Before his trip to China was cancelled, the Finnish violinist planned to use his encore to protest against the country’s human rights record 


The following extract is from The Strad’s May issue feature on soloists’ changing approach to encores. To read it in full, click here to subscribe and login. The May 2021 digital magazine and print edition are on sale now

Kuusisto’s most famous encore was in the 2016 BBC Prom with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, when he brought the house down by both playing and singing a Finnish folk song in a duet with concertmaster Laura Samuel and enlisting the entire Proms audience as singers. ‘I think an orchestra and a conductor will always be happy if the soloist chooses an encore that becomes a part of the entire concert,’ he begins. ‘The encore from 2016 has become a bit larger than life, but its original context was connected to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto I’d just played, whose finale contains elements of Russian traditional music. Tchaikovsky spent a fair bit of time in St Petersburg, which is the closest main Russian city to Finland. So, the folk song I chose comes from Karelia, a border area between Finland and Russia. Then, after the interval, the orchestra played Stravinsky’s Petrushka, which of course is a mishmash of traditional Russian and other traditional music.’

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Indeed, one of the joys of folk songs for Kuusisto is that there’s one for any contemporary situation. ‘I’m reluctant to go to mainland China because I’ve been genuinely shocked so many times at the Chinese government’s stance on a number of issues,’ he continues. ‘But I was booked to go a few years back when the Falun Gong people were being persecuted. It turns out that Falun is also a city in Sweden with a strong folk music tradition. A Swedish word for walking is gång, and there’s a style of traditional song in walking tempo which they call – and, coincidentally, Falun has a lot of these, so I was completely prepared to go to China and play Falun gånglåt as encores and be thrown in jail, or at least out of the country! But the trip was cancelled.’