Violinist Pekka Kuusisto: folk, forests and the Moomins

The Proms favourite has worked with Greenpeace and scientists and wants to change the way we think, and listen. He explains why he is now bringing Finnish rune singing to the festival

Three years ago, overnight, Pekka Kuusisto became the most talked about violinist in the UK. What everyone remembers most about his Prom debut is the Finnish folk song he played and sang as an encore: with the assurance of a standup comic, he got the Royal Albert Hall audience singing along as he led from the fiddle. “It was fun. It was the first time I’d performed at the Proms, and I’d only been in the hall once before, to hear Nigel Kennedy. In the second half, people in the audience handed him drinks, and he starting riffing in and out of Jimi Hendrix. He treated it like his living room. So maybe that helped me with the folk music thing.”

Perhaps, but it is worth remembering that Kuusisto, 42, wouldn’t have been able to work the Proms audience like that had he not just given such a musically searching and technically brilliant performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. That is what makes him such an exciting performer: Kuusisto has impeccable credentials as a serious concert violinist, but is happiest applying them to unclassifiable projects outside the usual classical formulae – often involving electronics, or improvising, or both. He is the kind of musician who can change the way you think about what you are hearing.

As he prepares to return to the Proms, the idea of changing things has been on his mind. Last autumn, he made a film with Greenpeace to raise awareness about the destruction of Finland’s forests; another Greenpeace-backed project has been a version of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals developed at Our festival, the quirkily brilliant chamber music extravaganza at Lake Tuusula, near Helsinki, where he was artistic director for 20 years. This juxtaposes the humorous children’s concert favourite with text and video showing how unhumorously mankind treats the animals in question. Does he like projects that shock? “Not really. The cancer one was a little scary,” he says, referring to a Wigmore Hall recital last year that mixed Bach’s and his own music with readings from a cancer research scientist and footage of the lab and operating theatre. “But the idea is to have people leaving the concert feeling freer – to present them with what they’re afraid of in a way that will allow them to think about it without a sense of doom and gloom.”

Can one musician really change things? “It’s more a feeling of joining a movement. Of course, sometimes amazing single events happen, like Greta Thunberg – but for the rest of us, it’s about tipping in with whatever you can do. But what I and my colleagues are going to do about the profession – that’s complicated.” He’s referring to all the air miles racked up. “There’s so much interesting stuff in tech and music at the moment … I’m wondering when it is going to be fast and sensitive enough for one to be able to perform satisfyingly from Finland, for example, to an audience in San Francisco.”

In the meantime, his violin has been taking him in different directions – as a TV composer, for one thing. He and the percussionist Samuli Kosminen wrote the soundtrack for a new animated series based on Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, which aired in the spring. When they made their demo, Kuusisto was playing on an “insanely beautiful” Stradivarius. “And we close-miked it and compressed it more than we would in classical recording, to get all the crunches. I heard that the top creative consultant started crying when they were listening to that bit. The Strad got us the job.”

That Strad, though, is no longer in Kuusisto’s violin case. Soon afterwards, he learned that the violin’s owners were no longer prepared to loan out the seven-figure investment and wanted it kept in a safe, pristine and ready for sale. The call came just as his wife was being admitted to the delivery ward with their daughter, which cushioned the blow. But, 17 months on, he is still trialling violins looking for the right one. All this trying and testing and subtly changing his way of playing contributed to a hand injury that meant he had to stop playing for a while earlier this year. But this meant that other doors opened: engagements with Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen were switched from performing to conducting.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra – with whom he has a residency next season – have also invited him to conduct rather than play. “I had spent my whole adult life making fun of instrumentalists who think they can become conductors just like that. But it was fascinating, and addictive.” What was addictive about it? “Power!” he shouts gleefully. “Come on!” But it’s also heartbreaking because you don’t feel a part of the family. That’s something I want to figure out – how do you make chamber music when you’re standing on a box with a stick in your hand?’ He has some conducting courses lined up, and if all goes to plan he wants to conduct the work that won the Pulitzer prize this year: Ellen Reid’s opera p r i s m. “It’s spectacular! And I want her to write a violin concerto for me.”

Pekka Kuusisto.
Free thinking … Pekka Kuusisto. Photograph: Maija Tammi

Bringing a Reid concerto to the Proms would boost the festival’s paltry percentage of female composer time – something about which Proms management could usefully pick Kuusisto’s brains: in 2017, he programmed an edition of Our festival with only music written and performed by women. They ended up with more music than they could fit in. In his own solo work, he says, “whatever programmes I can have influence over, I want them to be 50-50, and commissions as well. We’ve been so incredibly lazy.”

This Proms, however, he’s playing another old favourite: the Violin Concerto by Sibelius. But the way he, conductor Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra plan to present it is anything but standard, involving five Finnish folk musicians expert in the art of rune singing. Sibelius encountered this ancient traditional music early in his career, but always played down its influence. “My kitchen-table theory is that he didn’t want people to think he’d got his material from somewhere else. But then you hear something like this” – Kuusisto hums a few bars of folk tune, repeats them almost note for note, and suddenly it’s a melody from the Violin Concerto, “and maybe it’s not a coincidence.” You don’t need to know all this to perform Sibelius’s music, he says, “but it does help. I have fantastic colleagues who play based on instinct, but we need both approaches. We need the real researchers, and that’s what I’ve wanted to become more of lately, instead of just having the maximum amount of fun.”

Kuusisto performs at the Proms on 3 August, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and on BBC Sounds for 30 days. His first concerts as featured artist at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are 2-4 October.

•This article was amended on 4 August to reflect that Kuusisto’s first conducting engagements were with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen not the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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