniment. This autumn, Pekka was involved in a production where dancers from the Richard Alston Dance Company performed to four different works played by the Britten Sinfonia. Pekka was the violin soloist and also conducted the orchestra.

“I want to make the traditional concert occasion more diverse. I am basically interested in anything that is not part of the mainstream orchestral stuff. For instance, last autumn I visited the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as guest leader, and the programme featured Reich, Adams and Bach. There were long pauses between works as the harpsichord was carried in and out, so I thought, why not play some polska-type folk music to pass the time. It seemed to fit the mood very well. But the audience were amazed. It’s just so easy to shock people in this genre, even without trying,” he says.

He has latterly learned just how conservative the field of classical music can be, working with his new quartet-lab quartet. This one-year-old ensemble came about when both Pekka and violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja independently of one another realised just how incomplete a string player’s life is without string quartet playing. This led to quartet-lab, whose other two members are violist Lilli Maijala and cellist Pieter Wispelwey. A recital at Wigmore Hall had the critics enraptured, but finding further performances for the programme suddenly proved very difficult, because it included Black Angels by George Crumb, which requires electronics.

“Electronics and contemporary music are things that I almost always have to fight for. They are still not considered a self-evident part of this scene,” Pekka says with disdain. He is increasingly performing in places where such things are appreciated. The quartet-lab story eventually ended well, though, since the group will after all be performing Black Angels again not only at Wigmore Hall but also at the chamber music halls of such ultra-conservative venues as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Konzerthaus in Vienna.


Searching for musical slow food

Pekka has been particularly active in exploring new types of concert at Our Festival, where he is the Artistic Director. He originally shared this position with his brother Jaakko, but he has had sole responsibility for the festival since 2007. Based around Tuusula Lake, in a landscape steeped in cultural heritage, the festival is a sort of laboratory for Pekka’s unending flow of ideas. Audiences at Our Festival find themselves wandering in the woods, along the lake and in cowsheds, and enjoying classical music juxtaposed with all other kinds of music.

Above all, Our Festival is a place where he can play the music he likes with his good friends and not worry about tight rehearsal schedules. This is a sort of musical slow food, in reaction to the hectic pace of professional orchestras, which at its worst may lead to a sort of ‘assembly line’ of classical music.

“The more I perform concertos, the more I feel I would like to have time to really dig into the details. You can’t get into that over a couple of days of orchestra rehearsals. It’s a luxury to be able to rehearse the same work for a week with the same ensemble,” Pekka says with palpable excitement.

This, if anything, is his blueprint for the future: he would like to do projects that take months to prepare and are then performed over a period of, say, six months. This kind of thing is incompatible with the orchestral world, and Pekka knows it very well. “Making music is communicating without words. Everyone gives something to everyone else. In the best case, the ultimate goal is not to play the concert but to understand the music,” he says.

Our Festival is one of the few anchor points in Pekka’s life. He has no other regular engagements at the moment, and most of his performances are abroad. He would like to establish a more permanent base, though. “I would like to spend more time in Finland and share my ideas about music without having my face prominently displayed so much. Teaching is not my thing, but I’ve been toying with this idea of a chamber orchestra running under a music education institution,” he says.


A violinist for a new age

So what should a 21st-century violinist be like?

“I very much fear that a 21st-century violinist must be good-looking, impeccably dressed and preferably female,” Pekka says jokingly. He suspects that an island of glamour is emerging in the classical music world, light on the music and heavy on the appearance. On that island, people like Pekka Kuusisto who enjoy playing folk music and wearing woollen socks are freaks. But he is not worried. “The paying public likes that sort of thing, and I can understand them. I would like to see a modern violinist being an unprejudiced musician, not afraid to explore the properties of his instrument over the entire spectrum and not afraid to conduct the orchestra from behind his instrument. And I am not just saying this to get more work!” he grins.

Pekka has several trademarks as a performing violinist, one of the most apparent being a very economic use of vibrato. He is no purist, but he admits to being averse to playing where vibrato is the default setting. “You should not have vibrato as the norm and then switch off the vibrato as an effect; it should be the other way around. I was just reading the notes to a CD by Isabelle Faust where she quoted Joseph Joachim: he felt that vibrato is a tool suitable only for truly proficient and sophisticated experts, a dangerous spice that should be used with care. Today, it is exactly the opposite. Senza vibrato is something that you do, and vibrato is the default state of being. So if you play without vibrato, you automatically get branded as a curiosity-seeker.”

He is also bothered by the fact that recordings have tended to homogenise musical interpretations. “The invention of recording destroyed a lot of the immediacy of music-making. Everyone now knows exactly how someone like Heifetz performed the Sibelius Violin Concerto. It has become more of a standard than the score itself.” Audiences and music professionals are also used to hearing certain kinds of interpretations, and Pekka has noticed this too.

“There was this composer who could not get his head around my reading of the opening measures of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1. When we talked about it, we finally established that all that was really bothering him was that I was playing with very little vibrato and a little laid back in tempo. I thought it was quite justifiable, because at that point in the score it says sognando, sleepily. But this was all new to him, as it wasn’t your usual Romantic, sugar-coated Disney version.”


No great worries

Pekka is famed for his stage charisma. This was one of the things that prompted him to take a break a couple of years ago. “I could no longer get into the mood without an audience. It was scary, because it made me wonder where I would find the adrenaline rush once I had stopped getting it from the audience too,” he recalls. Fortunately, his agent shrewdly proposed a break, and he took four months off. That was the first time since 1989 he had taken that much time off from performing, and for the first time in 30 years he spent a month without touching his instrument. He rediscovered his joy, and now he is himself again. “It was the smart thing to do, and I just had a bad scare, nothing more serious than that,” he says.

Indeed, Pekka has had no great worries in the course of his career, although there are certain things he does regret. “Some things would have been best left undone,” he says. “Some ten years ago, I was on TV dressed in a nun’s habit, with lip gloss and fake specs. My character was named Terttu. The programme aired on Good Friday, and I was staying with my parents. My mother was less than happy at breakfast the next morning,” he grins.

Pekka Kuusisto has not yet been able to fulfil all of his dreams. One of his longest-standing aims is to write the music and lyrics for an entire disc of pop-style songs and record them, and then perform them live too. He initially intended to complete this project before he turned thirty, but this never happened. Now, at 37, the time has finally come. “I have a gig booked in August, so I have to do it now,” he says, brimming with enthusiasm.


 Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi