Pekka Kuusisto and I have turned up to the interview looking vaguely similar. Two pairs of glasses, lots of short, dark-blond hair, and two not dissimilar jumpers meet on the screen: mine, a sludge-green skiing fleece borrowed from my dad; his, a bottle-green Icelandic-knit sweater made by his mother-in-law during lockdown. Kuusisto is an intense guy, and though he laughs often, a few dark notes streak through. He has bright eyes, and a mouth that turns down at the edges.
The regular laughter conceals a lot of anger. On the afternoon that we speak, the violinist and conductor is due to travel to Norway for a concert with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and the Sámi singer Katarina Barruk. “It’s become a bit more current affairs than we intended,” he says. The Finnish government’s treatment of the Sámi people has been condemned by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; with the recent elections in Finland ejecting center-left prime minister Sanna Marin, and the country moving steadily towards the right, according to Kuusisto, the already slim prospects of change have decreased even further. In the first few minutes of our conversation, he flashes through a range of political subjects: the treatment of the Sámi, Greenpeace, Just Stop Oil, his frustration that there’s not a Finnish equivalent of the UK pressure group Led By Donkeys. There’s clearly a lot on his mind.
VAN: You seem frustrated with the world…
Pekka Kuusisto: You can hardly blame me. [Laughs.] No, it’s a cool time to be alive if you like questioning the sense in anything. We got off to a slightly darker start but it’s not all bad. I still vastly prefer this to 2020.
In November, Kuusisto announced on social media that he was calling in sick for the rest of 2022 after an extremely difficult few years, from a particularly hard stretch during the pandemic, and then losing both his mother and elder brother, Jaakko, in quick succession in 2022. He wears the same green sweater from his Facebook announcement on today’s call.
At what point did you realize that calling in sick was going to be your course of action?
Pretty much then. I had been rather tired, I just had a personally tricky year, and in the autumn season, I couldn’t really sleep properly; for about a month and a half, or two, it was very sporadic.
Then I got a very irritating (though fortunately not permanent) physical symptom, one that often accompanies fatigue and stress. And it prevented me from playing the violin, because there was nerve pain involved. Then you’re taking medicine for two or three weeks and hoping it goes away, and it did, but there was a situation where I was playing some shows in Norway with the Chamber Orchestra, and I was taking truckloads of ibuprofen. I thought, this is not going to work.
I was actually surprised how well the two months did. And actually, I did one jump-in in Helsinki: the Philharmonic was missing a conductor, and I went in and did a rehearsal, and it felt really good. I realized that I’m on the right track. One month later, I got back to work and had the maddest month of my professional life possibly, and still felt fantastic afterwards. So it was good, it was mostly just like… emotional baggage that needed to have a little bit of time to get processed.
What did you fill your time with, when you were away from it all?
I think I spent quite a lot of time outside, which is not easy when you’re in Finland in November. But just trying to live—trying to find more rhythms and patterns, to go to sleep at the right time, wake up at the right time, and do the right things in between.
It’s not the first time that Kuusisto has done something like this. 12 years ago, when he was director of Finland’s adventurous summertime Meidän Festivaali, everything came to a head, as he struggled to plan further than a few days in advance. He checked out for four months when the autumn season came around.
Is it something you’d encourage other people to do?
I would encourage other people to not go that far [in the first place]. But I didn’t have the kind of burnout where you can’t get out of bed. I was always somewhat active as a human, but I just couldn’t deal with… I wasn’t at my best work-wise.
But it’s tricky. I don’t think it’s getting any less tricky for younger colleagues, because the awareness of fun things that other people are doing is much stronger than when I was growing up. The attractive part of the profession is much more present in our lives via social media than when I was younger.
It’s probably more difficult to avoid overextending yourself now than before. If you’re a freelancer, soloist, conductor, whatever, there are very few norms to rely on. There’s no officially agreed “general” amount of work that’s good for you. It’s kind of like a wild west.
You have to do it, see what happens, and then occasionally overstep…
It’s super difficult to zoom out in a way where you really see the unimportance of yourself. Like, my doctor friend in Finland says that actors and musicians are always the last ones to go on sick leave, because we assume that nobody’s going to manage without us: a Jesus complex.
I remember when I canceled my stuff in 2011, I assumed everyone was going to be just totally furious at me. Like, all the people I’m canceling on would absolutely hate me and send me horse manure in the mail. I had already run a festival for more than 10 years; I knew that if somebody cancels on my festival because of health or fatigue, I would never be angry at them, and I would applaud them for taking care of themselves. But when I was doing it myself, I felt like, oh God, they’re gonna hate me.
Even a brief scroll through the Facebook comments shows an outpouring of people saying, in effect, “fantastic!”
I suppose it was partly related to the fact that a lot of the people that I’m in contact with on social media knew that the large majority of the fatigue was coming from personal events, my brother and my mom dying earlier in the year. It takes a pretty hardened person to not be supportive of someone who is letting go of work because they’re recovering from something like that.
What were your brother and your mom like as people?
Well, there’s a bunch of my brother’s music and his performances that you can check out online [laughs] that will tell you a lot about him.
My mom was the brains of the family, the structure that held everything together, especially when me and my brother were younger. And of course, she watched over all of our violin lessons and all our practicing for the first 10, 11 years or so.
It’s very strange, and it’s probably never going to stop being…being…strange. But…yeah. I can’t really tell you what kind of people they were… They’re my family.
Tell me about your extremely busy time getting back into playing.
Well, it was great. It was just this human pinball situation, mostly because it contained many things that had been moved fived times during the pandemic, and they finally landed here. I felt, violinistically, very good. And I figured out some stuff about conducting that I… needed to figure out.
What sort of things?
Physical things, mostly. I’ve been doing this [gestures as if holding a violin] and I’ve been directing orchestras from the violin for such a long time that it has been a bit of an adventure to figure out how to let the music take over in the same way when I’m not making any noises myself.
It’s actually a super interesting thing, that connection between you and an ensemble [versus] when you’re directing them from an instrument. Because it has to be completely immediate, otherwise you’ll end up sounding before everyone else. And then with conducting, of course, there’s a lot more elasticity to the situation. It’s been interesting trying to figure that one out, and to make sure that one is as useful as possible without getting in the way of things. Nobody wants a conductor who tells you things you already know. That’s what consultants do. [Laughs.]
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That human pinball feeling… Do you find yourself flying a lot of the time?
I wish they would make it so incredibly expensive and inconvenient that we wouldn’t even have the temptation to do it. This is something I don’t have the answer for. You know how Greenpeace does their “Greenwashing of the Year” award? I think Finnair is probably going to get it, because now, every plane ticket contains about 20 cents worth of green airplane fuel. All of 20 cents. [Laughs.] And then it’s like, Yes, we are flying sustainably.
Finland is a small place as you know, and, with my education and what I do, to be able to figure out possibilities of having artistically satisfying work or enough of it without stealing opportunities for our younger colleagues who haven’t had my exposure yet: that’s super tricky.
It is a crazy, crazy thing because my whole education and my whole upbringing is based on the idea of jet-setting around the planet to play concerts and it’s just yeah… my generation will be extinct soon. I don’t have a solution for that one, and sadly, I don’t think I’ve got the strength to give it up without feeling that I’m kind of giving up.
I saw an interesting film a couple of years ago… It’s a documentary about a Swedish guy called Harry Schein [a Jewish Kindertransport refugee from Austria who later founded the Swedish Film Institute and funded films by Ingmar Bergman—Ed.] He was a brilliant guy, and he messed up, he did something super stupid and he had to leave. And he spent the rest of his life trying to rebuild himself, because his profession was such a large part of who he was, how he saw himself. When you tear yourself away from it… that’s scary. I’m pretty sure I would end up underneath a boat, or in an asylum, or at least permanently drunk if I was to stop entirely what I do.
There’s an interesting paradox between this view of Scandinavians as the happiest people on Earth, then at the other end of the spectrum, huge cost of living—
High suicide rate.
Massive consumption of coffee. [Laughs.]
But where are you aiming for on that spectrum, as you return? A kind of contentedness?
I guess the long-term goal is to decrease the amount of work without decreasing the standard of living. I know, it sounds kind of awful, but I think that’s my gut instinct. As I get older, I hope I’m going to be satisfied with fewer things. But looking at the history of my profession, I’m not entirely sure that’s going to happen.
Kuusisto has a lot of irons in the fire. He’s moved into scoring for film and TV (“artistic heartbreak most of the time, but I think when it works, it must be fantastic”) and has rooms in his home to do remote recording projects. In the fall, he begins a role as Principal Guest Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, which seems the perfect fit: “challenging and artistically satisfying work that I don’t need to fly anywhere for.”
It is awfully tempting to just quit and run away sometimes, isn’t it.
I’m quite sure that I would really lose my balance if I were to do that. There was a time when I was playing on a violin that was so good [a Stradivarius] that I half-considered running away with it, just being like Gollum on the rock, but in a cottage with a violin. [Kuusisto then does a My Precious impression he’s clearly practiced.]
I have a friend who’s in a study group for mushrooms. Basically, in Oxford, they’re checking out the possibilities of psychedelics in the treatment of depression. And the little bit I’ve heard from my friend and read about this thing, it looks incredibly promising. For the sort of problems where you’re fixated on doing something, and then for one reason or another, you have to stop and you just can’t survive it, I think it might be a way out. So yeah, stop touring and take mushrooms.
He sticks his tongue out, rolls his eyes, and throws a peace sign, before exiting the call shortly after. ¶
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