Watch the following two videos of Pekka Kuusisto and see if you notice something unusual about them. Not the fact that the puckish Finnish violinist sits perched on a stool, as if in a neighborhood pub, or the fact that his striped uniform creates a visual harmony with the radiator and blinds in the background. It has more to do with the wispy, folksiness he brings to the Sarabande from Bach's Partita in D minor for solo violin.
Rather than presenting one of those "warm," "expressive" sounds violinists are supposed to make, Kuusisto gives it a breathy flair that’s entirely personal, and which he chalks up to the time of day. "Because it’s pretty early in the morning, it’s probably going to be a bit more improvisatory than if we were at Carnegie Hall at 8 o’clock in the evening,” he said. “That would be more serious.”
Kuusisto, 36, has made his reputation as a sound stylist who plays both traditional and electronic violins, as an ambassador for his native Finland who has played the Sibelius Violin Concerto hundreds of times, but also as an advocate for his country’s folk melodies.
For the second selection, the Finnish tune “Piupali Paupali," Kuusisto’s violin becomes a makeshift mandolin, and he delivers lyrics that are half-nonsense and half-narrative (about a boy’s trip to a shoemaker). The style of violin playing “is not really Finnish but it’s one of these songs that most people in Finland would recognize,” he explained. The tune was Americanized when Finns moved to the Upper Midwest and Canada and it became common to accompany the melody with a banjo or mandolin.
Kuusisto, who gained international attention in 1995 when he became the first Finn to win the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition, is tough to pigeonhole. This month he’s premiering a Violin Concerto by the electronic artist Owen Pallett (a.k.a. Final Fantasy) and is premiering Four Iconoclastic Episodes with New Jersey guitarist and composer Steve Mackey. The night before his Café Concert he appeared at the Greenwich Village club Le Poisson Rouge to give a recital that included works by Bach, Nico Muhly and his own “Music for swallowed microphone” (a piece as unconventional as the title suggests). That show can be heard archived on Q2 Music.
Video: Kim Nowacki; Sound: George Wellington; Text & Production: Brian Wise