Pekka Kuusisto apologized over the phone for all the noise in the background. Boisterous Norwegians were enjoying a late night in Trondheim, and Kuusisto had stepped away from the fray to talk about his upcoming weekend with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
The Finnish violinist wasn’t performing for the rascally club crowd but he has become a leading advocate for new music and untraditional venues. He likes to mix things up and has a keen understanding that no matter the audience, you need to know the territory.
“If you’re doing rock music during a performance in which people are expected to be talking, then you don’t do ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ ” Kuusisto said over the din in Trondheim. “That song refuses to be in the background.”
It’s the same thing with classical music, he said. It’s challenging to find the right stuff. Rossini might do the trick because much of opera does not need to be listened to intensely (which is why it’s a perfect companion for Saturday afternoon chore time).
“You don’t want to play, ‘Eine Kleine Nacht Musik.’ ”
Familiar but new
Kuusisto, 39, won’t perform in any clubs this weekend, although his schedule includes a happy-hour concert Friday with free beer and cider and discounted drinks.
In September he formally begins his tenure as an SPCO artistic partner. He has performed many times in the Twin Cities, with the SPCO, the Minnesota Orchestra and as a Schubert Club recitalist. And he’ll tour Europe as a guest artist with the Minnesota and Osmo Vänskä in August.
He is regarded as a fine interpreter of music from his native land (particularly folk tunes) and also a champion of new music. His program includes work by two favorites, Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner, guitarist for the rock band the National. (Traditionalists needn’t worry, though. Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 is on the bill and Kuusisto will perform and conduct Mozart’s violin concerto No. 5.)
New music is essential, he said.
“The easy answer is to say if people had not championed Beethoven, we’d not have Beethoven,” he said. “When we support composers, that is the best way to keep the art form developing. Dessner and Muhly are practical musicians working in ways that 20 to 30 years ago would not be possible.”
That the Metropolitan Opera commissioned work from Muhly suggests that the new work is finding its mark.
Kuusisto likes to experiment with concert combinations and he likes playing Mozart off the new composers. Mozart wrote his fifth violin concerto when he was 19 — a strange paradox of a teenager who was a mature composer.
“It’s very much the music of a young man,” Kuusisto said. “We’re looking for pretty light, transparent sound and in improvising the cadenzas, it’s going to fit in pretty well with the overall language of the concert.”
He paused and added, “I wouldn’t worry about Mozart,” he said. “He’s not doing so bad.”
What’s ahead in St. Paul
Kuusisto won’t say publicly what his mission will be when he comes on as artistic partner next September. Speaking generally, he mentions such things as broadening the repertoire of work that can be performed without conductor; spreading the idea of being courageous to attack complicated scores, and finding talented collaborators for the SPCO and the Liquid Music program, “from places where the orchestra would not normally look.”
The connection with Scandinavian and Finnish immigrants in Minnesota is “something I want to toy around with,” perhaps finding resonance with current immigration populations, such as Syrian and Iraqi musicians.
“Mahler said tradition is not about worshiping the ashes but feeding the fire,” he said. “As musicians, we have this amazing vantage point to achieve some good vibes.”
And that gets the voluble Kuusisto back to talking about nontraditional venues. Has he ever worked in a rock band, pitching tunes to barflies more interested in who’s buying the next round than in what’s the next song?
“I’ve played electronic dance music and hip-hop — and with improvisational rock bands 20 years ago that did the most obscene and crazy things — so it doesn’t feel foreign,” he said. “When people ask you to play, you should be ready to go in any situation. You just get your instrument out and start playing and singing. It’s really liberating.”
He noted that on his last visit, he played at Aria, a less formal venue in Minneapolis.
“You try to jam and stay loose; jump on the wave and surf,” he said. “You concentrate on making sounds and gestures that you’ve never played before and happen from your own happy accident.
“And those sounds become part of your vocabulary and they are still there when you are playing Beethoven and Mendelssohn.”