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Tampereen Sävel!

Last week I was invited back to Tampere to join the celebrations for the 30th contest for vocal ensembles.   I stopped chairing the ensemble jury four years ago and I still get Tampere withdrawal symptoms in the first week of June. I first joined the jury 28 years ago and chaired it for 22 years, so it was wonderful to be back. I’ve written many blog posts about the Tampere experience – there is nowhere else on earth where singers can experience such joy and warmth, and for audiences and participants alike it’s the one event in the acappella calendar that no one wants to miss.  This year was very special for me, as for the first time I could enjoy the performances without having to judge anyone. It was such a relief! We always made the point that it’s not actually a ‘competition’ – that the competitive element is only the excuse to bring everyone together to celebrate the music we love – but you can’t help being conscious of the fact that of the twelve groups you hear on the first day only a small number will be winners. I was asked to say a few words at the opening of an exhibition commemorating the contest’s 30 years and I should have realised that there would have been a translator on hand. The sensible thing to do would have been to write something down and deliver it in short chunks, but as usual I tried to busk it, got carried away and became increasingly lost in ever longer sentences, which the translator (the formidable Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, one of the country’s most distinguished choral composers) had to distil into Finnish. I eventually gave up before I got to the bits I really wanted to say. I have all my notebooks from every jury session. Many of them are undecipherable or incoherent-seeming as they’re full of crossings-out, bemused comments or even comments on my fellow jurors’ thoughts. No one else will ever see them, of course, but they are a reminder of just how difficult it is to compare ensembles from the different genres and cultural traditions that the contest encourages. It’s actually an impossible task. I also have the CDs of the final concerts that were made for several years, and these sometimes confirm that we got it right, and sometimes make me wonder if we may not have done. The standard in some years was ridiculously high. In 1999, for example, the final concert included Rajaton, Amarcord and Trio Mediaeval, all of whom are among the most successful vocal ensembles on the planet.

With every contest we would revisit the rules, and this evolution was comprehensively documented in the commentary that accompanied the photographs in the exhibition (drawn from the Kalle Kaihari archives and beautifully translated by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi). It was this kind of attention to detail that kept the contest in the moment and not dependent on a traditional set of conventions. We always looked for originality, and we almost always found it. This year was one of extreme contrasts for me as a listener. The groups came from Europe, Turkey, South America and Uganda; the overall winner was flamboyant Danish group Sønk , with the German Ensemble Nobiles (sometime coached by yours truly) winning the acoustic category. There were some stunning performances as always. The evening concert was  billed as a special 30th anniversary concert with Club for Five and the Tampere Philharmonic, though I wasn’t the only one totally bewildered by what turned out to be a rather middle of the road programme of film music. Later though, we heard Tuuletar in Telakka, the bar/restaurant that acts as a kind of festival club. This group of four women singers had only been together a year when they came to Tampere in 2013. My notes mention their beautiful voices, dynamic stage presence, total commitment and original arrangements. I place them third, but as the jury discussions ebbed and flowed they end up without a prize. That’s juries for you.

Yet here they were, pioneering an entirely new genre – folk hop – blistering vocals and dynamic choreography, with no attempt to ‘entertain’ the audience in a conventional way. We were just witnesses to an intense emotional outpouring. I couldn’t understand a word, but I understood the visceral heart of it. It was the highlight of the festival for me, and exactly what the festival has been about for all these years.

I hope they’ll ask me back  for the 40th anniversary, and I fully expect the festival still to be the place to hear the world’s best ensembles. Where will ensemble singing be then? I still have my wish list – no onstage note giving to break the spell, a post-beatbox percussion that is generically vocal and doesn’t try to imitate a percussion section? Maybe make a start by not miming the instrument you’re imitating (sooo infantile these days…)? Maybe groups could not start by thanking everyone (we know you’re grateful…), and please please don’t say ‘enjoy…’? I live in hope. Oh, and no film music…

Thankyou to everyone for three decades of great music making and wonderful hospitality – to my fellow ex-jury members, to the magnificent and long-suffering jury secretaries, to executive director Minnakaisa Kuivalainen, to Eija Koivusalo and her team, and to whoever first got me into all this (was it you, Heikki?). And very best wishes for the next thirty years!

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