Getting a festival going under the pandemic – An interview with conductor André de Ridder

Artistic Director André de Ridder © Maarit Kytöharju / Musica nova Helsinki

In one form or another, Musica nova Helsinki, Finland’s biggest contemporary music festival and one of the leading events of its kind in Europe, will launch again on 2 February. Due to the pandemic, the details of the 2021 festival are still in flux, to some degree.

”Committing ourselves to making the festival happen has been of key importance for all the organizers, especially in the midst of all the cancellations and postponements”, says the Artistic Director of Musica nova Helsinki, conductor André de Ridder.

Held every other year since 1981, the festival is a collaboration between several cultural organizations, including the Helsinki Festival, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Finnish National Opera, Society of Finnish Composers, Tapiola Sinfonietta and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra as main organisers.

The 2021 festival programme is rooted in the multi-faceted legacy of the Greek-French composer, architect and mathematician Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001). In the course of the nine-day festival, the idea of imaginary spaces combining music and architecture, explored by Xenakis under the title of Polytopes, will be revisited in many guises.  

Polytopia is at the core of the whole festival. While ’poly’ translates simply as ’many’, ’topos’ mayrefer to either a place, a topic or a centre. 

A contemporary music festival should not only be about the most interesting new music, but also about exploring new formats, new situations and new spaces for concerts. We must find new means and new places for listening, performing and encountering new music. 

As we want to focus on living composers, Xenakis is featured in the festival not so much as a focus composer, but as a guiding light and inspiration.”

One of the key works of the festival, Helsinki Polytopes, is mentored by the festival’s Artistic Adviser, architect Tuomas Toivonen. The project, implemented by Musica nova, the Korvat auki Society for Contemporary Music and the New Academy educational programme of architecture, brings together young composers and and architects, to create new works of art in the spirit of Xenakis, deployed throughout Helsinki.

”We wanted to have Tuomas aboard, because we needed insight from outside of our new music bubble. There are music festivals that surround themselves with lots of artistic advisors and they are all musicians. And nowadays the festivals love to decorate themselves with famous soloists or composers, who bring in their friends and colleagues and all the pieces they love. In all honesty, I don’t think that helps us. 

What helps us is bringing in scientists, architects, designers, film-makers, politicians and philosophers to help us to get different perspectives. Contemporary music festivals have traditionally been sort of industry meetings for the insiders, with the same crowd of journalists, composers and other musicians sitting in the audience, instead of genuinely wider public.

As an architect and electronic musician, Tuomas has some unique insight to contribute to the festival. With Polytopes, we are making utopia reality. The idea came to us even before the pandemic, but in the covid-era it has become even more topical. 

Perhaps our festival can provide some solutions that are valid way into the future of the performing arts. If new music festivals can become laboratories for future forms of music presentation and outreach and communication, I think that’s a worthy goal.”

In addition to Helsinki Polytopes, the 2021 festival includes a vide variety of new music, alongside such twentieth century classics as Xenakis’s Voile (1995) for string orchestra and Edgar Varèse’s Déserts (1950-54) for winds, brass, percussion and tape.  

The works of Musica nova resident composers Lisa Streich and Simon Steen-Andersen are featured throughout the festival. Awarded with the Ernst von Siemens composers prize, Streich’s multi-faceted works will be performed by the Finnish Baroque Orchestra, the Uusinta Ensemble, Helsinki Chamber Choir and Tapiola Sinfonietta.

In the course of the festival, Steen-Andersen’s Piano Concerto (2014) and Amid (2004) will be featured in the programmes of the Helsinki Philharmonic and Uusinta Ensemble. In addition, the new rendition of Run Time Error, Steen-Andersen’s take on the Polytopes scheme will be premiered at the Musica nova closing event on 10 February.  

Getting a festival going in the middle of the pandemic is a tricky affair, as all the events must be designed according to the latest audience restrictions and other safety measures. Luckily, most of the festival events are quite malleable in terms of presentation.

”We are happy to have the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) as a strong and committed, long-term partner. Should the worst case scenario come to pass, and live audiences not be permitted, we might resort into something similar to the streamed format successfully adopted by the Helsinki Festival last August.”

Due to the current counter-measures imposed by the local authorities, two of the projected events, Cineconcert South at the Savoy Theatre and Between at the Finnish National Opera have been lost to the pandemic, at least for now. 

Even though the performing arts have taken an unprecedented blow during the pandemic, something positive may come out as the arts organizations eventually get back in the business. 

”Maybe the pandemic forces the organizers to rethink their strategies. They might not get the audiences they want any more by just putting on the traditional repertoire. In this way, we might actually gain something for the future out of all this.”

However, at this point the future is still pretty much shrouded with uncertainty. There is always the risk that arts organizations resolve to ever more risk-aversive programming, once the pandemic is lifted, in order to secure their funding. 

In the end, the fundamental question comes down to whether the organizations are satisfied with luring back their pre-pandemic audiences or will the organizers venture into finding new ones.    

”Generally speaking, I think young people have more connections to the contemporary sound-worlds, which can be somewhat more spectacular, sonically, and a bit more weird than the more classically-oriented repertoire. Thus, new music festivals like Musica nova Helsinki could really be the ones to draw in new audiences for classical music.” 

Coming after Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year of 2020 and preceding the Xenakis centennial proper of 2022, Musica nova Helsinki can be seen as part of a larger continuum.  

”The Beethoven year did not end with the year 2020. Neither does the Xenakis year begin with the arrival of 2022. Instead, there is an ongoing discussion about the significance of both of these composers in our times. How do we keep carrying on the ideas they initiated?

My absolute dream would be curating a joint Beethoven-Xenakis festival during this intermediary year of 2021. If someone out there is interested, I’m their guy!” 

© Jari Kallio 

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