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Crossing the boundaries and tapping on subconscious: Helsinki Festival 2019

Max Richter's SLEEP. Photo credit: Petri Anttila / Helsinki Festival

Just as the first signs of autumn taking over glorious summer begin to appear (shorter sunsets, occasional winds, gradually falling temperature), August in Helsinki offers a treasure of cultural treats for every member of the public, as events of the Helsinki Festival, the biggest cultural event of the Finnish capital, take place in various locations. It is always a pleasure to offer the treats to your cultural palate, and the more different they are, the better. Helsinki Festival organizers always aspire to bring in radically different productions, involving both world-reknown Finnish and international artists. Blended in those special summer evenings and autumn twilight, these memories stay forever. This year was the time also to do things one has never done before – to hear a choir of robots singing on a city square, to spend a night in a tent listening to music specially composed to accompany your sleep cycles or discover Richard Wagner’s Ring of Nibelungs through the eyes of children.

One of the highlights of the Festival belonged to traditional genre – classical music – but was no less fantastic and expected by the audiences than more experimental events. In August 2019 Susanna Mälkki, and extraordinary conductor who has appeared in world concert halls, including such locations as LA, London and Paris, took on a rather demanding piece for a male choir and a mixed choir, soloists, expanded orchestra and a narrator – Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. This cantata is rarely performed, as it requires a large orchestra, a huge choir and high skills and concentration of all involved, including the conductor who has to manage the arranged musicians and singers. However, neither Mälkki, nor her performers – Simon O’Neill, Emily Magee (and others), Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra – were strangers to such a demanding piece.

Gurrelieder (1900-1910) is one of those rarities that take their roots in the romanticism 19th century, while having been composed in the 20th. The work is based on the collection of poems by Jens Peter Jacobsen who used the Danish folk story of tragic occurrence of events featuring king Valdemar (Waldemar in German), his mistress Tove and the Queen Helvig (Waldemar’s wife, Waldtaube in the score) who kills Tove out of jealousy. Schoenberg worked on the piece through a decade, developing as a composer and almost leaving his romantic inclinations behind, and thus influences of both Wagner and Mahler are felt in the piece, while the introduction of Sprechgesang (a recitative, singing resembling speech) is a harbinger of his own future work Pierrot Lunaire (1912). Such history of its creation may result in its ecclecticism, as its three parts are not balanced and are different in their usage of choirs, singers and the orchestra. The task of the conductor is to give the whole composition a unifying thread and present the development of the drama, while highlighting such drastically different moments as moments of romantic love and then tragic death of Tove in part one, and then a devilish hunt of Waldemar’s dead vassals and a grotesque, plaintive song of jester Klaus in part three, all culminating in a scene of the rising sun and giving this massive work a romantic conclusion.

Susanna Mälkki conducting. Photo credit: Chris Lee

Susanna Mälkki through intensive rehearsals and separate work with soloists, choirs and the orchestra was fully prepared to lead us through this tale where we have to process a rather difficult text in German (the programmes were given out) and also appreciate different orchestral decisions and beauty of particular moments of Schoeberg’s score. She was also attentive to her soloists – magnificent Wagnerian Simon O’Neill (Waldemar), Emily Magee (Tove), Katarina Karnéus (Waldtaube), Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke who he had already sang the same role in London a year ago (Klaus Narr), Gidon Saks (Peasant) and Salome Kramer (Narrator). Although not all parts were equal in size, brief appearances in such roles as Klaus Narr and Narrator gave audiences a surprise and spurred this fantastic work further on. The conductor also didn’t forget about her choir, and kept a nice balance between it and her singers, allowing the latter be supported by the background by the screen of sound that was incorporated into their individual storylines. Mälkki who is always rigorously attentive to detail, was also masterfully creating Schoenberg’s orchestral tableaux by constant shifts of attention from one instrument, which and was hellishly difficult, taking into an account the number of musicians involved. It was a memorable evening deserving a standing ovation, and one of the rare Gurrelieder to be heard.

Another production of the Helsinki Festival was no less ambitious in scale and preparation involved, and with a work that it is also rarely performed – Robert Schumann’s oratorio Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1844-1853). The composition was started just a decade after the death of Goethe whose Faust Schumann used as the text for this dramatic work, using both Part 1 and Part 2, choosing specific scenes from both texts, and, interestingly, in the end, in the scenes of Faust’s Transfiguration, incorporating the same text in his composition that Mahler would use for his 8th Symphony. As Gurrelieder, it also consists of three parts and in a way is similarly ecclectic and depicts a tragic story of love and redemption – thus, also a romantic work, but of course with a much more well-known source and with the philosophy of personal enlightement and search for truth running as its core theme. The score has multiple parts for singers, but in the production each soloist took on several parts. Exttraordinary vocalists took part in the performance: Soile Isokoski (Gretchen), Arttu Kataja (Faust), Markus Suihkonen (Mephistopheles), Helena Juntunen (Magna Peccatrix) and others. Several choirs – Tapiola Chamber Choir, Emo Ensemble and Cantores Minores, as well as Finnish Radio Symphony were involved in the performance. The conductor Hannu Lintu patiently and skillfully organized the musicians, through rehearsals in the building of the former Cable Factory, attentive to the thread of the story and to the unity of orchestral-vocal-choral expression.

Hannu Lintu rehearsing Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. Photo credit: Petri Anttila

If that combination of powers was not enough, the performance was taken to a mixed-genre level by the introduction of a separate intricately weaved video story (shown on a large screen behind the orchestra and below the choir, seated in the top gallery) and a theatre pantomime involving actors featured in the video, with the story catching back and forth from video screen to real life. As envisaged by the director Jussi Nikkilä, the theatre/film part of the performance was giving us an account of a modern-life famous artist (Hannu Kivoja) who is tormented by memories and a life crisis when a Mephistopheles (Sanna-Kaisa Palo) visits him and thus a journey (involving a taxi ride to the very Cable factory where our evening takes place) begins. In a quite inventive storytelling involving flashbacks and constant uncertainty and mixture of dramatic happenings between the video and stage, Faust is confronted by images of Gretchen (Alise Polacenko) in love with his younger self (Tom Rejström), and follows them through their love, partly remembering it, partly wishing to embody himself in the past and start things all over again. There are images of a child drowned and further suicide of Faust in the same lake, with him later being flown through beautiful Nordic imagery to a certain location where he meets everyone he had loved and cared for and sees his life filmed back to him. An incredibly inventive cinematography by Raimo Uunila in a way stole the attention of the public, with changes of lighting (Pietu Pietiäinen) distracting our focus from the acting behind the orchestra and partly from singers, but this ecclecticity allowed to see the potential of Goethe’s work to carry a modern message and to become an honest exploration of our conscience, guilt and hope of eternal love and compassion still allowed to us by fate and heavenly forces. To emphasize the redemptive and benevolent end of the oratorio, conductor Hannu Lintu and the soloists reappeared clad in white after the interval, as in Part Three the music soared into heavenly heights, while Faust in a video story was searching for peace and forgiveness. This was an evening to take in, to contemplate, to be shocked and surprised by, and of course to remember.

Hannu Lintu rehearsing Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. Photo credit: Petri Anttila

Another interesting show also crossing the boundaries of genre and experimentally presenting us the material we knew inside out was a show Children’s Ring that came directly from Bayreuth Festival where it had a huge success in 2018. The concept was created by Bayreuth Festival director Katharina Wagner together with Markus Latsch, and envisions to let children understand what the whole Ring story is about in two hours. That sounds almost impossible, but, naturally, the story was stripped of philosophical undertones and ‘adult’ moments like passions, incest and revenge and was toned down to a fairy tale involving giants, a family of gods (that looked rather domesticated) and dwarves (that is Nibelungs, but it was hard to guess it) that made their lives complicated. The story was told to kids in Finnish (with Swedish subtitles), and while the musical accompaniment (and unfortunately in this concept Wagner’s music was reduced to that) was given by Helsinki Chamber orchestra conducted by Chloé Dufresne. David Merz was the director, with staging (a simple, but rather inventive set involving some interesting transformations) was accomplished by Julius Theodor Semmelmann, with Ruth Asralda responsible for dramaturgy of the piece. In Finland this transferrred production was done by Teatro Productions Oy, with Ina Hukki a director’s assistant particularly for this performance.

Children's Ring. Photo credit: Nawrath Presse

The production evidently had a success with children, who reacted actively and eagerly, and even occasionally interacted with singers/performers as they invited them to make the decisions with them. I was impressed that all these kids understood so many complicated lines in Finnish, but that was of course a subjective view of a foreigner. And I am sure they enjoyed it and did not mind the intricacies of Wagner’s librettos being interpreted as a strange mix between Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault castles, abductions, fights, a golden ring (obviously) and with a slight lack of princesses to save. I am sure they also did not mind the Helsinki Chamber Orchestra tentatively producing some Wagnerian leitmotifs and then silencing itself for long periods that did not (!?) involve singing, although it is hard to fathom how that is possible in such a short transposition of the tetralogy. Although they probably did not notice how lopsided the show was, with Das Rheingold and Siegfried given more attention (probably with their plots being the easiest for children’s minds) and Die Walküre and Die Götterdämmerung cut unproportionately so that one had to actually remind oneself what happened there. The singers involved in the production were uneven, and some of them (like Brünhilde) were being stripped of almost every line they are famous for in the ‘normal’ version. It was even more paradoxical to watch after attending the rehearsals of the ‘real’ Das Rheingold that were taking place at the Finnish Opera House then. An excellent idea which perhaps will find its audiences, but could definitely be done with much more nuance in staging and text and much more attention to Wagnerian music both in orchestral and vocal parts – while here the RING is definitely lost.

Max Richter's SLEEP. Photo credit: Petri Anttila / Helsinki Festival

And finally, another unusual show was a huge and sold-out event of the Helsinki Festival 2019, and it was so unique it left indelible traces in the minds and subconscience of everyone who was lucky to attend it. It was Max Richter’s phenomenal project SLEEP that has been travelling the world since its first performance in London where it set the Guinness World Record. Richter organized his score in the way that it follows the stages of human sleep, including deep and REM sleep, and allows the audience either to actually go through them or lay awake and listen or combine both of these strategies (which I did, trying to stay awake as much as possible). Music was performed by Max Richter Ensemble (Natalie Bonner and Louisa Fuller - two violins, Ian Burdge and Chris Worsey - two cellos, Nick Barr - viola, Andrew Skeet - keyboard, Katherine Tinker – piano, with Grace Davidson singing some incredibly eerie successions of notes for soprano) in Hüvila tent near the Töölö lake. Some members of the audience were placed on nice and comfortable beds inside the tent itself (about 100 hundred people), while some were listening to music through sound amplifiers while having their own individual tents outside. I suspect if one just put one tent in the nearby park, one would have heard it, too.

This night is very difficult to relate in words, as the experience transgresses any previous experience of being on a concert (classical or not) that I have had in my life. The music is consciously minimalist and thus adheres to what we can expect from Max Richter, and it has its ‘plot’, with music almost inviting us to sleep at its start and awakening us with the final Dream O movement, with some beautiful and almost surreal vocal lines included in its score. What it does is to set your brain on a 8,5 hours journey inside itself, and thus this experience resembles a night spent on an island, or in meditation or even a session of group therapy. You are on your own and yet you are amongst people, you sleep and you are awake, you can listen to music but it also invites you to have your own dreams, thoughts and visions. I felt that my inner concentration of my ability to feel love and on the validity of love for my human being became the center of my attention for this night, as I fell into some wells of sleep and re-awakened to understand that my brain work has never stopped. For others this meditation and this night could have been about something else, but what Max Richter’s music does is that invites you to look inside yourself and understand the complexity of your own brain mechanisms, as they are exposed to you in a mirror of music and catch you unprepared in perceiving the intensity of work your mind is involved in. After you walk home (and you are given a newspaper to read at 7am in the morning), you cannot describe this experience with words like ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘excellent’, ‘fantastic’ because the complexity of this lived SLEEP night goes beyond it and might face you with your own fears, hidden memories, hopes or obsessions. But it becomes the night you live as though you and music had become one moving and thinking body, where the score becomes part of your natural habitat for one long period of time, and where other human beings are sharing this with you and thus also become co-creators of this event. The time does not lapse, does not pass in SLEEP, it does something else – it jumps, it bounces, it becomes still or protracted, but it still relentlessly and powerfully goes on, making us different to the ones we were when we entered the tent. A transformative experience indeed that made the Helsinki Festival 2019 absolutely unforgettable, making us anticipate its next instalment in August 2020 that will hopefully be as extraordinary.

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