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Pekka Kuusisto's many talents and one goal - music from one human being to another

Anni Heino

Musica Viva program book 2008

"An inspired, energetic, unprejudiced, improvising virtuoso." This is how a major foundation recently described Pekka Kuusisto when presenting him with a sizeable cheque in honour of his contribution to Finnish culture. The 31-year-old violinist has indeed been an ambassador for his country: over the years he has played the Sibelius violin concerto close to 130 times with orchestras around the world. Increasingly, however, he has been finding his sources of energy and inspiration in unexpected directions, from unusual classical repertory to folk, jazz and electronic music.

The program that Pekka Kuusisto and Simon Crawford-Phillips have devised for their Musica Viva tour reflects the eclectic tastes of the young musicians. Not that Pekka Kuusisto has anything against the great classical composers, quite the reverse:

“Obviously I admire Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms enormously,” the violinist stresses, talking via his mobile phone from Helsinki on a bright and bitterly cold winter morning. “But a recital program consisting of just their works – well, that has been done quite a few times, and Simon and I wanted to come up with a program that is more in tune with how we are as musicians. And therefore it does include music that people have maybe never heard before.”

In keeping with this attitude, the duo takes its audience on a geographical tour of three regions, from Finland through Central Europe to North America. Even the centrepieces – especially the works by Sibelius and Corigliano – are surprisingly seldom heard in the concert hall. The rest of the program is skillfully assembled from short pieces that complement the larger ones. Sibelius’s music finds an appropriate environment in folk songs from the Finnish region of Ostrobothnia, arranged by Toivo Kuula – a young contemporary of Jean Sibelius who died violently in the aftermath of the Finnish civil war in 1918. Schubert’s sonatina, in turn, will grow out of a set of Viennese dance tunes arranged by the famous Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler. Pekka Kuusisto is particularly happy to be able share these simple, little masterpieces with his audience.

“These are incredibly elegant pieces, salon music basically, wonderful examples of Gebrauchsmusik – music that has a very practical role. The melodies certainly aren’t ‘occult science’ – they are often based on traditional tunes – but Kreisler has realised them in an unbelievably elegant and touching way. In its simplicity, this music is much greater and more wonderful than what you might first think.”

The program culminates in the American section, where John Corigliano’s sonata will be put alongside pieces by composers influenced by, or growing out of, the jazz tradition.

“Corigliano has been greatly inspired by jazz in its classical incarnations, for example Gershwin’s music,” Pekka says. “And Miles Davis in turn represents much more straightforward jazz. Simon and I are responsible for turning ‘All Blues’ from the Kind of Blue album into music for violin and piano – no arrangements exist as far as we know, and even if they did, we’d be much happier making our own.”

Pekka’s love of a wide range of music was instilled in him as a young boy, growing up in a family of musicians. His grandfather was a composer and an organist; his father, Ilkka Kuusisto, is an eminent Finnish composer of operas, and was earlier active as a jazz musician; his brother Jaakko is a violinist, conductor and a composer of contemporary classical music. His mother Marja-Liisa is a music teacher, his sisters, Lotta and Sanna, are dancers, and through Lotta’s marriage Pekka is related to yet another composer: Iiro Rantala, the brilliant jazz pianist.

Playing concertos on the world stage was, in the long run, not enough for such creative genes. In the last decade, Pekka has increasingly pursued his instincts as a composer. His music is improvisatory in nature, and in addition to the precious Guadagnini, it often involves electronic instruments. These are a cross between a violin and an electric guitar, tailor-made for him by the Finnish instrument makes Kari Nieminen – better known for crafting guitars for musicians such as Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones.

“In my head, I have this idea of music that only I can make. It’s music, the inner mechanics and esthetics of which are solely in my possession. This is at least what I hope, and guided by this hope I have been accumulating the equipment and means to get this music out of me, for people to listen to. I have come to the conclusion that, however lovely it would be to learn to orchestrate for a symphony orchestra according to Rimsky-Korsakov’s principles, I’ll probably never have time to pursue that. I don’t believe that kind of approach would even serve very well the music that I’d like to call my own.”

As a vehicle for his music, Pekka Kuusisto has formed a band called Kraft together with the accordionist Johanna Juhola. He also plays folk-influenced music with the Luomu Players and performs with other bands and musicians such as the Finnish electronic jazz group Rinneradio and the Norwegian noise duo Fe-Mail. In the recent Australian film 4, the violinist and his musician friends fool around on the snow-covered surface of a frozen lake, reciting a potpourri of Finnish pop songs, before settling down in a cosy Lapland cottage to play some improvised folk music and finally Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’.

Pekka Kuusisto believes that improvising has improved his skills as a chamber musician. His regular partners include the mezzo soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter and her pianist Bengt Forsberg, the cellist Steven Isserlis and many Finnish classical musicians, including the pianists Olli Mustonen, Heini Kärkkäinen and Raija Kerppo. All the while, he continues playing concertos with symphony orchestras, and directs from the violin ensembles such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

“Through improvised concerts I have reached a level of making music together with others that I probably would have struggled to achieve if I had limited my playing to purely composed music. Free improvisation in a duo or a trio has enabled me to trust my fellow musicians in a way that is reflected in the more traditional repertory. It probably shows in a certain freedom of communication, whatever the music.”

The violinist uses the term “multimusical” to explain his varied forms of musical existence. Over the years he has trained record companies, concert organisers and agents to take him as he is. Mercifully, the tired label of “cross over” hasn’t stuck.

“I dread that term, because its starting point is that there are borders to cross. I am trying to live my life thinking that if there are any borders, they are just in people’s imagination and therefore don’t need to be taken into account. And that is liberating. Of course I understand that, when you are talking of goods and merchandise, you need labels – ‘this is where we have jazz and over there it’s folk music’. But when this starts to steer people’s creativity and affect their ways of doing things, then it is a sad business.”

Pekka Kuusisto also feels that, approaching middle age, he has discovered the self-confidence to do the things that interest him the most.

“Now I am a thirty-something and I have actually played the violin for close to 30 years. Professionally, with orchestras, I have played concertos for over ten years. Along the way, I have developed some confidence in what I do and the way I do it. I have also gradually learnt to enjoy and appreciate it. Improvisation, messing about with electronics and making my own music that way, seems to be something that I do more than most concerto-playing colleagues. I no longer feel that it is weird or something that I want to protect or hide. Instead I tell people straight up, that if they are looking for a soloist who plays a romantic concerto in a heroic way and with a big sound, without paying any attention to what’s happening around him, then I am probably not their man.”

Communication, then, seems to be the key to Pekka Kuusisto’s music: communication between the performing musicians, but also between the musician and the audience. One of his great gifts has always been his capacity to engage the audience in his music, whether in a big symphony hall or at an intimate jam session.

“It is possible to achieve this even in symphony concerts, and one does need to give some thought to these things. In preparation for our tour, Simon and I will certainly talk about how to ‘tune’ the concert situation so that it works for the audience as well as for us. The main goal for us is to be just natural and not to present ourselves as oddities or supermen that people should be amazed by just because we happen to play these instruments. All we want is for it to be a natural, direct and down-to-earth message from one human being to another.”

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