They are among Finland's most exciting musicians: conductor Klaus Mäkelä and violinist Pekka Kuusisto. Mäkelä takes up the position of principal conductor with the Oslo Philharmonic this summer at the age of only 24 – nothing short of a sensation in the world of classical music! And Kuusisto is known not only as a gifted violinist, but also as a fine improviser.
The »Elphi at Home« series was born in spring 2020. When the concert halls were closed to the public, the Elbphilharmonie invited artists to stream concerts live from the Elbphilharmonie.
Double debut with a safety distance
It's true that the Corona pandemic thwarted the plan for their joint premiere with the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra in front of a big audience. But that makes it all the more welcome that the double debut could take place at the Elbphilharmonie after all, albeit with fewer musicians and with a safe distance between them. NDR Kultur broadcast the concert live on the radio, and it is now available as a video on demand. In an interview recorded on the same occasion, the artists talk about their musical programme and how it feels to be on stage again.
NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra
Pekka Kuusisto violin
conductor Klaus Mäkelä
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847)
Sinfonia No. 10 h-Moll for string orchestra
Magnus Lindberg (*1958)
Concert for violin and orchestra No. 1
Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951)
Transfigured Night op. 4 (revised version for string orchestra)
Interview: Klaus Mäkelä and Pekka Kuusisto
At the beginning, we hear the String Symphony No. 10 by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Why this work?
Mäkelä: The reason I included the String Symphony by Mendelssohn is that we originally planned to play the Scottish symphony in concert this week – another great masterwork by Mendelssohn. This piece, which he wrote around the age of fourteen, is further proof of his amazing talent. In general, many of his string symphonies have these jolly qualities. But this piece has this very dark feeling at the beginning – like a requiem. And the Allegro part starts almost tragically, too.
»You feel it instinctively: that's what I want to do.«
How does it feel to be back on stage?
Mäkelä: It feels great to be back at work, even though the travel felt so strange after being isolated for some time. But once you are back on stage – although the big hall is empty and the players are distant – it feels very natural. It is so great to be playing music again.
Kuusisto: It is fantastic! I don’t want to mystify our profession more than it has already been done, but there is this instinctive feeling you want to be doing this – the only thing you can do properly. These past few weeks, it felt like being a migrating bird stuck in a cage.
You will also perform the violin concerto by Magnus Lindberg.
Mäkelä: Yes, this is the first time I will conduct it. But Pekka, you played it so many times!
Kuusisto: You are right. Indeed, I am happy this is not my first time, because the distance on stage makes it quite complicated. Good to have you there!
Mäkelä: Oh thank you very much! It is such an interesting piece, because in a way, it looks back to the classics – for instance, in the instrumentation. Magnus Lindberg wrote it in 2006 for the occasion of Mozart’s 250th birthday.
Kuusisto: Agreed. I believe the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra has recently played Lindberg’s »Kraft« from 1984/85 – super-crazy music. It feels as if this piece evolved from these ideas.
Mäkelä: You have also played it with the composer Marius Lindberg himself conducting the piece. How was that?
Kuusisto: He is the nicest guy. He creates a very positive environment. His attitude to life in general is not very tense, so he lets you experiment with the piece. The second time we did it together, he told me to disregard the cadence he wrote, but to actually improvise one myself. I am particularly looking forward to this in tonight’s performance, even if improvising for an empty hall is so weird.
I realized how much the presence of the audience affects you when you are inventing the music while you are playing it. If you have a score, you a have a safety net. But the audience is your mirror in improvisation. When it is gone, it is pedagogically useful, but also nerve-wracking.
»If you have a score, you a have a safety net. But the audience is your mirror in improvisation. When it is gone, it is pedagogically useful, but also nerve-wracking.«
»The most moving moment in the whole piece is exactly in the middle of the work: the violas, the celli and the bassi play a D major chord. It is the turning point of the piece – and the most beautiful music.«
Finally, we will hear »Verklärte Nacht« by Arnold Schönberg. What can you tell us about this piece?
Mäkelä: After the violin concerto, we travel 100 years back in time. The interesting thing about »Verklärte Nacht« is that it exists in two different versions: Originally, the piece was written for six string instruments, stretching the limits of romantic harmony. Many years later, in 1943, Schoenberg revised the piece for big string orchestras. In the meantime, however, he had already begun to compose quite different music – dodecaphony. And when he came back to his old piece afterwards, he saw it in a new light. He changed a few things – for example, in articulation and tempo – and it became a new piece.
The challenge for us is how to make it work best. »Verklärte Nacht« is written in a brilliant way: fully tectured, having so many layers at the same time. Balance is therefore extremely important; so is finding the right character for each layer in order to put them all together.
Interview: Clemens Matuschek