Kari Turunen has a ready answer when asked why he’d give up his comfortable life in Helsinki to move to the wild West Coast: “The Vancouver Chamber Choir!”
That’s also an obvious answer: the august ensemble has just hired the 57-year-old Finn as only the second artistic director in its history, replacing founder and 48-year veteran Jon Washburn, who remains in an emeritus position.
But Turunen sounds genuinely excited by what he’s found here, in terms of both the VCC’s overall health and the bigger musical picture.
“I haven’t got a sense of the grassroots yet, but I would say that at the top level, with four extremely good chamber choirs, a good male choir, a good female choir, and a wonderful youth choir, there’s a lot going on in the choral scene, which I think is lovely,” he tells the Straight in a telephone interview from his Fairview home. “And, you know, this is early days, but I’ve found that people seem really open and willing to look at new things and develop. So as a starting point, that seems really good to me.”
Beginnings, Turunen’s inaugural concert as leader of the VCC, carries its thesis in its title. Three of the seven works in the program deal with taking flight—Michael Dellaira’s The Campers at Kitty Hawk, Chris Sivak’s Alouette Meets Her Maker, and Kristopher Fulton’s Icarus. There’s also Heinrich Isaac’s 1507 coronation anthem for Emperor Maximilian I, Virgo Prudentissima, which suggests that Turunen has a sly sense of humour about his own ascent to the VCC podium: “That’s a little bit grandiose for me, I guess,” the conductor notes, laughing.
“I’m showing my hand a little,” he continues. “This is music I like, and I believe it is quite different to a lot of the repertoire that is heard here on a regular basis. Of course it shows my roots in northern Europe, so in a way it’s a hello for me, kind of. That’s probably the most important tying element to it.”
As for what will come next in Turunen’s tenure with the VCC, the former theology student stresses that he’s very interested in collaboration—with the choir’s extant partners in Early Music Vancouver and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, of course, but with others, too. He’ll also draw on his expertise in early music—“Anything from the baroque back,” he says—and the emphasis on relatively new music in his debut will be no aberration.
“That’s sort of a no-brainer, because there’s so much of it being written in Canada, but also everywhere else, and there’s so much of it that we haven’t heard,” he points out. “And when I think about contemporary music, the thing I want to do above all is to create a polyphony of voices and styles, because I think this is so typical of this world now. There is no one correct style and one way to go. People are writing choral music which has roots in very different musical languages, so I think that whole spectrum is something I’m interested in—anything from fairly angular modernism to almost poplike effects. I’m not afraid of any of that; it’s all part of the picture of our time.”
The Vancouver Chamber Choir presents Beginnings at Pacific Spirit United Church on Friday (September 27).