Every classical music festival has its own personality, but Finland’s Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival is one of the most unusual, set apart by the remoteness of its location (a couple of degrees from the Arctic Circle at a latitude of 64°) the scale of the festival compared to its city (in 2022, 120 individual musicians will play over 60 concerts in a city whose population is 8,027) and the complexity of its programming, ranging from the most famous tunes in classical music to pieces that only a handful of festival-goers will know.

Antti Tikkanen and Minna Pensola
© Stefan Bremer

The much-loved Vladimir Mendelssohn, Artistic Director of the festival since 2005, passed away last August, shortly after the close of the 2021 edition. The festival management decided to recruit “within the family”, so violinists Minna Pensola and Antti Tikkanen, who have been performing at Kuhmo since before the start of Mendelssohn’s tenure, each received a “top secret” email asking if they were interested in the role of Artistic Director. Since Pensola and Tikkanen are married to each other, it was just as well that their emails contained a postscript permitting them to discuss them “between yourselves but nobody else”. They decided to apply for the role jointly: “It’s just impossible to separate somehow the flow of ideas and the inspirations that we get from each other,” Pensola explains. “We have always shared this need or urge to speak out, the ease of saying unfiltered thoughts that the other one is somehow bouncing back. So it would have felt like reduced resources to do it alone.”

Covid caused the cancellation of the 2020 festival and took its toll on the 2021 edition. With so many restrictions and constraints, Mendelssohn had felt unable to produce a cut-down version of his 2020 plans. “He just simply could not reduce,” Pensola says, “he could not kill his darlings. So he ended up making a completely new programme for 2021.” The 2022 programme will be a reincarnation of what Mendelssohn had planned for 2020 – reduced and changed, of course, partly because various Covid constraints are still in place and partly because a lot has happened in the world since the original plans were laid. “Bear in mind that the programme was mostly done in 2019. It’s not the pandemic alone that has forced the art world to be more creative and maybe question the old habits. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have happened in those three years.” It will be 2023 before we see a festival fully curated by the pair, but in 2022, Tikkanen explains. “We got some chance when there were impossible pieces, with too many players or a choir. So there were some slots where creativity was needed and we could put a bit of our handwriting in.” An example is the inclusion in a concert entitled “Superheroes” of a piano trio by Rebecca Clarke, a composer who was forced to publish her best works under a male pseudonym, thus fitting neatly into the festival’s overall theme of “Illusion”.

Vladimir Mendelssohn
© Stefan Bremer

At first sight, it would seem that Mendelssohn has left big boots to fill: after all, this is a man who was universally loved and seemed endowed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of every corner of the classical music repertoire – not to mention the owner of an extensive address book of musician friends. Still, there are things that soften the blow. For a start, since the couple have lived through the whole of the Mendelssohn era, they’ve had plenty of time to absorb his influence: “We got to know Vladi as a tutor, mentor, colleague, friend, basically like a grandfather figure.” But since he had the same influence on so many other friends and colleagues in the Kuhmo setup, they feel they don’t have to create the culture: they know it already and are able to cherish the same things. In any case, they point out, Mendelssohn was artistic director for “only” 16 years, a flash in the pan compared to the 35-year tenure of Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival founder Seppo Kimanen.

Also, Tikkanen points out, Mendelssohn wasn’t the only walking encyclopaedia in the Kuhmo family: there are other people that they can call on for help. The fun part about following in Vladi’s footsteps is getting inside the way he thought about programmes (that every work in a concert is linked to every other and to the overall theme) and then doing the research. Tikkanen gives the example that when planning a concert which includes the Brahms Ballade and its derivatives, they discovered a piece by a contemporary Finnish composer, Sebastian Fagerlund, which quotes the same material. A lot of the repertoire flows from the artists: “When we knew who was going to be there, they could suggest very personal pieces which have a connection with Vladi.”

Soo-Hyun Park (violin), Hyoung-Joon Jo (cello)
© Stefan Bremer

Another feature of the festival is the sheer logistical complexity of having so many different musicians in mix-and-match configurations through the day in different venues. This looks to an outsider like an A grade nightmare and I ask if there’s anything that alleviates it, to which the answer comes without hesitation: “Yes. Two people in the office who are fantastic: Anniina and Seija. They have such a long history with the logistics question that they can just see what is and isn’t going to work, with people too close to each other or a rehearsal schedule that will be blocked. They have a very sophisticated database and they have such experience that they can tell you immediately if there’s a red or yellow light.”

Taking on an Artistic Director role at any festival always involves a trade-off between nurturing the festival’s heritage and creating new directions for the future. I ask Pensola and Tikkanen what are the things that make Kuhmo special that have to be preserved at all costs – the heart and soul of the festival.

Maja Bogdanovic and Daniel Rowland, with bears
© Stefan Bremer

“There’s a lot of talk,” Tikkanen replies, “about the spirit of Kuhmo. That probably means different things to anyone coming there, be it from the audience or the performing side, from Finland or abroad, from Scandinavia or from Israel.” It’s even different between himself (“I’m from the same sort of height in the Finnish map, and Kuhmo was the first place where I could hear this fantastic level of performance and hear music live”) and Pensola (“this is already exotic for me, I’m a city girl from the capital”). But if there’s one thing that everyone seems to agree on, it’s that the ambiance is unique because the place is so small and everyone is thrown together. Audience members, young musicians who join the festival’s music courses and seasoned professionals are likely to find themselves standing together in the same queues for food or for coffee, sitting in the same sauna or standing in the same landscape admiring the sunset over the lake (and, Tikkanen points out wryly, fighting the same mosquitoes). Friendships are made that are gold dust for a young performer – “not just to play with, this is what you do all year, but to do other things with these people” – and the ensuing vibe rubs off on the audience. While it seems a near miracle that some sort of festival – albeit a reduced one – was possible in 2021, it was a big disappointment that Covid forced the closure of most places where people could mingle, and Pensola thinks that many people felt lost as a result. It’s strongly hoped that those restrictions won’t return in 2022.

As to the editions in 2023 and beyond, the couple are accumulating ideas for things they would love to do, although they’re trying not to put too much focus on them for now. One direction to be continued is the idea of a guest composer, which will happen for the first time this year in the shape of Osvaldo Golijov. They’re looking forward to performing Golijov’s work and to the Q&As that he will be conducting with audiences and for 2023, they have invited the British composer Charlotte Bray; they feel that commissioning new works should be an important part of the festival’s future. Another hope is to “have concerts in more intimate places and use the surroundings a bit more. There may be more pop-ups and site-specific things that could highlight the special environment that we are in.”

It’s now a long time since Pensola and Tikkanen first met, in the waiting line for auditions for the Sibelius Academy violin class (“P and T. We were quite close.”) Later, they joined forces in the Meta4 string quartet, a relationship that continues today. It was later still that they became an item (in Kuhmo, of course). Working closely on a project now comes as naturally as breathing and Pensola likes the way it was described by a journalist friend: “Working together makes the difficult tasks easier and the easy tasks fun.”

The 2022 Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival and Kuhmo Music Courses run from 10th to 23rd July
This interview was sponsored by the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival.