Finland's Time of Music Festival: Days 4-7

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Participating composer and performer Matthew Whittall reviews the second half of Finland's premier contemporary music festival, Time of Music, a program peppered with names such as Marco Stroppa, Markus Trunk, Kaija Saariaho, Michael Jarrell, Joji Yuasa and Karlheinz Stockhausen. For those of you who haven't read the first installment of our Time of Music coverage, Matthew Whittall is a freelance composer, teacher, and music writer based in Helsinki, Finland.

By Matthew Whittall

After my last post, temperatures in Finland soared to record-breaking highs and activity in Viitasaari exploded, with concerts coming fast and furious in the final days. Before having to skip town for another gig, I was able to take in most, if unfortunately not all, of the festival activities.

On Thursday, the indefatigable defunensemble returned for another electroacoustic program, again with a premiere. This time it was Maija Hynninen's turn, whose Orlando Fragments, setting an oblique poem by Henriikka Tavi, was a work of transparent, glistening textures and fine detail. Mezzo Jutta Seppinen, a regular of the Finnish new-music scene, was in top form in a piece that suited her voice and temperament well. Marco Stroppa's little i for flute and electronics, was even more internal in its dialogue, but flutist Hanna Kinnunen, a godsend for Finnish new music, held the attention constantly in its slowly evolving textures. Veli-Matti Puumala's spasmodically rocking Basfortel for bass clarinet, piano and Midi keyboard provided welcome relief. The entire program can be streamed online here. (Apologies, the TM+ concert mentioned in my last dispatch can't be streamed outside Finland for broadcast contract reasons.)

Due to family and rehearsal reasons, I missed a few of the subsequent events, but from colleague feedback, one big hit was Heinz-Juhani Hoffmann's R-rated The Human Heart is Traitorous Above All, a preview to his upcoming monologue opera for Jutta Seppinen. Another highlight was a semi-improvised program with Hanna Kinnunen, harpist Lily-Marlene Puusepp, cellist Juho Laitinen and actor Jussi Lehtonen. Featuring ruminative music by Markus Trunk, Kaija Saariaho, Michael Jarrell and Anne LeBaron, and improvised scenes around Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the recital was given in the exquisite, remote hilltop Tervamäki chapel -- reached via an unintentional detour through a dairy farm -- the only ambient sound the wind in the pines. Truly a memorable atmosphere.

Friday night brought the much-anticipated return to Time of Music of the Helsinki Chamber Choir under their artistic advisor Nils Schweckendiek. The program at the Viitasaari church featured my own ad puram annihilationem meam, for choir and bass drum, which I wrote for them in 2008 and which they keep doing better and better. This performance featured a passionate new choreography by Johanna Nuutinen. Marco Stroppa's Perchè non riusciamo a vederla?, an assemblage of "cries and clamors" for choir and viola, was quietly absorbing, but the main event was once again a young Finn's premiere, Maailmamaa (Worldland) by the much-awarded Sampo Haapamäki, also a HKK commission. Not for the faint-of-heart choir, with its dense web of polyrhythms, insanely virtuosic vocal writing and electronic interaction. But, as I told Sampo afterward, for all its difficulty, it still sounded like people singing, not something every first-time choral composer achieves, especially those like Sampo who trade in extreme complexity. Ostensibly a dystopian vision of a world culture fragmented by globalization, the 40-minute  Maailmamaa was simultaneously an homage to, and sendup of Finland's nationalist choral tradition. That Haapamäki walked the line between tribute and satire so well was in itself amazing, but the piece managed to be genuinely touching as well. Well done! Kudos to Nils and the choir as well, whose top-notch work continues to show HKK to be an invaluable part of Finland's choral scene. That concert can be heard online as well.

Saturday brought a concert by the über-cool German-Icelandic ensemble Adapter, in a program evenly distributed between Finnish, German and Icelandic composers. The fatherland was represented by Jarkko Hartikainen's alternately liquid and pulsating Hologramme, and Antti Auvinen's quirky and stratospheric Lifted, which pushed the ensemble to its limits while remaining thoroughly engaging and accessible. Auvinen's music is like nothing else in Finland at the moment. Other standouts included the two Icelandic works by Gudmundur S. Gunnarsson and Einar Torfi Einarsson. Einar Torfi's piece, Seven Intensions, was by far the oddest on the program, but its skittering, Webernesque textures and intimate whisperings proved irresistible.

The evening concert was by the Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus under Chifuru Matsubara, who gave us a program of Japanese and Canadian works performed with panache. While more conservative than the other repertoire on offer at Time of Music, variety and openness is part of the festival's mission statement, and the change of pace was appreciated. Of particular note was Joji Yuasa's Projections on Basho's Haiku, a stark, hauntingly expressive set of miniatures. Also memorable was Michio Mamiya's folk-inspired Composition for Chorus no. 16, which reminded me very much, to cite a more familiar example, of the work of the Estonian composer Veljo Tormis in its directness. Apparently Mamiya visited the Baltic region many times, which may explain his affinity for the local choral aesthetic. If the scores were transcribed into Latin alphabet, this music would be far better known than it is. Definitely a composer worth exploring.

My time at the festival ended with a late-night concert of experimental music. Riikka Talvitie's recreation of Fluxus icon George Brecht's Comb Music created a warm community-participation atmosphere, with audience members enthusiastically lining up at microphones around the theater to pluck at combs handed out prior to the concert. Karlheinz Stockhausen's hectic Mikrophonie I was the evening's classic, and must have been cathartic after an intense series of rehearsals for the hard-working composers who realized it for us, but I found myself vastly preferring Alvin Lucier's slow, meditative approach to sound exploration in Indian Summer, performed by Juho Laitinen on a six-string electric cello.

And that wraps up another Time of Music festival. If you're ever in Finland in July, it's well worth a trip to this quiet little lakeside town, especially in weather of the sort we've had so far this month.