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What Makes a Music Festival Theme?

by Harri Kuusisaari

A carefully considered theme makes a music festival more than a sum of its parts, and a theme can operate on many practical levels: as a loose headline, a source of inspiration for planning, a spark to get the audience interested, or a narrative thread reaching to each detail. Heads of six Finnish festivals talk about their themes for this summer.

A starting point for a music festival is an apt heading that creates an image of what is in store. At its simplest, a theme could consist of a particular composer. However, putting together different pieces is not yet thematic planning—they have to become more than the sum of their parts. 

Themes can be concrete or abstract. The descriptive or programmatic aspects of music are often used. The one that this summer’s Finnish music festivals use most often is nature. Many events are examining its manifestation, and at times the nature themes have an environmental and political aspect. 

Because music is abstract, it can be challenging to plan around a societal or political theme with a specific point of view in mind. Johan Tallgren, the Artistic Director of Time of Music festival in Viitasaari, has noticed that topical elements fit better with contemporary music than classical. 

‘Audiences create meaning when they see someone taking a stance. A program, as a whole, needs to have pulse and counterforce. Volume must differ, and any political outlook can be counterbalanced by spatial pieces without any opinion or thesis. Counterarguments can also challenge the theme.’ 


Voices and Spaces in Viitasaari

The theme of Time of Music festival is Voices and Spaces, with two composers at the heart of it: Hans Werner Henze and John Cage, the latter of whom visited Viitasaari 40 years ago. The festival programme starts with Henze’s cycle of 22 songs Voices, which zeroes in on the composer’s political activism. The songs deal with endlessly relevant themes, such as oppression and alienation. The songs are interspersed with premieres of six politically minded contemporary composers.  

‘We know Cage as an anarchist with a Buddhist flair, but he has also written political work,’ says Tallgren. ‘We want to come to terms with Cage separate from cliches about breaking sticks and need to remind ourselves of the effect his thought has had on us. Spatial and participatory pieces are part of it.’ 

In Tallgren’s view, venues have a profound impact on building a theme. 

‘An overarching theme forces any planner to work hard and leave no stone unturned. When I was working for Musica nova festival my intertextual control was strict, but now I’ve come to terms with not being able to control everything, as well as trusting the theme to come through without micromanaging. Sometimes it’s enough to let the performers and composers socialise whilst taking a step back.’ 

Last year Time of Music held courses about curating. Tallgren thinks it’s symptomatic that they did not receive a single application from Finland. He says that curating is not just putting together a core programme, but a cross-pollination of people and elements that would normally not meet one another. 


 Johan Tallgren, the Artistic Director of Time of Music festival in Viitasaari.


Dreams and Dystopias in Porvoo

Maris Gothóni and his wife, composer Unsuk Chin, have set Dreamlands and Dystopias as their theme at Avanti Summer Sounds festival. They wanted to create a program reflecting utopias and fears of our uncertain times, without shutting music away in a box.

‘Music is an abstract art form, and every person experiences a piece in their own way. We have to trust the audience’s imagination. Summer Sounds is particularly looking for music that questions boundaries, and manages to be playful and stimulate thoughts,’ says Gothóni. 

The planning for Summer Sounds began with the couple tying together various red threads rather than building the programme from a readymade theme. The heading Dreamlands and Dystopias came later. 

‘The final concert presents us with horror clowns, whom we’ve come to know from recent politics—look at Donald Trump, for instance. In Vito Žuraj’s piece Ubuquity – Farces for soprano and ensemble a soprano soloist is commenting on basic patterns of human behaviour such as self-pity, corporality, cowardice and violence. The concert will reveal the double exposure of carnival and war throughout the centuries.’ 

20 Finnish premieres and two world premieres will take place at Summer Sounds, and composers hail from 19 different countries. The programme also has classics of Modernism, such as pieces by Claude Vivier and Alberto Ginastera.

‘We wanted to elucidate the plurality of contemporary music, and how many pieces play with various topics. The concert called Musical toys, for instance, gathers together some ten miniature pieces to reflect on one another. Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismohas influences from a baroque concerto grosso, and Ondrej Adamek’s Nôise has its eye on faraway cultures.’ 

Maris Gothóni emphasises the fact that a theme for any festival is necessarily tied to a particular place. Pieces that work well in Porvoo and Brussels might not fly in Tonyeong or Kaochiung. When planning their Asian festivals, the couple has avoided the dangers of imported goods and instead had any respective local culture as a starting point. 

 Maris Gothóni and Unsuk Chin (photo: Priska Ketterer).


From Earth to Sky at Luosto

Violinist and Conductor Aku Sorensen, the Artistic Director of The Sounds of Luosto festival, has chosen From Earth to Sky as its theme. 

‘It felt perfect for a festival that takes place on top of a hill, always between heaven and earth,’ he says. ‘We’ve looked at various different ways to examine these words and their meaning: for instance, we’ve programmed works about physical as well as metaphysical skies. Earthly themes came under a similar inspection,’ he says. 

There was also a possibility to combine the theme with performance venues and locations, such as a concert taking place in Lampivaara Amethyst Mine, bringing the listeners physically, and via music, as close as possible to the earth and the subterranean world. 

‘You will hear works with titles or narratives that you wouldn’t straight away associate with the theme. They complement the whole and tell the story in their own way. Bach’s Partita for solo flute, interspersed through the concert, offers a glimmer of hope amidst pieces about earthly cruelty, whereas Schubert’s heavenly String Quintet is like a message from the heavens of the already deceased,’ says Sorensen. 

Aku Sorensen (photo: Mario Ramirez)


Kuhmo Spreads Its Roots and Wings 

The identity of Kuhmo Chamber Music has strongly been shaped by themes fashioned by the Artistic Director Vladimir Mendelssohn, who died in 2021. The new duo of leaders, Minna Pensola and Antti Tikkanen, stepped in Mendelssohn’s boots as they began adapting the last year’s programme, planning for which started before the pandemic. 

People are now looking to the two leaders for new ideas. Instead of a strict theme, Pensola and Tikkanen wanted to create a rubric with lots of possibilities. Roots and Wings was born. 

‘We want each part of the festival to provide an experience and an image of the whole. We wouldn’t want anyone to feel they’ve been dropped into the story midway through,’ Pensola says. 

‘Very few listeners or musicians will be there for all the 60 concerts or the entire two weeks. Condensing everything under a single theme can be a problem,’ says Tikkanen. 

The two also note that they could not control any associations brought on by the music. The theme and its framework serve as an inspiration and a focal point around endless repertoire. 

The concept of Roots and Wings functions concretely and symbolically. The festival kicks off with a new sequel of the opera Madama ButterflyMatti Salminen returns to his roots by singing Finnish tango, and any influence from folk music represents spiritual roots. The roots are also present in The Trees of Sibelius

‘We might want to highlight how certain works have been an inspiration or basis for others.  Roots also point to Finno-Ugric culture, since Kuhmo is this year’s Finno-Ugric capital of culture. The words also refer to the festival’s current situation: after its 50-year-history it must spread its wings and move towards new things.’ 


Minna Pensola and Antti Tikkanen (photo: Stefan Bremer)


History comes alive at Sastamala

When Michael Fields, the British lutenist and expert of historical stringed instruments started as Director of the Sastamala Gregoriana festival in 2006, old music was its only theme. It was enough, because the connection between music and the mediaeval churches was enough to pull in the crowds.  

‘I wanted to develop the festival into a coherent whole and started displaying the stylistic differences of countries from the Middle Ages up to the Baroque period. This took a lot of research, and afterwards I moved on to less constricted themes,’ Fields says.  

The lakes of Sastamala made him ponder how significantly water used to connect people. He started to build the festivals around themes related to cities, from Venice to Paris and on to Bruges. This year’s it’s Vienna’s turn. 

‘Vienna, this year’s theme, has its own advantages and challenges. Most people are only familiar with the Vienna of MozartBeethoven and Johann Strauss, but Vienna was a capital of music centuries before these luminaries set foot in it. You can say that the city’s history helped to create them. I wanted to bring out the Viennese musical culture of the Mediaeval, Renaissance and Baroque eras.’ 

He also mentions the downside of a historical theme: many fine musicians are left uninvited because they have no repertoire either in this style or from this era. ‘However, the gems we’ve discovered make up for this fact.’ 


Michael Fields (photo: Sastamala Gregoriana)


Korsholm and Mariehamn on the Move

Korsholm Music Festival and Katrina Chamber Music festival in Mariehamn have both picked themes around movement, each with a different point of view. 

The Artistic Director of Katrina Chamber Music, violinist Cecilia Zilliacus, has pondered the different meanings of ‘moving’ and ‘movement’—how they can refer to physical movement, being emotionally moved, and to parts of a musical work. The cellistJan-Erik Gustafsson, who has recently started as the Artistic Director of Korsholm Music Festival, started from the word Momentum, which also refers to the different facets of strength and duration of movement.

‘”Momentum” describes a continuous movement present in atoms, solar systems and galaxies. Momentum is always part of a musical present, an energy the music creates, and its wordless vibration,’ says Gustafsson. 

‘The theme came about during the Covid pandemic, which tried our existence on multiple levels. No one could’ve guessed it was only a prelude to current tragic world events. Our theme is a manifesto for freedom of movement and existence; one that provides us with energy and hope. Together we are able to perform miracles, but in order to do so, we have to pool our resources and energy—as we do in music.’ 

Zilliacus headed the Korsholm Music Festival before Gustafsson. She first started planning the Katrina Chamber Music festival in 2014. This autumn she takes a step closer to Finland when she starts as the Professor of Violin at the Sibelius Academy. 

‘My lifelong interest in dance gave rise to the theme around movement. I still take ballet lessons. Katrina Chamber Music festival deals with the relationship between music and dance, which is visceral. The familiar Hungarian, Slavic and Romanian dances all make an appearance, but the line-up will also feature dancing proper. Britta Byström and Jonas S Bohlin’s new works for solo violin are written in a way that enables the violinist to dance simultaneously,’ she says. 

‘Apart from dancing, movement can signify travel, and we have programmed both Schubert’s Winterreise and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel. My aim for each concert is to have a connection with the theme that serves to pique the audience’s interest and to provide inspiration for my planning—a lens with which to examine my surroundings.’ 

Cecilia Zilliacus (photo: Tina Axelsson) and Jan-Erik Gustafsson


Featured photo: Minna Hatinen.

The article was originally published in Rondo magazine 6/2023. 

Translation: Aleksi Koponen