TOIMII Goes Opera
Magnus Lindberg (piano, keyboards and composition)
Lassi Erkkila & Riku Niemi (percussion)
Anssi Karttunen (cello)
Timo Korhonen (guitar)
Kari Kriikku (clarinet)
Juhani Liimatainen (sound design)
Esa-Pekka Salonen as himself
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: 8 December, 2001
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
“Expect the unexpected!” said the trailer. This was Carnival of the Animals meets “I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue”. In the course of a crammed hour we saw Easter bunnies in white overalls, performers playing hide and seek behind their instruments, a flash of gymnastics and a whole “opera” on film. Oh yes, and we heard the music of twenty different composers.
Forget the inscrutable Oriental. Finns do the best deadpan expressions in the world. Finns reveal emotion only with the greatest difficulty and they freely admit this. They speak only in monotones. Finnish has the longest words of any language. Finnish films are unwatchable abroad because characters take so long to say anything and the film appears to move at an unbearably slow pace. Even their neighbours, the Swedes, cannot explain the Finnish sense of humour. These characteristics make for the perfect delivery of ironically humorous performance art.
Founded by Magnus Lindberg, Toimii’s presenter and occasional conductor, none other than Esa-Pekka Salonen, stated that the point of the concert was to play and “improve” extracts from great operas. In practice, this meant the juxtaposition of styles and selections, and the exploration (and in some cases deconstruction) of the sounds that constitute them. There were no better instances than the introduction to and the coda of the concert. First was the ’Pilgrims’ Chorus’ from Tannhauser on guitar, with the violin countermelody replaced by … recorded barking dogs and live maniacal laughter. To end, the William Tell Overture with the theme music from Dallas – soap opera – as the second subject.
In between, we heard, well, what did we not hear? Purcell’s ’When I am Laid In Earth’ sung as if by someone whose voice was breaking, Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla as a helter-skelter, Schwitters’s verbal music with added floor exercises, and one of Mozart’s ’Queen of the Night’ arias as rendered by strangled cats. Verdi, Rossini, Alban Berg and Gershwin flitted in and out. Near the end a motif from Sibelius’s Finlandia sneaked in – somehow.
The handout (a conventional programme would have devalued so fluid a concept) told us: “It is better not to analyse TOIMII too much”. Indeed, that way would lie madness. If I had to list TOIMII’s musical antecedents and affinities – these are better words than ’influences’ – they would include Haydn’s ’Joke’ String Quartet, Mozart’s A Musical Joke, and Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien … and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, “My Life as a Dog” and PDQ Bach. “The rules are clear,” wrote Ulf Hastfitta, “either you are a member of TOIMII or you are not”. The rules are equally clear for the reviewer – either you were at this concert, or you were not. If you were not, nothing I write can possibly convey its surreal flavour. Sorry!
I was tremendously sympathetic to the wit and accessibility of TOIMII’s idea. However, not every skit worked equally well. The centrepiece was a “Rock Opera”. “Rock” as in the protagonists were pebbles making a journey on ’Eurostar’ and arriving at the South Bank – ’Related Stones’, a pun on the official title of the Lindberg festival. This invention consisted of the musicians supplying the soundtrack to a video made according to the principles of the “Dogma” movement originated by Lars von Trier. “Dogma” has been central to the importance of ’New Scandinavian’ cinema. It would be less easy for the North London ten-year-old, a typical member of today’s audience, to identify with this spoof – there was more than a suspicion of the in-jokes being funnier to the professional musician than to the lay audience.
But I left with a big smile on my face. The energy, enthusiasm and invention of the participants shone through.This was a genuinely imaginative reinterpretation of the canonic tradition. Special congratulations must go to Kari Kriikku, who scored 9.9 on my card for artistic merit in the pirouette competition; he also demonstrated an awesome ability to play complicated clarinet figurations while riding an imaginary pogo stick.
Toimii means “It works” in Finnish. On this occasion, it certainly did.