These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.

Sep 15, 2023

The Art of Spontaneity: Collaborative Partner Pekka Kuusisto

Pekka Kuusisto performs Jesper Nordin’s Convergence, October 6–7

In any given concert, there are two things Pekka Kuusisto plays really well. One is the violin. The other is the audience. 
On a typical evening, the Finnish virtuoso first dazzles his listeners with a performance of such candor that it can make even the most familiar concerto sound conversational and new. Then, at the encore, he disarms them with a surprise gift: a Nordic folksong, or a polka; a touch of improv comedy; impromptu choral training for everyone in the hall. At his debut at the London Proms in 2016, he taught the crowd a Karelian folk song about a sweetheart who is so homely, even the horses laugh when she shows up at the market. 
Kuusisto, one of the Collaborative Partners at the San Francisco Symphony and the soloist in October in Jesper Nordin’s mind-warping concerto for violin and interactive electronics, Convergence, is one of the most magnetic performers on the classical scene. A gifted comic, his interactions with the audience have the sly timing of a seasoned stand-up artist. But in an interview, Kuusisto spoke of his charisma as a balancing act between connection and ego. “I don’t want to go out and play Sibelius and have people remember me,” he said. “I want them to remember the piece.”
Kuusisto was born into a musical family that comprised a jazz composer, a music teacher, and an older brother who would build his own career as a prize-winning violinist and conductor. As a teenager, Kuusisto moved to America for advanced studies at Indiana University. In 1995, when he was 19, he took first prize at the Sibelius Violin Competition. The video of his winning performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto shows a young man with floppy blond hair, bulletproof technique, and a rich glossy sound. Soon, solo engagements began pouring in.
But with his formal studies behind him, Kuusisto embarked on a postgraduate education of his own devising. Encouraged by a friend, he explored Nordic folk music. “I could play quite loud and fast, but I don’t think I had a really clear idea of why one would play in the first place,” he said. At a festival, he heard the Finnish traditional (trad) group Järvelän Pikkupelimannit and was hooked— both by the music and by the self-effacing way it was delivered. 
“There’s no virtuosity in Finnish trad fiddling, and there’s no projection,” he said. “There’s no ‘I.’ Just a team.” Around the same time Kuusisto began to engage with the trad scene, he formed a rock band with friends. They raided the costume department of a theater company for outrageous outfits and wrote short sketches and improvised songs. “In the beginning we had seven people listening to us,” he said, “and the next time it was maybe 20. Then it became a thing.” A clip of Kuusisto dressed as a nun riffing about cucumber farmers made it onto TV.
At the same time, he began to weave improvisation into his solo concerts. At first, he would design himself a safety net: a first half consisting of unaccompanied Bach, followed by free improvisation with electronics. “Gradually, I could even drop the Bach and just go out and have my toys with me, my electric fiddle and pedals and a regular violin." He said the practice taught him it was possible to have fun as a performer. At the very least, he said, “it reminds you that you rarely die in a concert.”
Along the way, Kuusisto’s tone changed. He is still capable of dispatching virtuosic passages with a brilliant, muscular sound. But much of the time, he coaxes his Stradivarius into a more intimate register with sounds that might evoke the clarinet, or a particular jazz trumpeter, or the mellow string tension of Baroque violins. When he studied theater actors, he noticed that the most meaningful lines were often delivered quietly.
“It’s simple, really,” he said, “the idea of whispering the things that you really want to be able to hear. The feeling that it’s a secret that you want to share.” 
Still, the size of most modern concert halls mean that the kind of speaking voice Kuusisto loves won’t always carry to the back row. But he predicts that technological advances will soon make it possible to adapt the acoustics of a given space to the music. Eventually, he hopes concert acoustics will be tailored not just to each piece, but even to individual lines. 
He imagines live performances of a symphony like Sibelius’ Fifth with acoustic effects sculpted to measure: the opening horns spacious, “because it’s like the creation of the entire scenery,” the individual wind parts more intimate and close. “It will mean bringing pop music production into classical music performance," he said.
As he takes on more orchestral responsibilities, Kuusisto seeks to bring his emphasis on personal and more differentiated ways of listening into classical institutions. He is the Artistic Director of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor and Artistic Co-Director of the Helsinki Philharmonic, in addition to collaborative roles with Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and the San Francisco Symphony.
In Helsinki, he has initiated a kind of interdisciplinary laboratory that teams up a small group of orchestral players with an innovator from a different creative practice—a chef, a painter, a choreographer—and gives them free rein to produce a work. “The only requirement is that the work needs to be as well organized as an orchestra rehearsal,” Kuusisto said. “Outside of that, they can do whatever they want: a pop-up restaurant, a library. It could result in a performance, but it doesn’t have to.” 
Giving orchestra players a chance to interact in small groups is important, he said, because it reawakens their curiosity and respect for their colleagues. “During a normal work week, you don’t realize how great the second bassoon actually is at her job,” he said. “Too many people in orchestras feel like they’re not being heard.”
Now that he is increasingly in demand as a conductor, Kuusisto said he is unnerved by the amount of power that role is afforded. “It’s almost designed to make you an impossible person,” he said.
“Part of me would just like to move to a cottage in Lapland with my family and this particular violin, and just play music for myself for a year,” he said. “But then social media keeps me very informed of all the fantastic opportunities that my colleagues have and which, at some dark point of the night, I feel I should have. So it’s normal life, but the things in it are not quite normal.”
Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim is a writer and founder of Beginner’s Ear.

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