Peripheral is a word that keeps cropping up – not inappropriately for a tiny town (pop. 11,200) spread through forest and lakeland some 600 kilometres north of Helsinki. Russia is a stone’s throw away, the Arctic Circle not much further; an estimated fifty bears and thirty wolves reside within the municipal boundary.
Location apart, there is absolutely nothing peripheral or provincial about its Chamber Music Festival. For two weeks every summer Kuhmo becomes a crucible of intensive music making. Some critics rate it the best chamber music festival in the world; participating artists love it (and not just because of the legendary sauna parties).
What is the recipe for such success in such unlikely circumstances? The very high quality of the musicians who gather here from around the world is obviously an important factor, but the egalitarian and collaborative spirit is also a key ingredient. The festival is not a parade of stars, though there are stars in abundance. Fellow musicians are inspiration, not competition; Kuhmo is an ego-free zone.
Musical intensity is another ingredient. Most concerts last little over an hour and have no interval, but with up to six concerts a day the gaps between feel like protracted intervals, and the whole festival feels like one giant concert. Going to lots of performances is an essential part of the experience; cherry picking misses the point. The effects of the Kuhmo spirit on the audience are an exceptional degree of receptiveness, unexpected delight in unfamiliar pieces and heightened perception of the familiar.
Geographical remoteness itself is not irrelevant. The festival arose from the conviction, conceived in the Paris metro during rush hour one day in 1970, that chamber music and urban life are incompatible. Quietude and nature – specifically the ineffable stillness of Nordic near-wilderness – form the essential backdrop to Kuhmo. To emerge from a concert into a lingering sunset mirrored in a silver lake fringed with pine and birch – exposed edge of a forest which stretches to Siberia and beyond – is balm to the soul indeed.
From seventy concerts in fifteen days we have with some difficulty chosen twelve. This might sound a lot for four-and-a-half days, but some participants on previous Kuhmo tours bought tickets for additional concerts; intensity can be addictive.
London to Helsinki. Fly at c. 10.15am from London Heathrow to Helsinki (Finnair). Begin with a walk through the Neo-Classical heart of the city: the Esplanade, Senate Square, cathedral and Market Square. Overnight Helsinki.
Helsinki to Kajaani. Fly at c. 11.45am from Helsinki to Kajaani (Finnair). Continue by coach (114 km) to Kuhmo, arriving mid-afternoon. An introductory lecture precedes dinner and evening concert at the Kuhmo Arts Centre: Grieg, Peer Gynt Op.23. First of four nights in Kuhmo.
Kuhmo. 11.00am concert in the Kontio School: Ravel, String Quartet in F, M.35; Introduction & Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet, M.46; Debussy, Reflets dans l’eau; Ondine No.8 from the Preludes book II; String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op.10. Some free time before an afternoon concert at Kuhmo Church, a fine 19th-cent. timber building: Schumann/ Brahms/ Dietrich, F-A-E. Sonata; Brahms, Trio for two violins and double bass ‘Hymn in Veneration of the Great Joachim’; Schumann, Piano Quintet in E flat, Op.44. Visit Juminkeko and the Information Centre for Kalevala, the National Epic. The collection of poems and stories display an integral part of Finnish identity and language. Dinner precedes a late evening concert at Kuhmo Church: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Op.8; Glass, Violin Concerto No.2, ‘American Four Seasons’.
Kuhmo. 11.00am concert at Kuhmo Church: Corelli, Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op.6 No.8; Brahms, Two Songs for mezzo-soprano, viola and piano, Op.91; Kreisler, ‘Prayer’ for violin and piano – transcription of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2, Op.18; Messiaen, O Sacrum Convivium!; Piazzolla, Introducción al Ángel; Milonga del Ángel. Break for lunch before an early afternoon concert in the Kontio School: Barber, Agnus Dei; Bloch, Nirvana for Piano; Holst, Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Op.26 No.3; Tavener, Prayer of the Heart; Schubert, Psalm 92, D953. Late afternoon concert at the Kuhmo Arts Centre: Beethoven, Erlkönig, WoO 131; Piano Trio in D, Op.70 No.1; Schubert, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D538; Erlkönig, Op.1. Free time for independent dinner before an evening concert at the Kuhmo Arts Centre: Mozart, Fantasy No.3 in D minor, K.397; Ave Verum Corpus, K.618; Clarinet Quartet in A, K.518.
Kuhmo. 11.00am concert at Kuhmo Church: Telemann, Gulliver Suite in D, TWV 40:108; Zelenka, Hiponcondrie a7 Concertanti in A, ZWV187; Mozart, ‘Alla Turca’ from Piano Sonata in A, K.331; Brahms, Souvenir de la Russie; Rodrigo, Adagio from the Concerto Aranjuez. Break for lunch before an early afternoon concert in the Kontio School: Mendelssohn, Fantasy in E, Op.15; Respighi, The Fantastic Toy Shop; Liszt, Un Bal from Berlioz’s Grand Symphonic Fantasy transcribed for Piano; Britten, Fantasy in F minor for Oboe and String Trio, Op.2. A late afternoon concert at the Kuhmo Arts Centre: Debussy, La Cathédrale Engloutie; Schubert, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D714; Bax, The Poisoned Fountain; Tiensuu, Narcissus; Ravel, Une Barque sur l’Océan from Miroirs, M.43; C. Schumann, Lorelei. 6.00pm concert at the Kuhmo Arts Centre: Respighi, The Birds; Mozart, Papageno-Papagena Duet from The Magic Flute; Rautavaara, Cantus Arcticus, Op.61; Dinicu, Lark; Sibelius, Scene with Cranes, Op.44 No.2; Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending; Ellington, Sunset & the Mockingbird.
Fly at c. 1.45pm from Kajaani via Helsinki to London Heathrow (Finnair), arriving c. 6.00 p.m.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,810 or £2,580 without flights on days 1 and 6.
Single occupancy: £3,100 or £2,870 without flights on days 1 and 6.
Flights with Finnair (economy class, Airbus 350/ATR 72/Airbus 321); day 1 from London to Helsinki, day 8 from Kajaani to London (via Helsinki), and with Finnair (economy class, ATR 72) day 2 from Helsinki to Kajaani; travel by private coach throughout; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts, two lunches and four dinners with a glass or two of wine, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Tickets for 12 concerts are included, costing c. £220.
Hotel Haven, Helsinki: smart, boutique hotel close to the harbour. Hotelli Kalevala, Kuhmo: in a peaceful lakeside and woodland location about 2 miles from the town centre, this 4-star hotel and restaurant is the best in the region. Rooms are fairly small but well equipped (mostly with shower only) and the lake is excellent for swimming. Single rooms throughout are doubles for sole use.
Access to performances would be difficult with impaired walking. There is a long coach journey on the second and final day but four days with minimal driving. Average distance by coach per day: 27 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.