Jussi Chydenius, who’s the artistic director of this year’s Tampere Vocal Music Festival, said yesterday how strange it felt not to be on the ensemble jury this year. I felt exactly the same at the last festival two years ago when I was in Jussi’s position, and it was great to be back in the jury once again. This year’s finalists were all of a very high standard, and if we’d had enough time we’d have liked to put all of them into the final concert. It’s always so hard on those who don’t go through. Groups came from as far away as Mexico and Namibia, and the music ranged from dynamic Finnish folk to renaissance polyphony and beatboxing. And the sun shone all day (and most of the night). The organisation is almost miraculous, a heart-warming balance of friendliness and efficiency, and it’s one of the events I most look forward to.
The first day was a long one, judging ensembles from after breakfast till the evening, then Ambrose and I did Being Dufay in the Customs House. I’ve always wanted to do a gig in there. Wonderfully atmospheric venue. We had a great time, and put in a bit of the new album (on no rehearsal, perforce) but with only a small (but very enthusiastic) audience as the previous concert up in Tampere Hall overran by miles. There are some atmospheric pics by Maarit Kytöharju here and here’s one taken by Anders Jalkeus:
Classical vs non-classical
I did a short in interview for Radio Three’s Michael Surcombe, who was here doing an edition of The Choir for transmission in a few weeks time (it’ll be a 90 minute celebration of the Festival, so keep an ear out). He asked if it would be possible for a completely classical group to win the competition. Interesting question. When the contest started over twenty years ago we sometimes even had a classical category, and groups still in a post-King’s Singers phase often did very well. The models changed over the years and the scene became heavily influenced by The Real Group, and then by groups (such as Rajaton) who’d themselves been inspired by TRG but taken the music on a slightly different track. I think we may have made a mistake in not sending the English Vocal Consort of Helsinkii through to the final round: they’re an excellent young ensemble and (as I confessed in my speech) gave the best performance of Lassus’ ‘Chi chiri chi’ that I’d ever heard. They tried really hard to get round the problem of how to present music that large parts of the audience are probably going to find rather dull. The trouble is, even the best performance of any piece of Lassus isn’t going to leave the audience gasping in admiration: it’s classical repertoire, therefore by definition not exactly in the moment. Difficult. I went to see the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir who sang to a packed cathedral. Their solution to this sort of problem is a conventional one, a rather clinical professionalism – and with rather a lot of pieces that I’d heard before, but beautifully done. I first met the founder and first conductor Tonu Kaljuste with Veljo Tormis on one of the Hilliard Ensemble’s first visits to Finland eons ago. After the concert two impressively strange men came up to us and gave us LPs. We had no idea who they were, but when I got home and played the records I became totally hooked on Tormis, and the choir (which had only just acquired its name) were something visceral, one of the most exciting choral sounds I’d ever heard (and not at all like western choirs). The CD they made later of the same repertoire is still exciting but by then they were on the way to becoming a generic western professional choir. They’re still a terrific choir, but they sound not unlike the BBC Singers or a rather sophisticated opera chorus. It was a bit of a contrast to a choir like the extraordinary Anglo-Chinese Junior College Alumni Choir the previous day. Maybe that’s where the future of choral music is to be found.
Beating the beatbox
One of the biggest influences on vocal ensembles has been Bobby McFerrin, and vocal percussion has become almost axiomatic for many groups. There were no live players at all this year for the first time (they’re allowed up to five). Signs of evolution here though: those who use it routinely can sound pretty naff and clichéd, whereas the ones who explore some of the infinite creative possibilities are beginning to take it somewhere else. There’s something pretty impressive about a true virtuoso like Indra Tedjasukmana, whose group Sonic Suite came second in the competition. Maybe the genre needs to progress beyond pastiching bass and drums (try Beardy Man to see what can be done) and one way of doing this is through technology. Last time’s winners, the German group Klangbezirk were very skilful with footpedals, and this year’s winners, the Danish Postyr Project, also had a cool tech set-up that complemented the singers and was well-integrated into the ensemble. They also sang impressively acappella, and one the members said to me afterwards they were very surprised we’d chosen the looping/beat box numbers for the final concert. But it was those that gave them the edge, enabling them to be really creative with their own material. Both these groups write their own stuff, another huge plus. The days of sub-RTG arrangements seem to be behind us at last (long live the real TRG!).
We don’t often get groups from Africa, so it was a real treat to have the extraordinary Vocal Motion 6 from Namibia. Hannu Lepola, the Real Group’s tenor, told us that in a coaching session TRG had with them one of them said he’d noticed all these professional groups using pitch pipes and so on to get the note, and should they do that too if they wanted to be really professional. It brought a lump to the throat; the pitch giving business often completely breaks whatever atmosphere has been built up – we want pieces to start by magic not by fiddling with a fork (those I’ve coached will have heard this many times…). Hannu rightly told them to carry on with the way they do it – just start! They had atmosphere and heart to spare, and we were so amazed at their performance in the final concert that we created a special prize for them. In the heats there’d been an electrifying moment when the last piece seemed to fall apart, and they did several re-starts in different keys till they got one they were happy with, all with riotous good humour (quick-fire repartee about taking medicine). It was so fast and hilarious – they’re genuinely funny guys (which most singers aren’t) that we couldn’t tell if it was pre-planned. We asked them to do it again in the final so we could find out. What happened was completely different. They must either have had a number of possible options or have been confident they could sing their way out of any situation. Whichever way, it was hugely exciting. They don’t read music, but they certainly live it.
All that was before the last event I went to, the Anna–Mari Kähärä Orchestra. I want to be her in my next life, or failing that either of her two guitarists or the drummer. Though I’d hope for a name that was a bit easier for English people to pronounce – when you hear Finns say her name it just sounds as though they’re clearing their throats. I couldn’t begin to describe the gig. Jazz-rock? Sort of. She is a phenomenon; the whole band is (Marzi Nyman & Jarmo Saari guitars, Zarkus Poussa drums). They all sing at the same time as playing, and Zarkus Poussa even played the drums with his vocal mic. You just had to be there. I Googled them all but couldn’t find anything remotely like they did in the Customs Hall Club, and hardly anything in English. Anna-Mari Kähärä, who actually sat on the jury some years ago, is also a composer among a huge number of other things (she produced the first Rajaton album) and earlier in the day the Helsinki University Choir workshopped her Robert Louis Stephenson setting Requiem. By way of an encore the band started on their version of the piece (there’s a relatively restrained version on her self-titled album). As soon as they recognised it, the choir members in the audience started to join in, singing the polyphony. Absolutely amazing. If you get a chance to hear them or her live, don’t pass it up.
Sadly, I had to go home before the mega event of the Saturday night. I had a couple of hours to spare after I’d checked out of my hotel so I went and sat by the water and promptly fell asleep. I was woken by someone apparently talking in my ear. It turned out to be the PA of the Heavy Metal Festival which was just starting up a couple of kilometres across the water. The volume was about right, as I’d have it at home if I didn’t want to annoy the neighbours. I don’t know what the band was – they sang in English but did their announcements in Finnish. They obviously knew their Led Zep and Genesis so it wasn’t unpleasant to listen to. The singer would have made a Wagnerian Heldentenor with only small adjustments to his technique. But unconstrained by composery craft he could soar to stratospheric heights with an intensity of expression that Wagner himself surely would have admired.