[Herald Interview] Kumho and Kuhmo join hands to highlight young talents

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Feb 9, 2017 - 18:16
  • Updated : Feb 9, 2017 - 18:25
Jet lag is part of the life of internationally renowned musicians these days. Vladimir Mendelssohn, a Romanian-born violist and composer now based in the Netherlands, is no exception. In Seoul for the three-day Kumho & Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, Mendelssohn said he fell asleep at 9 a.m. for about an hour before leaving his hotel for the interview held Thursday morning at the Kumho Art Hall in downtown Seoul.

Artistic director of the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival since 2005, Mendelssohn is used to getting little sleep. “The last concert ends around midnight,” said Mendelssohn, explaining that over the two-week music festival held in July at the scenic lakeside village of Kuhmo -- population 9,000, about an hour’s flight from Helsinki -- five concerts are staged each day, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Festival attendees typically go to two or three concerts a day.

The idea of the Kumho & Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival is an ingenious one. Kumho Art Hall has led the chamber music movement in Korea for the last 20 years and plays a pivotal role in the discovery of young musicians. Likewise the Kuhmo festival is dedicated exclusively to chamber music and is a platform for young talents. 

Vladimir Mendelssohn speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at the Kumho Art Hall in Seoul, Thursday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

For the first Kumho & Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, violinists Priya Mitchell and Antti Tikkanen are joining several young Korean musicians discovered at Kumho, including violinist Lim Ji-young and pianist Kim Da-sol.

This year’s Kumho & Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival features four concerts, each one programmed for specific effect. The festival opener Thursday celebrated 100 years of Finland by highlighting the country’s best symbol -- Jean Sibelius.

“It is as if Sibelius would have made the program. But I beg to differ from him in incorporating impressionist music,” Mendelssohn said, referring to the music of Bela Bartok, Frank Bridge, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Manuel de Falla, who also form the program. “I am completing the life span of Sibelius with composers who are not stylistically related to Sibelius.” 
Mendelssohn describes Friday’s program, titled “Paris by Night,” as “music with layer.” Taking Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet in F Minor, M.7 as an example, Mendelssohn describes the piece as work by a 70-year-old madly in love with his own student. “Under each (work) is hidden a passion idea,” he added.

The Saturday afternoon concert, titled “Baroque, Evergreens,” has been deliberately programmed as a lighter concert, featuring popular Baroque pieces such as Pachelbel’s Canon and Gigue D Major, Albioni’s Adagio in G Minor and the perennial crowd favorite, Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.

The final concert Saturday evening features the ”stars of Vienna” in a program of Mozart, Schubert and the Brahms Piano Quintet No. 1 in G Minor Op. 25, the composer’s most famous work.

Teamwork sets the Kuhmo festival apart from other chamber music festivals, in Mendelssohn’s view. “It is like an iceberg. What you see is only 10 percent, 90 percent you don’t see,” he said in describing the efforts that go into producing a music festival. Another distinguishing feature is the originality of the programming. “It is hard work to stage five concerts every day, and to make them in such a way that I feel like going to the second after the first concert.” 

Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival (Stefan Bremer/Kumho)

Mendelssohn takes pride in the egalitarian spirit of the festival.

“Musical life is like an army. But not in Kuhmo,” said Mendelssohn. Everyone is called by name, no honorifics are used and the young play with the more “experienced” generation, according to Mendelssohn. “And this works wonderfully.”

“There is no rank. Everyone is a maestro for two weeks. Everyone gets the same fees,” he said. In fact, he makes sure that he gets less than other musicians, who will total 150 this summer. “I decided to do this because it makes me feel that I am in the service of the institution,” he said.

Why the punishing schedule of five concerts each day? “There is almost nothing else to do!” he said. Especially when you get cold July showers, there is really nothing to do but listen to music, he emphasized.

The village churches, a concert hall and a school hall are turned into music venues during the festival period, and there have been no complaints about the acoustics, Mendelssohn said, not even at the school hall performances. “It makes emotional sense to perform there,” he added, explaining that is where the now iconic festival had its humble beginnings.

As for the local residents’ response, he said that in his 34 years of Kuhmo experience, there has been only one local lumberjack who complained about the “invasion” by outsiders. “The festival boosts the economy, raises the status of the unknown village, and puts the village on the international stage,” he said.

“Advantages outrank disadvantages.”

By Kim Hoo-ran (khooran@heraldcorp.com)