Ahead of this year’s Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, violinist Hugo Ticciati describes the special atmosphere of this Finnish summer event. 

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Lake Lammasjärvi
© Stefan Bremer

Kuhmo is a liberating paradox for body and soul. Six hundred kilometres northeast of Helsinki, 100 kilometres from the nearest train station and airport, with bears and wolves making their homes in the woods that line the adjacent expanses of inland waterways, Kuhmo is remote but not isolated. This is because the world comes to Kuhmo in the form of the musical culture that is celebrated in this unassuming Finnish town for two weeks every July. It’s fitting that one of the world’s most important chamber music festivals takes place not in Paris, London or Berlin or any of the other great centres of international culture, but in Kuhmo. It reminds us that the artistic traditions that we, as practising musicians, inherit and disseminate have encompassing aims. Exploring and expressing the human spirit in its innumerable manifestations, the arts help us to define our relationship with the universe we inhabit: the world of nature, and of space and time. To discover “a world in a grain of sand”, wrote William Blake, to “hold infinity in the palm of your hand”, and find “eternity in an hour”: the paradox of art is also that of Kuhmo.

The adventure proper begins when the urban bustle slowly becomes a distant memory, as I travel down a long road fringed on each side by tall pines, with not a soul in sight. For company, I have my constant travelling companion: my instrument, a violin made by Guadagnini in Milan in 1751, that is safely encased. At this time of year, in midsummer, when the northern light barely fades, the road I am taking leads only to one destination: Kuhmo, nestling amid lakes Ontojärvi, Lammasjärvi and Lentua, beside the protected wilderness that is Hiidenportti National Park.

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Kuhmo Arts Centre
© Anu Saikko

The principal venue is another paradoxical wonder: the Kuhmo Arts Centre, seating audiences of more than 650 people, with its spacious entrance hall, designed in a style that might be called cordially Modernist. The reception area has floor-to-ceiling windows – walls of glass that shield visitors from the elements but also provide vistas on to the world outside. Enclosed within the contemporary structure is the beautiful wooden concert hall with its exquisitely-designed acoustics. Hundreds of kilometres from anywhere, or so it seems, I find myself in a new building (completed in 1993) that represents the very best our modern culture is capable of: the quintessence of civilised living, you might say. A ten-minute walk away lies Kuhmo church, another main festival venue, which evokes the town’s history. Built of wood in 1816 on the plan of a Greek cross – a central square and four branching arms – this is a space from another era that connects with the Arts Centre via shared values of purity and simplicity.

Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, which takes place over two weeks in July, is known among musicians – friends and colleagues – as the mother of chamber music festivals. The event welcomes more than 150 artists to play in about 70 concerts that are enjoyed by audiences who make their way to Kuhmo from all corners of the earth. The scale of the festival can be told by way of a few numbers: the town of Kuhmo is inhabited by around 8,500 people; this is doubled during the festival period, with 35,000 concert visits in total. Its growth since the inaugural edition in 1970, when about 800 people attended, is phenomenal. Since 2005 the artistic director has been the unique Vladimir Mendelssohn (“Vlady”), who has deployed his vast knowledge and irresistible imaginative energy to create programmes of rare and beautiful eclecticism. Kuhmo audiences are treated not only to the best-loved works from the repertoire of indispensable classics but also to an extraordinary range of new music. To paraphrase John Cage: “we invent the past and revise the future.” In this spirit, Kuhmo aims to remove music from the box of convention.

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One of Kuhmo's cycling cellists
© Stefan Bremer

For regular performers at Kuhmo the yearly email outlining the festival programme is an eagerly-awaited moment. Then we discover what is in store at the Finnish summer feast: newly-created gems, quirky rarities and masterworks of chamber music. We also have the excitement of finding out who we will be playing with. It could be in combination with two long-time chamber music friends, a renowned musician one has heard amazing things about but have never met, or an up-and-coming young performer who is coming to Kuhmo for the very first time. Every gathering is a joy – a kind of singularity where rehearsals are filled with a freshness born of discovering the music and also of discovering each other. It is a wonderful reminder that music-making is in its essence a coming together of personalities – one that necessarily reaches out to include not only the performers but also those sitting in the audience.

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Hugo Ticciati
© Marco Borggreve

The disciplines of playing (and rigours of the in/famous playing schedule where every minute is accounted for) are eased in Kuhmo’s famed sauna parties, when who performs what with whom, along with all the other necessary details of festival life, are forgotten as you emerge from the steam-filled hut to plunge into shockingly cold water before savouring a chilled beer. Then there are the bicycles. Everyone bikes around the little town, going from rehearsal to rehearsal and from concert to concert. Is there a more glorious sight than seeing a cluster of cellists cycling along the well-groomed streets of Kuhmo, wearing cellos on their backs? The comfortable size of Kuhmo is another enticing feature of the festival. With or without your instrument, if you go into a shop or a restaurant, you rapidly get used to being approached by people who are almost invariably brimful of infectious enthusiasm. There aren’t many places in the world where you might expect to hear (or overhear!) an exclamation like this one: “I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed your Brahms Quintet last night! The roaring pace of the third movement was brilliant! I loved it!”

The entire district of Kuhmo seems to be transformed into a fairytale landscape of music. And yet, you still meet the occasional perplexed onlooker – perhaps an unsuspecting local – who doesn’t quite understand what is going on in this little town that has been taken over by musicians in some happy variant of the story of the pied piper. But this is another one of the paradoxes of Kuhmo. This unpretentious, even reticent municipality becomes a kind of everywhere. That is the glory of the festival by the wood-fringed lakes. There are numerous summer music festivals in Europe, and the community of professional musicians rejoices in the blend of hard work and great pleasure that they provide. Travelling the continent, meeting friends and colleagues, however, we hear a common refrain that fills us with a sense of delighted anticipation: “See you in Kuhmo!”



This article is sponsored by Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival. 

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