Viitasaari was once again the crossroads for different generations of composers: from the “dinosaurs” Brian Ferneyhough and Harrison Birtwistle to recent breakthroughs such as Mark André and Pierluigi Billone, to name just a few, along with the Finnish Lauri Supponen and Heinz-Juhani Hofmann.
The Time of Music Festival opened its 34th edition with Hans Zender´s 33 Veränderungen über 33 Veränderungen: an interesting and skilful set of variations, based upon Beethoven’s Diabellis, excellently played by the Ensemble Modern – one of the prominent guests of this year. Viitasaari was once again the crossroads for different generations of composers: from the “dinosaurs” Brian Ferneyhough and Harrison Birtwistle to recent breakthroughs such as Mark André and Pierluigi Billone, to name just a few, along with the Finnish Lauri Supponen and Heinz-Juhani Hofmann. Following the festival’s tradition, there were workshops for young composers and musicians, plus an improvisation course: Ferneyhough’s, George E. Lewis’s, Steven Schick’s and the Ensemble Modern’s courses gathered more than a hundred students from all over the world, a record for Viitasaari.
The same spirit animated the choice of ensembles: one of the first concerts featured Ensemble Nikel, a young group originally from Israel. It was an energetic concert with electric guitar, saxophone, percussion and piano, and a good selection of new pieces including works by Billone and Chaya Czernowin. Another new group, Looptail, came from Holland and gave a fresh concert with playful yet meditative music such as Noriko Koide’s Drie Vensters and Yu Oda’s Behind the Scene.
The French Quatuor Diotima gave some of the best concerts of the week. The pure string quartet performed music ranging from high-level and interesting works by the young Miroslav Srnka and Núria Giménez Comas to the more mature Pesson and Ferneyhough. Diotima later teamed up with the Finnish Uusinta Ensemble in Birtwistle’s Pulse Shadows, the most intense and poetic moment of this year’s festival. The work is a set of songs upon poems by Paul Celan, alternating vocal parts (the enchanting Tony Arnold) with string quartet meditations, played with an intense and colourful sound palette. Diotima were involved in two of Ferneyhough’s major works: Quartet No. 2 (played twice, in different concerts) and the recent Schatten aus Wasser und Stein for quarter-tone oboe and quartet. At the end of the week the ensemble played new works by young members of the composition course.
Another vocal concert featured the Helsinki Chamber Choir conducted by Nils Schweckendiek, and Viitasaari Church was filled with precise and beautiful voices. Wennäkoski’s Ommel opened the evening, with a set of songs upon a Japanese poem translated into different languages. But the most eagerly awaited piece was Omakuva (Self-portrait) by Hoffman, one of the rare commissions of this year’s festival: a very particular work, setting words by the composer himself addressing matters of everyday life and touching on more important issues such as the father–son relationship, love and death. All this was spoken by the eight voices, who seldom sang short lines: an extreme but interesting choice, although the international audience would have benefited from having a printed text.
Lewis’s work was also a commission by the festival and the first choral piece written by the African American composer. Based upon Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s poem Fog, The Ancient World presented diverse vocal expressions, often making use of female voices in their upper registers alternating and contrasting with the deep male voices. The concert closed with a beautiful interpretation of Stelae for Failed Time from Ferneyhough’s opera Shadowtime; live and virtual voices surrounded the audience in the suggestive surroundings of Viitasaari Church – a most poetic and lively place in comparison with aseptic modern halls such as Ircam or the Pompidou Centre.
This performance confirmed that it is worth bringing the international contemporary music scene to this lonely countryside place: to give guests the shock of being in the middle of nowhere but also listening to new sounds while experiencing the smoke sauna and meditating beside a lake in the long and silent summer night.
Composer Paola Livorsi was born in Italy and has lived and worked in Helsinki since 2001. Her music has been performed in Finland, France, Germany and Italy. Paola Livorsi is interested in multidisciplinary projects and collaborates with the Aalto University Media Lab and is working on her PhD at the Sibelius Academy.
Photo: Ville Mattila