The Avanti! Chamber Orchestra was formed in 1983, and three years later it was ready to launch a summer festival of its own. The idea for a musical festival held in a small provincial town was borrowed from Naantali, and the name, Summer Sounds, from a composition for flute and grasshoppers by Usko Meriläinen. Professor Ilkka Oramo and, inspired by him, conductors Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jukka-Pekka Saraste organised the first Summer Sounds in Porvoo in 1986. It consisted of a four-day training session at nearby Haikko Manor and concerts in Porvoo on three days. The accommodation, rehearsals and general revels have since centred on Sannäs Manor. The town of Porvoo saw the arrival of the musicians as a continuation of its long cultural heritage: “The town with its river, hills, two languages, two medieval squares, narrow streets, old houses, international trade, Runeberg, European art, books, reality, symbols and now Avanti! welcomes all music-lovers from the bottom of its heart.”
Ilkka Oramo recalls how the Summer Sounds spirit took to the air at the very first festival: “The 1986 fanfare by Esa-Pekka Salonen radiates a relaxed and playful mood, its good humour culminating in a hollow, farty solo on Kari Kriikku’s double-bass clarinet (“the most expensive joke article in the world”); no one could be left in any doubt that the music festival just beginning was for people to have some real fun in the company of good music.” Summer Sounds has been very much a musicians’ festival. The Avanti! players have signed on year after year, heedless of the hard work and the pittance they get paid. In the early years the pace veered between hectic and manic, and the free hours between the late-night concerts and the early-morning rehearsals were certainly not spent tucked up in bed.
Every since its very first year, Summer Sounds has been a music event that knows no bounds. Contemporary music has tended to take the leading role for the Avanti! generation, but the musical time span has always stretched from at least the Baroque to the present day. Summer Sounds has also played a major part in establishing new interpretation traditions and performing conventions. The nine Beethoven symphonies provided the themes for the first nine years, and the closing concerts ever since have focused on other weighty classics. The role of Battalia, a Baroque ensemble formed from the Avanti! ranks, may be described as pioneering even by Finnish standards. But Avanti! has also been the first to question current creeds: Anssi Mattila was already criticising “the aura of authenticity and all the trivialities” back in 1989. The comments by Jouni Kaipainen on contemporary concert culture have also displayed intellectual mobility: he was already mapping out the path to “integrated music” in 1990.
In their inaugural statement Salonen and Saraste proclaimed that the orchestra would operate on the work’s, the music’s terms, not those of the institution. Both Avanti! and Summer Sounds have subsequently themselves become institutions, but the principle has remained and the music continues to be the prime factor. Avanti! has spread itself all over Porvoo and its surroundings, dressed up in ridiculous clothes for the amusement of children and plumbed the depths of rhythm music from Africa to the Humppa-Veikot. Summer Sounds has never provided music for all; just music for the broad-minded.
“The Summer Sounds festival fanfares constitute a sizeable collection of studies in the dimensions of this small but snappy genre,” said Ilkka Oramo in 1997. The list of fanfare composers also provides a picture of the contemporary music focuses at Summer Sounds: Esa-Pekka Salonen 1986, Robert Saxton 1987, Magnus Lindberg 1998, Jouni Kaipainen 1989, Kaija Saariaho 1990, Olli Kortekangas 1991, Jukka-Pekka Saraste 1992, Erik Bergman 1993, Usko Meriläinen 1994, Franco Donatoni 1995, Pär Lindgren 1996, Ernest Martinez-Izquierdo 1997, Mark-Anthony Turnage 1998, Per Nørgård 1999, Oliver Knussen 2000, Mauricio Kagel 2001, Raoul Björkenheim 2002, Colin Matthews 2003, Gunther Schuller 2004, Anders Hillborg 2005, Matthias Pintscher 2006, Composer students 2007, Avanti! 2009, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Einojuhani Rautavaara, 2010.
The guest composers and soloists have always been partners with whom Summer Sounds has succeeded in forging close working relations. At Sannäs Manor and its sauna evenings
these relations have acquired a depth and strength over and beyond those of the normal festival. The collective Summer Sounds spirit is the festival’s most distinctive and most precious feature. In over 20 years, the young idealists have grown into top professional musicians and Avanti! has become a school for the rising generation. Even today, playing at Summer Sounds is still an ideological choice and a chance to experience music in a way that cannot be purchased with money.
For the earliest festivals, various ideas were pooled, the driving force being Olli Pohjola. There are still traces of his unfettered vision in the unexpected twists in the repertoire. Since the late 1990s the festival has invited a different Artistic Director each year.