Presenting our musicians: Irma Niskanen

Muusikkohaastattelu 22-01-2019

Violinist Irma Niskanen, who lives in Vienna, dreams of playing in a permanent string quartet and enjoys the inspiring effect of music.

Photo: Mark Niskanen

Irma Niskanen


Short introduction
I live in Vienna and I freelance in Austria and in other European countries. In addition to FiBO, Orchester Wiener Akademie and Il pomo d’oro are my most important employers. I play all sorts of music from Early Baroque to Romantic and contemporary music, but always on gut strings.

Tell us about yourself
I was born in St. Petersburg and I began playing the violin there. My parents work in completely different fields, but music has always been present in our family. We had lots of classical music on vinyl records and we often went to concerts (and there were to choose from!). My dad played the violin in an orchestra at the university in St. Petersburg, and when I was little I would listen to their practices. In fact, it was there that I heard the harpsichord for the first time, and I remember how odd it sounded to my ear then. In concerts I always envied the people who played in orchestras, because it was the most cultured and glamourous thing I knew.

How did you end up with your instrument? Who or what made you choose it?
When I was little, according to the family legend, I had demanded to go to music school, and I had told my parents that my instrument will be either the piano or the flute. In the entrance test, however, I surprisingly told the board that I wanted to play the violin. So the decision was made right then and there. But we did go to a violin shop with my dad just before the entrance test, so I probably fell in love with the instrument behind my parents’ back. I still think the violin is beautiful and lovely also as an item, and I really enjoy visiting violin makers.

What inspires you as a musician and in life?
It’s the best when the music in itself is inspiring. Like when you get your hands on a piece that you have wanted to play for a long time, that is a great feeling. Making music with others is also inspiring and rewarding, and it can create such a genuine and deep musical dialogue that one musician alone, be they ever so experienced and talented, could not achieve. These moments, where the result is more than the sum of its factors, are so incredibly holistic and memorable.

What other art form is close to your heart?
Literature! Isn’t that one the best inventions of humankind? I studied Russian literature for some time at the University of Helsinki, and for a few years I seriously considered that path. Literature may also be the most democratic form of art, as it is available to everyone who can read. It would be wonderful if music was in the same position and we would finally get rid of the elitist label that especially classical music is associated with.

Which is your greatest musical dream?
I have always dreamed of playing in a permanent string quartet. Classical music and early Romantic music are my favourite periods, and music for quartets is an essential part of the aesthetics of that time. I admire how flexible, subtle and at the same time powerful a string quartet is as an ensemble. Teaching also interests me more and more. Last year, I taught at the international school in Vienna and it was a very enlightening experience. I did not realise the enormous therapeutic power of music and playing before.

Which is your favourite travel destination, and why?
There are so many! I love Andalusia and especially Granada – the atmosphere of that city is impossible to describe in words. It is filled with the most interesting history, without being lifeless or museum-like in any way. And the food is tasty! The coast of Northern France is also enthralling and there are no complaints on the food there, either. On the other hand, I am fascinated by the very different world of Japan. And – you get the point – the food!

In what kind of a place does your soul find rest?
Nature is of course a safe generator of easy feeling. But the Sunday atmosphere in Vienna, for instance, is extremely relaxing at its best. This is a very old-fashioned city so all shops and most restaurants are closed on Sundays. People spend their time in the parks and nobody is in a hurry anywhere. The collective experience of leisure is quite special.

How do you feel your art is affecting society at large?
Many years ago, I met the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, who made a great impression. She said something which in its own unconditionality has remained on my mind: ”Without art we are monkeys”. Provocative, for sure! However, I feel that art fundamentally belongs to our humanity. I don’t think about my own role in the art field so much. I am just happy that we live in a society where an art field can exist and matter, and that I get to be part of it.  

Why do you enjoy playing music that is over 300 years old?
In fact I enjoy playing music of all ages. The Baroque era is very broad and of course includes plenty of beautiful and very diverse styles, forms, ideas, and aesthetics. It is a veritable treasure chest – but the same goes for e.g. contemporary music! In early music, I like that the details, gestures and rhetoric play such massively important roles. Music was still so attached to the literary arts that it was meant to be completely understandable. I find searching for this core especially meaningful in Baroque music.

Choose your favourite among FiBO’s spring 2019 concerts, and motivate your choice.
FiBO offers an excellent and versatile program this spring, so the choice is not easy. I will pick the concert that I am looking forward to most myself: on 5 February 2019 we perform the concert Contemporary Baroque at the House of Nobility as part of the Musica nova festival. We offer e.g. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s fragile and meditative Shades of Silence, Sarah Nemtsov’s elegant, fierce and to me even somehow purifying beyond its simple space and Max Richter’s entertaining version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, with brilliant Antti Tikkanen playing solo. It is a diverse collection that surely will melt even the most determined objector of modern music. So if you have not yet dared to encounter such music, now is the chance for a new “expedition”.

Do you have a secret special skill?
I can touch type with ten fingers in Russian. Not useful at all, but still somehow quite nice, I think.

If you had to run the Cooper test or bake for a party of 30 people, which would you choose?
I love making doughs and parties! And running is not my thing anyway.

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