Like Sergei Rachmaninov, Leonard Bernstein and Thomas Adès, Olli Mustonen is among the small group of classical musicians who not only have balanced being a composer, conductor and instrumental performer but also have achieved success in all three areas.
“It’s a challenge when planning the calendar — how to divide the time,” Mustonen said. “But I find it very natural and a very good combination. All these different sides of musicianship inspire each other, so to say. Of course, it’s a very old tradition, being both a composer and somebody who performs. In fact, I think that was the rule rather than the exception until the 20th century.”
His prowess as a pianist — the facet of his musicianship for which he is best known internationally — will be front and center Feb. 22 when he performs an afternoon recital as part of the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series.
Although Finland, his homeland, has just 5.4 million people, the Scandinavian country has produced an outsized group of noted musicians ranging from such famed composers as Jean Sibelius, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Kaija Saariaho, to conductors such as Jorma Panula, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Osmo Vänskä.
“There is a general atmosphere in Finland, where music is considered very important in people’s lives,” Mustonen said. “I think also there is a sort of attitude when people come to concerts that it’s not first and foremost for some pleasant entertainment. Rather, it’s a kind of spiritual attitude toward art and music and poetry. People, when they go to concerts, they are not afraid of long pieces and hard benches in the church and even things they don’t know beforehand. People might like something or they might not like something, but they come with an open mind and an open soul.”
It is not a coincidence, Mustonen said, that a musician serves as the central character of The Kalevala, a 19th-century compilation of oral folklore and mythology that is considered Finland’s national epic. Väinämöinen is a shamanistic hero who builds and plays the kantele, a string instrument that resembles a zither. Animals across the land, fish from the sea and even the moon are said to be enchanted by his playing.
“I just like to think that even in the early times, for Finnish people, music and art and poetry and culture have been something very central in their lives and not just some embellishment or some entertainment,” he said. “It’s one of the really important reasons to live, and I think for Finnish people and Finnish society, art and music are something very central and something very important.”
Music was certainly central to his family, with his parents having a particular enthusiasm for early music. His sister is a harpsichordist, and Olli began keyboard studies on the harpsichord before switching to the piano at age 7. He studied under some of Finland’s most respected musical figures, including pianist and conductor Ralf Gothóni, who was his first piano teacher, and Rautavaara. “Of course everybody has his own story, and I was just very, very lucky to encounter very inspiring personalities early in his life, like my composition teacher Einojuhani Rautavaara, who is one of the great composers of Finland and our time.”
In 1987, at age 19, Mustonen won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, which led to a recital debut in New York’s Carnegie Hall that went far in setting his now-distinguished keyboard career in his motion. As well as all the major Finnish orchestras, Mustonen has conducted such ensembles as the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Jerusalem Symphony, and he has a long list of composing credits, including two symphonies.
When not on the road, Mustonen takes refuge in his secluded lakeside home in a pine forest about 45 minutes from Helsinki. “For me, it’s a good contrast,” he said. “My work is usually in the big cities, which I find fascinating places themselves, but then I live here, where the most important sounds are wind or rain or birdsong – so really in the wilderness.”
The pianist’s SCP program opens with Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young. Subtitled “24 Simple Pieces à la Schumann,” the 30-minute cycle of 24 short works was composed in May 1878. Also on the program are Scriabin’s Sonata No. 10 and Vers la flame, both included on an album of the Russian composer’s works that Mustonen released in 2012, and two mazurkas by Frederic Chopin.
Showing off another side of Mustonen’s musicianship, the concert will feature his 2006 sonata, Jehkin Iivana, which he originally wrote for solo guitar. The work was named after Iivana Shemeikka (1843-1911), whom the pianist describes as one of the “last great so-called poet-singers” from Karelia, a region now divided between Finland and Russia, and a master of the kantele. Such poet-singers were known for passing down centuries-old folk stories, and their intent was not just to entertain and captivate listeners but also to pass along morsels of collective wisdom.
“In reading about these poet-singers,” Mustonen said, “I also started thinking that there were lot of connection between what they were doing and what I’m trying to do in a way. I’m also part of a very old tradition of musicians. I feel like playing the music of Beethoven or Bach — this music also has a lot of wisdom, these little droplets of knowledge, and I think we can learn from this music.”
Jehkin Iivana is not directly programmatic, but it is meant to evoke a visit to a poet-singer’s cottage and the hypnotic and transformative experience of being transported to another world as the musician plays some ancient melody. “There are five movements, and it starts with this ancient music, very quiet, and then all sorts of things happen,” he said. “You are suddenly taken into this other world, and there are some very wild and exciting things happening. There’s also this passage, the middle movement, where it’s almost like being taken to Tuonela, which was this kingdom of death in the Finnish mythology. Then, the fourth movement, it’s back to these adventures. And in the last movement, suddenly you encounter the same motive that was in the first movement, when it was very soft and quiet. Now, it’s very loud and dissonant, and there are these crying motives. The same music comes back, and it is transformed. You are not the same anymore, because you’ve been to this other world.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.