Pekka Kuusisto

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The Finnish violinist on premiering a new concerto by Owen Pallett at London's Barbican Centre

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Known for his spontaneous, joyful, virtuosic violin playing, Pekka Kuusisto won the International Sibelius Violin Competition back in 1995. Since then he's made a career for himself as a concerto soloist, and guest director of ensembles including the Australian, St Paul and Irish Chamber Orchestras, as well as the Britten Sinfonia. His musical enthusiasms also include jazz, traditional folk, and electronic music. This Friday, 16 March, sees him give the world premiere of a Violin Concerto by Owen Pallett, a Canadian indie pop musician who formerly performed under the name Final Fantasy, and played the violin on early records by the band Arcade Fire.

Owen Pallett is better known as an indie-pop violinist and composer. How ‘classical’ is his new Violin Concerto?
It’s completely unelectronic, everything is composed. I’ve been enjoying watching the development of the piece. Owen sent me some early versions. At one point it was called Four Rituals. It was originally going to be a 10-minute affair but it got bigger and bigger to about 20 minutes or so. I don’t want to say anything that would put a stamp on it, but it’s going to feel like a statement with a lot of gravity. Owen has done some quite amazing things and taken his writing to a different level. I’ve been a fan of what he’s doing ever since Nico Muhly, who wrote a piece for me and tenor Mark Padmore, put us in touch. I'm still listening to his last album Heartland every week for the quality of the orchestral writing. I've been amazed at how he clothes his songs.

And parts of the Concerto are inspired by JS Bach?
Yes. Do you know what a Shepard Tone is? It’s like a continuous glissando in which different facets of the tone are exposed as it continues, so what you have is an endless effect where the lower frequencies of the tone fade out as new higher frequencies fade in. It’s a sort of gravity defying note that keeps falling but never disappears. Owen sent me a YouTube link of a really long Shepard Tone and another one of James Ehnes playing Bach’s A minor Violin Sonata. He said that one of the movements needs to sound like a combination of these two things.

Is there a different feeling before premiering a concerto to performing an established one?
Absolutely. Of course there’s a scary element to it. You don’t know what’s going to happen unlike in pieces you’ve made your home in. The Thomas Adès Concerto is relatively new, but has been played quite a lot by Anthony Marwood and others. I played it three times before going on tour with it with the Britten Sinfonia, so I knew pretty much what it felt like to play. With Owen’s piece, I still have no idea.

You play a lot more new music now than you used to. Why is that?
I think I got used to working in certain ways in Finland, and when I was a student I studied with teachers who had massive attention to detail. Because of that I find I want to create an aesthetic framework for all the music I play, and often that’s not so easy because of rehearsal time constraints. Also, I’ve played too many incredibly unsatisfying concerts of, say, the Sibelius Violin Concerto. I’ve lived with this piece since I was born and must have played it 200 times. I know exactly how I want it to sound, but I know it’s quite different from what you usually get. I play a lot of Finnish traditional music, and so I mirror that in the Sibelius. And in order to do that I need time to figure out an aesthetic framework with the orchestra that’s not the Romantic one – all the characters, the landscape need to be different. I need to make chamber music with the orchestra. So if there’s no time to talk about stuff it becomes a disaster. Most of the time it’s much more fruitful for me to play premieres and new music where there’s no fixed way of playing the stuff.

And you have a fruitful relationship with the Britten Sinfonia. What’s it like to play with this ensemble?
I’ve been on three extended tours with the Britten Sinfonia, one with tenor Mark Padmore in music by Britten and Nico Muhly, then I went to South America with tenor Allan Clayton, performing some more Britten and Purcell, and now we’ve just finished playing Thomas Adès’s Concerto and a bunch of other stuff. It’s an orchestra whose style of programming makes me feel completely at home. They manage to marry the core repertoire into more interesting projects. Plus they’re all lovely and smart people, and great at attracting new audiences in an intelligent way. 
One story I have to mention that really made love them is about a concert we did in Poznan, Poland. It was at a summit on climate change, and Greenpeace wanted an event with some quality music. We played Vivaldi's, and Piazzolla's, Four Seasons concertos. The Britten Sinfonia realized catching the plane wouldn’t be such a good thing for a Greenpeace event, so they calculated the most carbon friendly way for the orchestra to get there. That turned out to be the Eurostar and a 16-hour bus journey across Europe. Then we were playing outside in freezing temperatures, but they totally did it. I thought, they are brilliant and totally crazy!

Hear Pekka Kuusisto give the world premiere of Owen Pallett's Violin Concerto at the Barbican on Friday 16 March, 7.30pm