BRQ Vantaa Festival is intimate, it takes place in small venues where you can get up close to the musicians, and it offers extraordinary variety. In the space of a week in early August, the 2017 festival will take you on a musical voyage in space and time around medieval and renaissance Europe. It's very different from many of the festivals we cover – affairs with big ensembles playing the works of the most famous composers.

Uli Konto Korhonen at BRQ Vantaa, 2016 © E Kukkonen
Uli Konto Korhonen at BRQ Vantaa, 2016
© E Kukkonen
The earliest point in musical time is the 12th century, with a concert of music by the earliest composer featured in any Bachtrack listing: Hildegard of Bingen. As well as having superb voices, medieval specialists Uli Kontu-Korhonen and Anneliina Koskinen have assembled no less than nine of the instruments described in Hildegard’s writing, which should make this a fascinating experience, as interesting for folk music devotees as for classical fans.

Moving four centuries forward and across the Channel to England, Ensemble Plus Ultra sing the music of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. “Early music is very much vocal music in quantity and quality”, says Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, BRQ’s Artistic Director. He feels that voice has been under-represented in previous editions of the festival and aims to redress the balance this year: the festival will feature vocal music in English, French, German and Italian. 

The city of Vantaa lies in a semi-circular arc spanning of the northern border of Helsinki. Vantaa’s original centre is older than Helsinki itself, and St Lawrence’s Church, one of the festival’s two main venues, dates back to 1450 and makes an ideal venue for early vocal and choral music. In contrast, the nearby St Lawrence’s Chapel is modern, light and airy, with the strong vertical lines and use of natural light that’s characteristic of Finnish modern architecture. It’s also acoustically ideal for BRQ’s “Magical Keyboards” series; as Luolajan-Mikkola puts it, “even the clavichord, which is very often problematic, sounds fantastic there, as do lutes and plucked instruments”. This year, the series features two “four hands” concerts: the festival opens with the music of Bernhard and Müthel, both pupils of Bach, played on clavichord, while classical keyboard music is represented by Mozart and Dussek played on fortepiano.

Florence Malgoire, Mahan Esfahani, Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, BRQ Vantaa 2016 © E Kukkonen
Florence Malgoire, Mahan Esfahani, Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, BRQ Vantaa 2016
© E Kukkonen
The emphasis on variety and discovery extends to the instrumental concerts. Aspiring classical guitarists may have learnt transcriptions of the music of 16th century Spanish composer Luys Milán: at BRQ, you can hear it played on the instrument for which it was originally composed, in what  Luolajan-Mikkola believes to be Finland’s first ever vihuela recital. Chilean guitarist José Antonio Escobar is an unusual all-rounder, as comfortable with ancient music as he is with modern repertoire. The festival also contains a theorbo recital and plenty of other instrumental music.

2017 is the centenary of the Finnish declaration of independence from Russia. In addition, 31st October will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, so that makes 2017 a doubly important year because Finland is an overwhelmingly Lutheran country, with over 70% of Finns belonging to the Lutheran Church. BRQ will be getting ahead of the game on August 8th, holding a musical feast in Luther’s honour. If the words “Lutheran” and “extravagant feast” don’t immediately strike you as belonging in the same sentence, Luolajan-Mikkola is quick to disabuse you: the puritanical aspects of the Lutheran church arrived considerably later, he explains, adding that Luther himself was a great lover of food and beer. Luther was also passionate about music: a quote is attributed to him (albeit perhaps apocryphally) that “the devil hates nothing more than music, and the best way of casting him out is to sing a hymn”.

St Lawrence Chapel © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
St Lawrence Chapel
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Following the Luther concert is one of the festival's more enigmatic items. Recorder player Petri Arvo won the audience prize at the EAR-ly 2016 competition for young early music performers, for which he was rewarded with the chance to play at this year’s festival. Luolajan-Mikkola likes to give young performers the freedom to give something special, so he asked Arvo “to produce a programme to surprise me”. Evidently, Arvo took the instruction very literally, proposing a programme of composers such as Pierre Attaingnant and Hernando de Cabezon who are not exactly household names even to the early music community. At this point, the concert’s title – “The mute slave of expression” – remains unexplained, so it will be necessary to see the concert to find out.

The small venues and open spaces of BRQ Vantaa make it a good festival to which to bring children, as do the relatively short concert times, the variety, and the possibilities of learning about weird and wonderful old instruments. Kids should also enjoy the festival’s closing Saturday, denoted “Medieval Day”. Events start at 11:00 with an outdoor “Picnic concert” at 14:00, followed by an Open Stage for Early Music Enthusiasts, which will be operated strictly on a first come first served basis. In previous years, this has attracted a variety of amateurs and kids and produced some surprisingly high quality music making. The day (and the festival) closes with a touch of the more familiar, with a concert in St Lawrence’s Church of Bach and Vivaldi favourites: something to satisfy anyone needing respite from challenging new experiences.

Keystone Arch at Heureka Science Park © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Keystone Arch at Heureka Science Park
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Outside music, if you’re in any way interested in science or just have kids with you, Heureka is a must: it’s a science and technology museum where virtually every exhibit is hands on: you can try to make a tennis ball hit the ceiling to illustrate pneumatics, clamber over a keystone arch, throw balls at a projected food item travelling down a digestive tract (learning about enzymes), test your penalty kick speed (Cristiano Ronaldo did 120 km/h), spin yourself into double salchows to understand angular momentum, or any of a zillion other exercises. About the only activities that are watch-only are their celebrated rat basketball, done to demonstrate methods for animal training, and the planetarium.

Geographically, Vantaa is a thin strip that separates Helsinki from the surrounding countryside, with the main Helsinki airport in the middle. If you take the map of Helsinki, paint a wide stripe around the top of the city and chop it in three, Vantaa is the middle segment. The lack of a single centre (apart from the airport and its associated giant shopping malls) means that if you want a city-break kind of hotel, you will probably want to stay in downtown Helsinki and commute out to the concerts – the trains are frequent, extremely efficient and only take around 20 minutes. Most of the hotels in Vantaa itself are focused on the airport and are mid-range in quality, with the possible exception of the Hilton and the definite exception of the new Clarion, a high end hotel that opened in October 2016. If, however, you like the English country house sort of hotel, there’s a lovely Finnish equivalent in the shape of the distinctly high end Hämeenkylän Manor, complete with glorious gardens, sauna (of course) and swimming pool. It’s miles from the nearest public transport, so you’ll need a rental car, but provides a real country getaway in beautiful surroundings, with bikes that residents can borrow to explore the surrounding countryside.

After Sauna at Lake Kuusijärvi © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
After Sauna at Lake Kuusijärvi
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Either way, if you get a sunny day, you’ll want to try the sauna-and-lake-swim experience: we went to the public version at Kuusijärvi, but there are plenty of options. Improbable as it may seem, plunging into a cold lake immediately after ten minutes or so of overheating is miraculously refreshing, and the ensuing relax in the sun is delicious. The saunas themselves are single sex and you don’t wear a swimming costume, but the lake is for everyone and you do. A tip for the unwary, by the way: Kuusijärvi had two saunas, a standard temperature for normal people and foreigners, and the super-high temperature version for hardcore nutters. Not being Scandinavian and having gone into the second of these by mistake, I would advise you to steer well clear. Another warning: Finnish weather is notoriously changeable, so be flexible: torrential rain in the morning can turn into glorious sunshine in the afternoon (and presumably, although we didn’t experience this, vice versa).

Helsinki Music Center © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Helsinki Music Center
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
When you’ve run out of things to do locally, the centre of Helsinki offers the usual delights of a capital city. It’s particularly worth seeing for some of that Nordic architecture: as well as the opera house and the fabulous Helsinki Music Centre, try the Kamppi Chapel (also known as the “Chapel of Silence”), a spectacular example of minimalist architecture and a unique space for meditation, reflection and shutting out the hurly burly of daily city life.

Finally, for the kids (of all ages), there's a closely guarded Finnish secret: Fazer chocolate. We can personally vouch for the intensely delicious 70% stuff (which comes in a dark brown packet), but there are plenty of others to try when you visit the Fazer Chocolate Experience at Vantaa. You can use virtual reality glasses to see round their factories, see a real tropical garden (complete with cocoa trees, vanilla plants and sugar canes) or stare affectionately at their giant Easter Bunny, made from 9,330 of their Mignon eggs (of which, apparently, they sell 1.5 million every year). Or, of course, just go for tasting the chocolate...

Peace Chapel, Helsinki © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Peace Chapel, Helsinki
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd


David's trip to the 2016 festival and this article were sponsored by BRQ Vantaa Festival and City of Vantaa Cultural Services and Tourism Office.