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The two lives of Jaakko Kuusisto

by Anu Karlson

At closer range, Jaakko and Pekka Kuusisto do not even look alike. But it's been hard to convince the media that one is Jaakko and the other is Pekka (see VMQ 3/96). To start with, they have both in turn taken first prize in the national Kuopio Violin Competition. Then in 1990 Jaakko came fourth in the Sibelius Violin Competition at the age of 16, to be followed five years later by Pekka, who hit the jackpot when he was 19.
At closer range, Jaakko and Pekka Kuusisto do not even look alike. But it’s been hard to convince the media that one is Jaakko and the other is Pekka (see FMQ 3/96). To start with, they have both in turn taken first prize in the national Kuopio Violin Competition. Then in 1990 Jaakko came fourth in the Sibelius Violin Competition at the age of 16, to be followed five years later by Pekka, who hit the jackpot when he was 19. 

“We’d like to be able to work on some bigger projects together in the not too distant future – on disc as well,” Jaakko reports. “Surely people will realise then.”

The idea of appearing together has never been shunned by the Kuusisto brothers. Even as little boys they could sometimes be heard playing the Bach double violin concerto together, and as adults they have had plenty of musical fun with their brother-in-law, jazz pianist Iiro Rantala.

Complementary temperaments

As a little boy Pekka was a real scamp with a loud voice, Jaakko more reserved. Jaakko today regards his little brother as a shyer version of himself, at least at social occasions. As a player, Pekka is thought to be the more impulsive of the two, Jaakko the more circumspect, but Jaakko himself does not subscribe to this. “I’ll admit I always prepare everything carefully, but that does not mean this restricts me in performance.”

Both the Kuusistos began taking violin lessons with Géza Szilvay at the illustrious East Helsinki Music College and continued at the Sibelius Academy with Tuomas Haapanen. On heading for foreign climes four-and-a-half years ago, Jaakko and Pekka also took the same flight. Their destination was Indiana University and its music school whose teachers, Miriam Fried and Paul Biss, the boys had met at their master class at the Naantali Music Festival. Officially Jaakko was Miriam Fried’s pupil, Pekka Paul Biss’s. But because Fried travelled a lot and Biss didn’t, Jaakko often had lessons with Biss, too, and before an important performance or a competition, or depending on repertoire, they would both take all the lessons they could from both.

USA bureaucratic, Finland flexible

Eleven years at the Sibelius Academy (first in the Junior Academy, then in the Solo Department) and four years at Indiana make Jaakko well qualified to compare the Finnish and US music academies.

“People at the Academy find it a bit difficult to believe me when I say that studying at Indiana is much less flexible and more bureaucratic than it is here. In this respect, the Sibelius Academy is to my mind better than people credit.”

The biggest problem at the Indiana music school is, in Jaakko’s opinion, the inflexibility of the orchestral department. The orchestras are rehearsing all the time, even when there’s no concert coming up, and often with very mediocre conductors.

“Of course there are some good visiting conductors sometimes, and the school itself has a couple of good ones, such as Paul Biss. But the system is terribly rigid; it can be very difficult to get permission to be absent from an orchestral rehearsal because you’re giving a concert somewhere. It’s absolutely ridiculous! Overall, the aim of Indiana’s orchestral department seemed to be browsing through as much repertoire as possible, instead of making music on as high a level as possible. At the Sibelius Academy the orchestra works extremely well at the moment at least, and it gets results accordingly. l’he conductors are first-rate, the orchestral work is done in periods, and students can in principle choose which periods they wish to attend. As a result, the rehearsal motivation is high.

“Playing in the student orchestra at Indiana gave me rather a negative picture of orchestral work and it certainly didn’t inspire me to make orchestral playing my career!”

Chamber music was easier at Indiana because the students all lived near one another and that made rehearsals simpler to arrange. What is more, the teachers were always top musicians, such as Rostislav Dubinsky, founder of the Borodin Quartet, who has long been the main professor of chamber music.

Nine-year-old symphonist

There is at least one genre of music in which the brothers differ: Jaakko has already made a name for himself as a composer, too. He was only 12 when he began studying composition at the Sibelius Academy as a pupil of Eero Hämeenniemi.

“I had in fact been composing this and that even before this. The Jyväskylä Symphony Orchestra premiered the first movement of my first symphony in 1983, which I must say was pretty incredible… It was a children’s concert conducted by my father… For some reason I just had a tremendous urge to write something for a large symphony orchestra.”

Jaakko learnt the rudiments of orchestration from his father, Ilkka Kuusisto opera composer, conductor and arranger. He then went on to compose two more movements for his symphony and entered it for a children’s composing competition run by the Finnish Broadcasting Company. It is quite possible that no one believed he had produced this precocious orchestral piece himself, because it did not get anywhere in the competition.

His first real composition is by Jaakko’s reckoning his string quartet, which was premiered by his own ensemble at its last concert. Then came a piano trio, then a fantasia for flute, clarinet and piano. This last work proved to be a fine addition to the repertoire for this combination of instruments, which usually has little to choose from, and it was performed at the festival for young Nordic composers in autumn 1996. It had, however, already been premiered in the summer at the Marlboro Music Festival.

“I was invited to Marlboro by Leon Kirchner, whose Sonata Concertante I will, by the way, be playing at Kuhmo in the summer. Marlboro is really a chamber music festival, but I was there as a composer.”

Jaakko has also composed songs and pieces for various instrumental com- binations. He is at present working on his second string quartet, and there is talk of a violin concerto at some point in the future.

“It’s going to be a proper work for symphony orchestra. I also intend to take the solo at the premiere, though as a rule I prefer to let others perform my works.

“Stylistically I have always kept my head, and that’s important to me, because I have a strong vision and I don’t have any very strong leanings towards modern styles or techniques.”

Gentler new music breezes

From Eero Hämeenniemi and his stylistic plurality we come on to this year’s Helsinki Biennale. In Jaakko Kuusisto’s opinion, this year’s Biennale with its Indian and US overtones was extremely successful. The reception afforded the works also, he says, demonstrated an expansion of the musical climate in Finland.

“There were perhaps a few relics of the somewhat snooty 1980s attitude in Finland in that people were only too ready to describe the music ot the American visitors as over-sentimental and to compare it in a derogative tone of voice to film music. We should, after all, remember that some ot the best composers of today are at Hollywood.”

It is, says Jaakko Kuusisto, high time the Finns learnt to accept that not all countries create music in the same way as they do and that other approaches may be equally good.

How then, does the same personality accommodate both Jaakko-the-composer and Jaakko-the-player? It doesn’t, really, for Jaakko admits that so far at least, the composer has had to operate on the player’s terms.

“In principle I try to set aside a few hours a day for composing 2 – 3 times a week, but that all has to go by the board in the face of a pending concert tour.”

One large-scale work a year is Jaakko’s norm at the moment. Plus some smaller pieces, such as songs.

Concertos, yes – but how to give recitals?

At the time of the interview Jaakko was just off to the United States for a performance with pianist Ilkka Paananen: first to Chicago tor the Rising Stars series at the Ravinia Festival, then on to New York. In the autumn he is going on tour to Japan with the Kuopio Orchestra, when the solo work will be – guess what – the Sibelius violin concerto.

“Right now there’s not really any other obvious way of getting on in my career, apart from competitions. And there are so many winners around these days that there’s not enough work even for them.”

A good soloist is lucky in having plenty of opportunities to play with a Finnish orchestra because Finland has so many orchestras, and there is no shortage of good conductors. Giving a recital is, by contrast, much more difficult.

Jaakko Kuusisto is aware that this is a universal phenomenon and not just a Finnish one. The masses only want the megastars, and they are so expensive that no reasonably-sized concert hall can afford them.

“Some system of arranging small-scale concerts that would pay their way that’s what I’d like to see.”

Conducting? Only for purely practical reasons

When a musician is both a player and a composer, it seems natural to visualise him up on the conductor’s podium, too. Jaakko does indeed intend to master the basics of conducting, maybe in the near future even, but so that he can direct the classical violin concertos while also acting as soloist. “And I suppose there’s no reason why I shouldn’t conduct a whole chamber orchestra concert at the same time.”

Jaakko is lucky to be the possessor of a valuable violin: a Matteo Goffriller dated 1702 and found in Sweden. Five years ago Kaj Kajanus, son of the legendary 19th century conductor Robert Kajanus, contacted Jaakko himself on hearing that he was looking out for a violin.

Goffriller’s cellos are up in the million mark range, but the violins can still be had for a slightly more reasonable price, considering their quality. “At some point someone had tried to market this fiddle as a Guarneri del Gesu,” says Jaakko. “This would immediately have meant five times the price – though of course I’d have nothing against that now…”

Speaking of his engagements for the coming summer, Jaakko is particularly looking forward to the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, where he will certainly have his hands full: Vivaldi at the morning concerts, Bartok at the evening concerts, new American music and his own piano trio, a bit of jazz with the Trio Töykeät, and to crown it all teaching at the music camp.

“As a rule the Kuhmo summer takes in just about everything. Apart from free time, but who needs that!”

From Finnish Music Quarterly magazine 2/1997

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