Cartagena Festival, Colombia

9 February 2015

pekka kuusisto



Dear Diary,

it's the first half of February and I’ve been neglecting you again.

I wanted to speak with you, and share some memories about my early January fling with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. As I must have told you last year, I adore them, so when they rang and asked me to tag along on a trip to Cartagena des Indes in Colombia, the answer was a solid yes.

Ole, the boss of the MCO, told me there was going to be a big festival residency with many gigs, and that they needed me to work as a concertmaster, a director and a soloist. It wouldn't exactly be a holiday. I found out Teodor Currentzis was booked to conduct the tour, and that was by no means a turnoff, since I’m a great admirer of his work with the amazing and autocorrect-destroying MusicAeterna.

Currentzis is a very intense and inspiring musician. He also has the charisma and mystery of a rock star, and it often feels like people make an effort to talk about him in this specific kind of knowing way, as if to casually draw a picture of a close companionship – like the way people sometimes will steer any conversation towards an opportunity to mention "that time Yo-Yo and I had a pint in the lounge at JFK" or "how Lorin asked me what time it was".

Ole also told me that Alexander Melnikov would come and play, and as I had been hoping for a chance to work with him, it was another reason to get excited. In the end, we struck up a friendship, and as one of its by-products, I'm now trying to get him a site for a grave by the church in my Finnish home village. Alexander's checked the place out some years ago and he thinks it would be the perfect spot for an eternal snooze. We Finns may have learned our appreciation for melancholia from our Russian neighbors, kind of like the Swedes helped us realise that guys can wear make-up too, and I couldn’t help feeling a kind of brotherhood while working with Alexander.

It's fair to say that the MCO worked their asses off on this trip. The orchestra performed something like 5 different programmes, and rehearsed most of it jetlagged during the first few days in Cartagena. We had a mildly experimental approach to the repertoire, meaning that when work began, we still didn't know exactly what was going to be conducted by Teodor, and what was going to be directed by me, Alexander, or maybe the ghost of Muzio Clementi. Some works were performed more than once, some were not, and I don't think anyone anymore remembers exactly what happened.

For me, the trip had many educational aspects, since I'm relatively experienced as a soloist and director but not as a concertmaster. I went into the first rehearsals with the heart rate of a squirrel, wanting to be useful to the orchestra, but keeping my soloistic tendencies from getting in the way of the communication flowing from the conductor to the ensemble and back. It's an extremely interesting place to be, and I’d love to understand the different gravity fields and climate changes in a much deeper way than I do now. Meanwhile, after years of looking for a sound to call my own, I've recently found it interesting to change my relationship with some repertoire into a more transparent one. I've enjoyed the process, but now some of my most trusted colleagues tell me I've begun to think too much. I never expected anyone to say that – after all, I'm the guy who had to go to the hospital because of catching the back of my own head with a fishing hook.

Anyway, the concertmaster's chair gave me an opportunity to take a fresh look at what I do for a living. Sometimes a new position makes you see your own fortress of mannerisms and automations from the outside.

The Cartagena Festival Internacional de Música, who were our kind hosts, had given us a home at the Teatro Adolfo Mejía. It’s not a massive hall, but we understood that it’s an important place for local music lovers. Seeing people clean the facade of a venue with toothbrushes creates that impression.

To add to our excitement, some of the concerts were televised and/or broadcast on the radio, and that kind of attention inevitably brings some technical adventures and new things to figure out. This time around, when those things got combined with minor cultural differences between our organisation and the hosts, we had some moments when, as we say in Finland, the moped was no longer under control.

For instance, the very beginning of our first concert in Cartagena was about as convincing as firing a rifle that's not been loaded with a bullet but with a currywurst. As it was also the opening event of the whole festival, there were the Colombian radio guys, the TV guys, individuals of heightened significance, a roaring national anthem wanting to be let out of its cage, a big speech waiting to be given, elephants, zebras and so on. I'm usually willing to improvise, but in this situation, some clear instructions would have been amazing. I think the recipe for the beginning of the concert was changed 5 times in the final 10 minutes, with only the best of intentions, but it still worked like the opposite of Viagra when we were finally sent on. A stage manager with emergency in his eyes told us very firmly to make our grand entrance now, and as we exploded onto the stage, we realised that only about a quarter of the audience were in their seats. So, for about 10 long minutes, we all just sat there doing absolutely nothing and being as comfortable as beached whales, while our audience gradually made their way in. The experience was one of a very thorough and memorable type of awkward, before the lights went down and we blasted through 2 short minutes of pure Colombian national anthem – and left the stage again. I think we played it to honor the President, but he apparently did not make it to the concert. Whatever. I love anthems and I hope the audience was happy to get a new interpretation.

After the wobbly start and the opening speech of the festival, we went back to work and kicked some ass. Sasha Melnikov created living transparent statues out of a handful of Debussy Préludes, and made magic pianissimos, magic fortissimos and magic everything inbetweenissimos in the 5th Saint-Saëns concerto. Marina Heredia, the flamenco goddess, opened up a big can of duende as our soloist in El Amor Brujo by Manuel de Falla. Maestro Currentzis conducted as if possessed by demons and the MCO responded with fire.


Oh man, I feel a bit bad now. I don't want to give too much weight to that episode from the beginning of the first concert, so I really should say that most things ran very smoothly during the whole residency. Our main contact person from the festival was a lady called Ana Maria (not entirely sure about the spelling), who always seemed to be where help was needed, and brought other smiling and friendly colleagues along when necessary. They ran a tight ship.

The vast amounts of energy that was spent on making our stay as comfy as possible reminded me of the fundamental rule of festivals: the people who take care of the millions of daily actions at festivals never get the credit they deserve. So here it is – a big whopping thank you to the whole festival staff from all of us. And oh, I nearly forgot: a secret special handshake, a smile and a wink to the utterly charming gentleman in charge of the coffee at Teatro Adolfo Mejía. We all wanted to steal him from the festival and make him a part of the MCO touring staff.

The rest of the concerts were all exciting and peppered with late Christmas gifts. Mandolin tornado Avi Avital played some Vivaldi, as well as a very cool and clever programme with his trio. At some point during the residency, I got to direct the MCO in the C major piano concerto by Clementi, played by Alexander, and I fiddled through the A major violin concerto by Mozart. Good times. Mario Brunello's performance of The Protecting Veil by Tavener happened after I had left town, but the rehearsal sounded absolutely intoxicating.

Well, dear Diary, Cartagena des Indes is a magical place and the MCO are crazy good. I've promised myself that in the future, I'll avoid doing all the average shit and concentrate on finding experiences that leave a mark somewhere, like this trip did. Remind me if I forget, ok? Thx.

x Pekka

PS: Please please also dear Diary remind me to email Hélène, Daniela, Ole, Maggie and everyone else running the MCO to make sure they know that they are the best.