One thing is obvious about Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival. Most things are not.

First, the obvious: you are in a small town (population 8,900) in North-Eastern Finland, not far from the Russian border (for the two weeks of the festival, the population doubles with the influx of musicians, visitors and support staff). You are surrounded by pine and birch forests and lakes; the climate is temperate, with the difference between a coldest-ever and warmest-ever summer not all that pronounced. You’re a long way north, a couple of degrees away from the Arctic Circle, and it’s the height of summer, so don’t expect anything in the way of night time.

White nights: Kuhmo lakeside at 9:30pm © David Karlin
White nights: Kuhmo lakeside at 9:30pm
© David Karlin
Given how remote the location is, the sheer scale and scope of the festival is astonishing. There are five official concerts every day, in addition to student concerts at lunchtime. You really can come here and do not much other than listen to concerts for twelve hours a day: the most hardened classical music junkie is in danger of overdosing.

The festival isn’t composed simply of a series of established quartets, trios and other ensembles who fly in, do a series of concerts of their usual stuff, and fly out again. Each concert here is likely to feature four or more different ensembles, and although some of these are established trios or quartets, the vast majority of groupings are a mix-and-match out of the 150 or so musicians who are invited. These are of all ages (but most are young) and come from many countries (but with a preponderance of Finnish).

The true genius of the festival lies in the programming. As well as different ensembles, almost every concert features works from widely different composers, and most contain at least one obscure work that you’re highly unlikely to have heard before. The effect is that even if you’re going to a lot of concerts each day, boredom doesn’t get a chance to set in. There’s a theme for each concert (and, indeed, a theme for each day’s set of concerts). These get a bit tenuous at times (for example, “works by three composers who all predicted Sibelius’ greatness”) but generally, it all fits together.

Inside Kuhmo Church © David Karlin
Inside Kuhmo Church
© David Karlin
The impossibility of boredom comes probably from artistic director Vladimir Mendelssohn’s apparently limitless knowledge of obscure bits of repertoire, augmented by the fact that Mendelssohn takes a relaxed view of what constitutes chamber music. Do not come here expecting a Beethoven or Haydn cycle by a major international string quartet: that's not what Kuhmo is about. A more typical concert might contain one conventional quartet, a two piano piece, an opera aria or two and a work for some improbable combination of instruments, or something completely outside the box like a Piazzolla tango. The pièce de résistance on my trip was a scene from a Hindemith single act expressionist opera Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen, which I venture to suggest was previously unknown to every single person in the audience.

The eclectic nature of the programme is matched by the variety of musicians. It’s not just the student programme which mixes old hands and new: the various ensembles also show a similar blend: you’ll see one or two established veterans with a long career in major orchestras joining hands with a collection of musicians early in their careers. Many come back year after year, but if it’s your first time at the festival, you’ll spend a lot of time discovering new talent that you haven’t seen before. My experience was that the quality was very high overall, with only a very few groups which didn’t seem to quite gel or be on top of their repertoire. One can only marvel at the organisational effort required to put it all together.

Kuhmo Arts Centre © David Karlin
Kuhmo Arts Centre
© David Karlin
I wasn't expecting to walk into a world class concert hall. But Kuhmo Arts Centre should make Londoners green with envy: enveloped in wood panelling with exceptionally finely crafted fan vaulting, it sounds as warm and good as it looks. The second main venue, Kuhmo Church, also surprises those used to English churches, both in looks and acoustics. It’s a large building which was rebuilt after being almost totally destroyed by Russian shelling in World War II: the windows are large and clear, bringing you close to the forests outside, the cream and sky blue paintwork is relaxing, and the fact that everything is in wood makes for an acoustic which adds plenty of colour to chamber music without ever dissolving into mush. A third large venue, the sports hall at Kontio school, can most kindly be labelled as adequate, but the tiny Kuhmo Chapel proved a lovely venue for late night Bach.

Some practicalities. Getting to Kuhmo isn't as bad as its remote location might suggest: Finnair will get you from Helsinki to Kajaani (about 90 minutes drive away) or Joensuu (an hour further). Once you're in Kuhmo, everything is in walking distance, unless you're staying in the posher of the two hotels, the Kalevala, which is around 6km out of town: if you don't fancy the bike ride, which is pleasant due to the absence of hills, you'll need a car. In fact, most visitors don't stay in the hotels: for the duration of the festival, most locals either rent out spare rooms or move out to their summer cottages and rent the whole house. The festival runs an accommodation bureau to facilitate all this.

Still waters, a canoeist's eye view © David Karlin
Still waters, a canoeist's eye view
© David Karlin
More exotic ways of arriving at your concert do exist. I saw one visitor arrive by seaplane, but assuming that this is beyond your means, you can take the green alternative and arrive by canoe. I was taken for a blissful hour's paddling by the affable Urpo Piirainen, the utter calm of the lake broken only by a seagull unhappy with us coming too close to its nest, to arrive a stone's throw from my 11am concert in Kuhmo Church. A lovely way to experience the peace and beauty of the surroundings, followed by musical treats.




Some useful links:

Main festival site:
Urpo Piirainen:
Finnair English site:
Finnish railways:

David’s trip was sponsored by Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival