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

July 08, 1990|HANNAH HANANI | Hanani is free-lance arts writer based in Upstate New York.

JOENSUU, Finland — 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. . . ."

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