The Arts: A Universal Language : Diverse cultures find a common ground through dance, music, theater at Meeting of the Worlds festival in Finland

Hanani is free-lance arts writer based in Upstate New York.

The marketplace in this Finnish border town was an incongruous pageant of feathers and beads, bandannas, fringed deerskin and painted shirts as Blackfoot/American Indian ceremonialist Charles Lawrence rattled his spirit staff, thereby signaling the opening of Joensuu's Meeting of the Worlds festival.

At his bidding, about 1,500 spectators held hands and mimicked his Navajo prayer, a mighty "ya-hey-ya-hey-ya" cutting across the Babel of languages in the square. The chant unleashed an affirmation of positive energy that remained the hallmark of the 31-concert international performance festival, held between June 19 and 23.

"We, as two-leggeds, must never forget the spirit. It is a spirit working through the people that will truly bring the greatest changes for the Earth," Lawrence, an Anaheim native, told the crowd.

As optimism peaked during this season of the white nights, and as families prepared for the traditional lakeside bonfires, solemn saunas, drinking and song that mark the celebration of Midsummer's Eve, Joensuu was preoccupied by a sprawling festival. Ostensibly, the focus was music, with theater, dance and performance art the minor keys. But revealed in its subtext was a concern for building bridges across cultures, for finding common ground through the arts and exploring the theme of borders--political, psychological and conceptual.

To that end, San Diego art theorist Allan Kaprow, New York actor Arthur Strimling and Oakland large-scale public performance artist Suzanne Lacy utilized the town's special geography and history to plan a constellation of more or less connected happenings. These included a Christo-like wrapping of the banks of a nearby lagoon and Illosari Island ("Island of Happiness") with several hundred teen-age swimmers, clad in red and waving white towels, as well as Kaprow's outlining on the ground in chalk images of couples meeting in the marketplace.

The global gathering, orchestrated by Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament (PAND) activists in Finland and the United States, brought out participants of every musical stripe, including Los Angeles Philharmonic music director-designate Esa-Pekka Salonen, the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet, noted singers Martina Arroyo and Christa Ludwig, composer Henrik Otto Donner, the Leningrad Philharmonic and new wave guitarist David Byrne. There were Lapp and Gypsy folk singers, the Japanese drummer Eitetsu Hayashi, a tango orchestra and Sakhile, a South African band.

In support of PAND's platform, all artists performed gratis, and proceeds of the festival are to be donated to UNICEF. (Festival organizers say a profit was made, but the tallying was still on-going last week and no figures were available.)

If culture has all too often been used by governments as a malign instrument of propaganda, in Joensuu, the power of music was almost tangible as a benign uniting force among individuals.

There was, for instance, the performance of Shostakovitch's Fifth Symphony with Mariss Jansons leading the Leningrad Philharmonic in their first Finnish appearance.

In 1937, that same orchestra under Evgeny Mravinsky played the triumphant premiere of this work, thus introducing what instantly became one of the most popular and enduring 20th-Century symphony classics.

Following a performance calibrated slowly to wring out all the pain and pathos in the music, Jansons (whose father, Arvit Jansons, was the No. 2 conductor to Mravinsky) acknowledged a stormy ovation by playing an encore, the "Valse Triste" of Finland's national hero, composer Jean Sibelius. Five years ago such a gesture would have been unthinkable--Sibelius wrote the piece as a protest against Russian oppression of Finland.

Another Soviet presence was Boris Grebenshikov, a rock vocalist/guitarist with matinee idol looks, and his backing group, Aquarium. Forced underground as a performer during the Brezhnev regime, Grebenshikov embarked on his career by studying tapes he purchased on the black market. Nonetheless, he gathered a following in the U.S.S.R. and remains in demand-- glasnost notwithstanding. Joensuu was his second appearance in the West, the first being Montreal just last year.

Finnish-born conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose very career and artistic existence defy man-made borders (his musical orbit now includes Germany, Italy, England and the United States), well appreciates the politics of music.

"The reason classical music is so universal is partly because it has been considered not dangerous, socially speaking," Salonen said during a break in rehearsals.

"So you can play a Beethoven symphony anywhere, and you don't threaten the system. In a way, it's a pity. I'd rather like to deal with something a bit more dangerous, especially because I don't drive or do anything else risky. . . ."

Salonen did seem to be flirting with the unconventional in some rather venturesome programming--in addition to a composition of his own, "FLOOF," inspired by a Polish science-fiction novel, he presented two works by rock musician Frank Zappa juxtaposed with two Mozart symphonies. "FLOOF," which starts from a primitive syntax and develops towards discopunk, emits along the way some incomprehensible sounds, like burping ("and so forth, no other description needed," said Salonen).

His festival appearances were with Avantil, a chamber orchestra he founded in 1983 together with a group of young Helsinki musicians, and which is now his main performance vehicle in Finland. Salonen, who estimates he spends no more than 25 days a year in Finland, maintains a cottage close to Helsinki for those infrequent visits.

Though he by no means sees himself as Finland's cultural ambassador to Los Angeles--he's committed to healthy mixes in styles and nationalities in terms of composers he introduces--he is enough of a patriot to have volunteered his services in Joensuu, along with leading Finnish baritone Jorma Hynninen and basso Jakko Ryhanen.

Besides throwing his support behind an event he deems important, for Salonen Joensuu represented an opportunity to reconnect with his native country and to speak his mother tongue.

"One of the great things here," he said, switching reflexively between Finnish and English as he fielded questions in the lobby of his hotel, "is that when I walk in the street, on almost every corner, I see a familiar face. When I conduct a Finnish orchestra, it's a very odd feeling--oh, yes, it's our Esa-Pekka who's back."

Then to a more universal note: "The goals of this festival are special. Artists don't readily recognize limitations. Sometimes impenetrable walls turn out to be sliding doors."

On the shores of Lake Ladoga, Europe's largest lake, situated 150 kilometers from the Joensuu marketplace, Russian and Finnish folk groups crooned their songs about lost youth, birch trees, and nostalgia for Karelia (that geographic region shared by eastern Finland and western Russia) of old.

In what represented the final Midsummer's Day concert of the Meeting of the Worlds festival, as well as the first cross-cultural event to be held in Sortavala since the town was ceded to the Soviets in 1944, a crowd estimated at 38,000 milled in front of the makeshift stage that had recently been erected jointly by workers from both towns--and the spirit was strong.

Until World War II, Sortavala, a vibrant, attractive city, was the site of an annual summer song festival. After 1944, when 400,000 Finns fled to the other side of the frontier on two hours' notice, it became part of a restricted-access military zone. As though bisected by an East-West Continental Divide, Finland's gravitational pull went one way, and Soviet life flowed another. The Sortavala Song Festival was reestablished in the '50s by the people of Joensuu.

The festival's ideological climax, the East-West encounter across the border, was the culmination of more than two years of negotiations. According to Joensuu's deputy mayor, Pirkko Kylanpaa, the obstacles were daunting.

"The roads were bad. We had to arrange the logistics of crossing the border. There was no stage. There were also questions of food," she added.

On the morning of June 23, two trains carrying 1,600 passengers made the two-hour trip through boreal forests to Sortavala. For this day only, Moscow suspended the usual rigorous visa requirements, and Soviet officials who gave passports a perfunctory once-over were almost genial as the trains rolled across the frontier for the first time in 46 years.

At the station, visitors had powerful impressions of the toll to a society that had kept the world at bay. Smiling and making every effort to play the part of gracious hosts, these were people taking their first, tentative steps towards openness.

Attempts had been made to spruce up the environs of the station, but elsewhere, wooden structures that hadn't seen a coat of paint since the Finnish withdrawal lent a woebegone look. Russian visitors who stayed overnight were accommodated in a hospital and camp grounds--this town of 22,000 has no hotel--and the few souvenirs to be seen were sold by street vendors uncertain about how much to charge.

More than just a varied musical program and other scheduled festivities, the three-hour concert presented an opportunity for townsfolk to mingle unrestrictedly with visitors from the West. As one Finnish radio journalist put it, "Glasnost for the Russians is like psychotherapy. Now they are enjoying talking, but soon they'll tire of it and want more. Nonetheless, I feel euphoric. Sortavala represents a reopening of possibilities."

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