Pioneers: Kari Kriikku – clarinettist extraordinaire

Music Finland's 10-year-anniversary article series honors and celebrates the PIONEERS of Finnish music export. These are the bands, artists and musicians who went out to the world with little help and knowledge of how the international music business works – and still managed to find audiences for their magnificent art. In the 5th chapter of the series, we put the spotlight on clarinettist Kari Kriikku and the Avanti! chamber orchestra, co-founded by him nearly four decades ago.
Lively and charismatic onstage, Kari Kriikku is one of Europe’s top clarinettists in the contemporary classical field. Yet he’s equally at home – and as captivating – playing klezmer, tango, folk, rock and Arabic music.

Clarinettist Kari Kriikku has premiered works written expressly for him by contemporary composers such as Kaija Saariaho, Michel van der Aa, Unsuk Chin and Magnus Lindberg.

If the number of new compositions dedicated to a classical soloist is a sign of the respect in which they are held, Kriikku is surely near the top of the totem pole in his field. Yet he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously.

Called “a physically flamboyant player of Olympian virtuosity” by The New York Times, he is known to dance or even tap-dance onstage, smilingly impishly as he plays, and has been spotted juggling backstage at the Summer Sounds festival.

I’m so happy to go places anywhere in the world with a great concerto score under my arm. The audience’s reaction is always overwhelming.

The annual event is hosted by the Avanti! chamber orchestra, which Kriikku co-founded in 1983 and has led as artistic director since 1998.

Many of the composers with whom he works have also been associated with Avanti!, including Saariaho and Lindberg, as well as celebrated conductors like Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste.

“I’ve been so lucky that so many amazing clarinet concertos have been written for me to premiere,” he says.

“I’m so happy to go places anywhere in the world with a great concerto score under my arm. The audience’s reaction is always overwhelming.”

With a reputation for fearless, enthralling interpretations of even the most challenging new music, he has earned rave reviews for introducing new works with top orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, as well as the Seoul Philharmonic and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

He has frequently recorded with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (FRSO), including a recording of Lindberg's Clarinet Concerto that scooped up awards from the BBC Music Magazine and Gramophone. Soon after, Kriikku also won the Nordic Council Music Prize.

Now 61, Kriikku has appeared on more than 200 recordings over more than four decades. His recording career began in 1980 with a country-gospel group called Scopus, with whom he played clarinet, banjo, drums and percussion, and sang – including his own lyrics for Coal Loadin' Johnny by American bluegrass legend Lester Flatt.

Watch an excerpt of Kaija Saariaho's D'Om le Vrai Sens.

Sauna evenings with a cassette deck

At the time, Kriikku was also playing avant-garde contemporary art music with fellow students at the Sibelius Academy, many of whom would go on to become world-famous conductors and composers.

His path to joining their ranks began as part of a musical family in western Finland. His first public performance was a four-handed piano piece with his father at a school end-of-term event. At home, his father usually played the trumpet, while his mother and sisters played piano and guitar.

As a teenager, I admired those older musicians who had a relaxed vibe and could also play lighter music.

Kriikku recalls a Saturday evening ritual of taking a sauna and listening to a pop-rock programme on the radio with his sisters.

“We recorded everything onto a Vox cassette recorder with a microphone,” he remembers.

“I started to play clarinet at around 10 or 11. As a teenager, I admired those older musicians who had a relaxed vibe and could also play lighter music,” says Kriikku.

Marching on to the Garrison Band

Kriikku was born and raised near Seinäjoki, where his parents took him once a week for clarinet and piano lessons, and where he joined a local wind ensemble.

At the age of 16, on the recommendation of his music teacher, he made the “radical decision” to quit school and join the venerable Helsinki Garrison Band.

After his initial shock at moving into an Army barracks, he soon began to blossom during lessons with Sven Lavela, a former soloist with the FRSO, with which Kriikku later frequently recorded.

While in the Garrison Band, he also learned to play drums as well as jazz and pop on keyboards.

With one teacher, he recalls, “we’d first go for a coffee at the canteen, put coins in the jukebox and listen to some pop tune. Then we’d analyse its chords in class.”

He was then accepted to the Sibelius Academy, later studying with Alan Hacker in Britain, and with Leon Russianoff and Charles Neidich in the US.

From Brahms to Xenakis – and tap dancing

Besides contemporary works, Kriikku also frequently plays the standard classical repertoire, from Mozart and Brahms to Debussy, Bruch and Weber, along with 20th century heavyweights such as Xenakis and Piazzolla.

Kriikku is closely associated with Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775–1838), one of the most important early Finnish composers, himself a clarinettist who wrote many works for the instrument. Kriikku has recorded two albums devoted to Crusell’s clarinet concertos and quartets, and was artistic director of the Crusell Weeks festival for five years.

Yet he still enjoys ranging further afield musically.

“An extra hobby over the past decade has been tap dancing,” he says, “which I sometimes do as part of my Bizarre Bazaar show” – in which he presents more exotic, lesser-known repertoire for clarinet, including klezmer, fado and tango as well as Arabic, Hungarian and Romanian music, all of which he included in an album with the Tapiola Sinfonietta.

I was just damn lucky that there were all these fine composers and conductors studying at the Sibelius Academy at the same time.

“The show also includes a string orchestra, two percussionists and an oud and 12-string guitar player. I love doing that show every now and then,” he says.

He has also played folk improv with accordionist Markku Lepistö and guested on an album with Finnish rock legend Ismo Alanko. He also played electric organ in the rock band Matala Profiili (“Low Profile”) for a few years in the mid-80s. He still plays banjo “as a hobby,” along with occasional drums.

Yet he is best known as part of the ground-breaking “Avanti! generation,” which brought fresh breezes into Finnish classical scene in the early 1980s.

“I was just damn lucky that there were all these fine composers and conductors studying at the Sibelius Academy at the same time,” he says.

Besides Salonen, Saraste, Saariaho and Lindberg, they also included Kimmo Hakola, Eero Hämeenniemi, Otto Romanowski and many others with whom Kriikku has later worked.

“An old-fashioned gentlemen’s club”

In early 1980, Kriikku, Lindberg, Salonen and Romanowski and others formed Toimii!, an experimental laboratory that became a free-form performing ensemble in 1982.

“The idea was to play the ‘newest of the new’ music from Finland and abroad. At first we performed mainly in Helsinki. Gradually, Central European musicians discovered the group and we made many trips to Central European contemporary music festivals,” he recalls.

“Part of Toimii!’s mission was that at the end of a hard day’s work you always had to go eat and drink well. That suited us young men! It was like an old-fashioned gentlemen’s club that was also creating an avant-garde music culture at the same time."

“All of this was immensely valuable to learn. If need be, the composing musicians in the group quickly wrote new little pieces, which we had to learn on the fly.”

Alongside Toimii!, many of the same people formed Avanti!, which Kriikku says “was established to shake up the accustomed practices.”

While Toimii! reunited occasionally until 2003, Avanti! has earned its place in the Finnish musical establishment. It hosts the 37th Avanti! Summer Sounds festival in Porvoo June 29-July 3, 2022.