A chamber music fan, scouting around for a festival to go to this summer, might come upon the opening concert for this year’s Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival. They will recognise some big names (Bach, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky), some that are still familiar (Boccherini, Saint-Saëns, Rimsky-Korsakov) as well as less familiar names both ancient (Jan Dismas Zelenka) and modern (Heiner Goebbels). Whatever their level of musical experience, there’s simply no way that they will know all the music on the programme: Bach’s chorale prelude An Wasserflüssen Babylon, Saint-Saëns’ Les Odeurs de Paris and Rimsky’s Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya aren’t exactly concert platform staples.

A night in Kuhmo © Hagai Shaham
A night in Kuhmo
© Hagai Shaham

What kind of person, you wonder, programs a chamber music festival opener with 26 different musicians from Japan to Europe to Chile and eight composers from the 17th century to the present day, confident that the audience will keep coming back in spite of never having heard most of the works on the programme?

The answer, in this case, is the twinkling, bearded figure of Romanian viola player Vladimir Mendelssohn, Kuhmo’s artistic director since 2005. When asked how on earth he even has time to listen to all this different music, let alone have the understanding to program it, Mendelssohn simply answers “I’m 147 years old. I had time.”

The word “provocative” recurs in his answers. Faced with the formidable task of matching 150 musicians from dramatically different backgrounds into over 50 concerts spanning a fortnight, Mendelssohn makes light of what would seem like impossibly hard work getting to know them all and keeping track of whose strengths will match whose. Clearly, he says, you shouldn’t put a Baroque specialist “in the impatient surroundings of the glitzy type of players” (the thought of Paganini or Sarasate playing Bach is not a happy one) unless, that is, he is deliberately going for “a well meant constructive provocation”. And Mendelssohn is adamant that if you’re going to convince people to come to a remote small town in the forests just outside the Arctic Circle, starting from as far away as Korea, Japan or Canada, simple beauty and a “take it easy” approach are not enough: he wants substance, originality and – yes – provocation. The answer to the question “what makes a mixed programme work” is “Diversity, originality and lack of preconceived ideas” as well as “being really and profoundly a lover of beauty and talent”.

You're left in no doubt that chamber music purists are going to receive their fair share of the provocation. Anyone who can programme a whole Hindemith opera (admittedly, a short one) in a chamber music festival and can state that “a Brahms symphony IS chamber music” patently has no time for anyone who is trying to impose borders or keep to strict categorisation. Hindemith’s Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen was in the 2015 festival simply “because it’s great music” – having seen it, I wholeheartedly agree – and Mendelssohn says he gets more out of hearing a small, committed ensemble performing the Schoenberg version of Mahler’s Fourth than he does from a routine performance by bored players in a full symphony orchestra. The programme for the 2016 festival packs in as much variety as you can imagine: Schoenberg’s arrangement of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune rubs shoulders with Richard Strauss, Astor Piazzolla and Jean Françaix; Hildegard of Bingen shares a bill with Mozart, Messiaen, Lili Boulanger, John Zorn and Ravi Shankar. Even opera-lovers will get their own fix again this year, in the shape of the closing concert: Piazzolla’s rarely performed tango opera María de Buenos Aires. Zorn, by the way, would be Mendelssohn’s first choice of living composer to be commissioned to write a viola piece for him.

This giant level of diversity has to be organised somehow, not only in its logistics (at which, having seen them at first hand, I can only marvel) but also so that it falls into some kind of artistic framework which festivalgoers can use to orient themselves. This is done by programming each concert around a particular theme, with (for the last two years) these being set within the context of a single overall theme: “The Global Village” this year, “Time” in 2015. Within any given theme, the linkage between works can be one of many things, whether political (“music written by exiled composers” or “music done or undone in the Kremlin”), melodic (“music that shares the Dies irae melody”) or anything else. Mendelssohn describes the overall theme as being “like 500kg weights attached to the wings” – they are limitations, but ones that can be turned to creative advantage. There's a clear sense of necessity being the mother of invention, that self-imposed constraints can lead to artistic brilliance.

He is most excited by two days early in the festival. Tuesday 12th, entitled “The Orient – The Dream Factory” contains a slew of French orientalism (from Rameau to Massenet to Debussy and Ravel) and views of the East from composers as diverse as Vivaldi, Beethoven and Holst; this is mixed with the music of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, whose Spain is on the fringes of the Arab musical world, and bona fide Far Eastern composers like Willis Wong and Toru Takemitsu. Monday 11th is somewhat more nebulously labelled “The ports of the knowledge”: as well as featuring the Bingen / Shankar / Zorn combination mentioned above, it has a fascinating closing concert themed around the number seven: a transcription of seven Bach organ chorales, followed by interpretations of “seven words” by Haydn and Sofia Gubaidulina.

Whether he is creating the programme, searching for an in-tune harmonium at a quarter to midnight, dragging an artist (or multiple artists) out of bed three minutes before they’re due on stage, desperately trying to cope with performing an under-rehearsed piece or simply trying to compose, Mendelssohn is driven by a cocktail of “vision, constraint and inspiration”. The vision may seem madcap and the constraints more than any sane person would attempt to deal with, but you can’t argue with the inspiration. If you’re a musical omnivore, you’ll find no better place and time than Kuhmo in July at which to immerse yourself in the eclectic.

Click here for the festival's full listings. 

This interview was sponsored by Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival.