I’d come to the old church to revel in its acoustic resonance – yet the only echoes I perceived were dirt grazing against my sole, and the soft-spoken Finnish dialogues between Johannes and the elderly parish overseer.
But then, the recital wasn’t taking place until the evening, and the prolonged sunlight during Finland’s summer had me confusing the early afternoon with a much later time.
It was during the day, hours before people would turn up for the two events of Sastamala Gregoriana, that Johannes had taken me on a tour of his town and its architectural jewels: time-hewn medieval churches.
One of which, St Olaf’s Church in Tyrvää of Lower Sastamala, had survived since 1500s before an arsonist burned it down in 1997 – and the local people reconstructed it as faithfully to its original form as it had never been fire-torn. The church today appeared restored than rebuilt, its façade cobbled with brick roof extension while its arched ceiling retained the varnished wooden panelling, complementing the lumber-heavy flooring and booths; the only contemporary touches: portrait paintings of scenes in the bible, and pictographic depictions of Creation.
Together with its claim to being the birthplace of Finnish book publishing, Johannes told me, a rooted heritage was what Sastamala and its townspeople revered the most religiously. To be amidst this time-dislocated setting, no wonder I felt tilt-shifted backwards into history – whilst wearing clothes I distinctively recall buying within the 21st century.
Which seemed fitting: this was an annual “early music festival” that Johannes organised, where he was hosting me on my own celebration of antiquity – with more than just my ears.
Johannes had hoped for a full house at the second-ever concert of Sastamala Gregoriana 2014 – I daresay the Old Church could do with more seating to accommodate every ticket holder cramming into the building.
Which reminded me of the cavern’s emptiness I’d previously perceived, and that of Sastamala town in general: where did all these people come from?
I slid into the front row booth; two girls sat down next to me – eyes on their friend, the red-headed violinist, who would shortly took to the stage with fellow ensemblists. They were themselves musicians, one of whom studied at the prestigious Royal College of music in London – only a wall’s separation from the Royal School of Mines, where I received my education.
I studied the programme again, to unfurl just what allure Sastamala Gregoriana had to draw in its audience. “Rare Delicacies from the Mediterranean”, this particular recital was dubbed, a showcase of small-ensemble instrumental compositions from the 18th century.
Where the performers brought their melody makers – and filled the hollowness with resonant unison for the first time, in applause – the combination of instruments were undeniably Baroque: two violins; a cello; a harpsichord; two lutes, one tall as its wielder; absence of brass, in a period preceding the invention of valves that gave brass instruments their voice today.
Then there were the composers. Francesco Mancini, Antonio Soler, Benedetto Marcello – heard of any of them? I’d never. It was as consistent to Sastamala Gregoriana’s theme for 2014 as it got: “buried treasures”. The scores may well have been excavated from sediments of dust in a dated archive – back of a medieval church, I’d imagine – and someone was curious or daring enough to give them a go.
As a listener, it’d have been pure curiosity: the same seeking of unfamiliarity that didn’t just entice me to this performance, but this little-known remote part of Finland, a country itself I had never visited and whose landscape and culture I was barely acquainted with.
And the music that followed may as well be the melodic summary of this sentiment.
The Marcello pieces were sweet tidinesses that conformed to structuredness of Baroque. The Soler, plainly harpsichord solos, were outright rebellions against its contemporary; asymmetrical, absence of melodies as repetitive as mesmerising, sudden changes in pace and agitated dissonances that even my 21st-century open-mindedness couldn’t process: I couldn’t see how the Catalan padre was nicknamed “the devil dressed as a monk” by his peers in a lighthearted way, either.
I joked that Soler was a priest discovering Haribo for the first time – and ate five packets of the sweets whilst he wrote the music.
But Mancini’s compositions had me infatuated with the Neapolitan’s style itself.
Each sang like a lyrical conversation, one played out in theatre as if it was a classic play, its tempo varying from backroom flirtations to invigorated debate; the violins, each with their distinctive personalities, answered to each other like girly dialogues, before they dimmed behind the spotlight to feature other voices: the tingling trills and clapped chords of harpsichord, the lamentful legatos of cello, the plucky romantics of lute.
And above it all, the protagonist: played by Corina Marti, it was a recorder. The character was sometimes playful, sometimes soulful; in cheerier bars it was high-pitched, vivacious diva clamouring and answered by a band of admires, only to slip into soliloquy, often drizzling in melancholy, while the accompaniment hummed and chanted in the background.
Before her performance, I’d have thought the instrument belonged in school music classes than concerts. With Corina’s rendition, this perception changed – and also with the way she willed the recorder’s melodic resonance: how her facial expressions paralleled with the poignance she breathed into the woodwind, how her stance swirled and steps hopped like the slurs and staccato in the music.
As the last allegro concluded, claps drowned out echoes of the final note. The audience called for an encore; exiting the stage twice, the musicians returned with their instruments and obliged.
Mancini’s Concerto No 17, fifth movement, resonated in the old church once more.
“I hope the water isn’t too cold?”
I remembered him asking earlier, before the concert in the old church, when Johannes dropped me off at the converted vicarage. It was rather warm, irresistibly the second time I went for a dip, and I assured him it while feeling exposed, lounging by the lake shirtless and drying off under the sun.
Hours later, a little more clothed, I took the empty seat on his dinner table during the second performance of the evening.
Once again, I’d had a preview of the venue before it was brimming with an audience: formerly the residence of a local vicar, Huittisten Wanha Pappila changed hands several times since 1960s and remained derelict – until a designer bought it, refurbished it and transformed it into a community cultural centre.
On this evening, it hosted the post-concert meal – accompanied by the voices of Anni Koskinen and her medieval harp.
In Finnish, mind. And so was the welcoming address by the local tourism councilwoman – luckily, my fellow diners, Mikko the director of The Finnish Science Centre in Vantaa – whom I met by the lake – his wife and Anssi, spoke fluent English and translated for me.
Not that they could interpret whole scriptures, since Anni Koskinen wasn’t merely performing lesser-known old music amidst clatters of silverwares and chatter between eating – she was telling stories, sung in the form of ballads, to a whole room falling silent.
I wished I could decipher the pieces of narrative, the power they wield to compel grown men and women laugh, or squinch their faces with sombreness and even sorrow, in their words and meanings. But in that uncomprehending idleness I noticed just that: the complexion of storytelling before the digital age, the commodity of printing, when stories were conveyed from mouth to mouth, and so often animated by music – and though we’ve moved on to paperbacks and Wikipedia, the mysticality of ballads still have a hold on us today.
Though I did know the plotline of one of Anni’s ballads: the tale of Saint George and the Dragon. I still couldn’t crack the linguistic code, but I was able to roughly follow along: from her shrilling like the damsel in distress, tenor of courage fitting for the knight in shining armour, to parodied grunting of the eponymous villain, she mimicked than merely carried the voice of the narrator.
I may not have understood it all – the Finnish in the lyrics and conversations around me, the music and composers I’d never heard of, the people, the place, the antiquity celebrated yet never physically lived in by anyone alive – yet I still felt enriched: by the sweetness of unfamiliarity, not only because it only expanded the boundaries of my knowledge, but how perceiving it for the first time made me feel, and instilled feelings in me.
Just like, encircled by that great mane of his, Anssi’s expressions as he shut his eyes and honey-suckled on the melodic resonance in his ears.