Sunday, October 10, 1999

Conductor worked long, hard to be overnight sensation

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's a familiar tale in the music world: After 15 years of hard work, you are suddenly an “overnight” success.

        “It was a gradual, step-by-step thing. Now I conduct the best orchestras there are. But it has been a process of 15 years,” Estonian-born conductor Paavo Jarvi says. “In those 15 years, you make a lot of mistakes, and you learn from your mistakes.”

        The 36-year-old conductor, who a few years ago might be found conducting Mahler in Helsinki, now conducts Mahler in Carnegie Hall. Last November, he won raves when he stepped into a Philadelphia Orchestra program for an ill Riccardo Chailly. He was first choice again in March, when Daniele Gatti bowed out of conducting Brahms' Symphony No. 2 with the New York Philharmonic.

        “They had just recorded Brahms' Second with (Kurt) Masur. That was a bit of challenge, because you do want to bring your own vision. But I always feel that musicians are willing to see your point, if your message makes sense to them,” Mr. Jarvi says.

        In June he will make his Berlin Philharmonic debut. His guest conducting list also includes Philadelphia (again), Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, where he has been asked back for a second appearance this weekend.

        It may be no coincidence that all but San Francisco is seeking a music director.

        Holding a conversation with Mr. Jarvi is rather like an orchestra performance — where he holds center stage. He is urbane, relaxed and intellectual. Fluent in at least four languages, he laughs easily and has a deep baritone voice that grips a listener, whether he is talking about Mozart or Miles Davis.

        It was a rare quiet moment for this increasingly busy maestro. He had just returned to his London home after opening the Munich Philharmonic season with the Seventh Symphonies of Sibelius and Bruckner — the kind of musical juxtaposition he loves. That morning he had given a live hour-long radio interview on the BBC.

        “I was aware of classical music before I was born,” he says, with a deep laugh.

        There's that voice. He comes from a country of singers, where Estonians protested Soviet occupation (until the 1990s) in a unique way — with choral festivals of 30,000 people clasping hands and singing together in national costume.

        “The military stood there and could do nothing; they couldn't shoot into singing crowds,” says Mr. Jarvi, who was born in Tallinn. “We called it a singing revolution.” He emigrated to the United States in 1980.

His father's footsteps
        Unlike some young artists with famous parents, Mr. Jarvi doesn't mind talking about his father, Neeme Jarvi, music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

        “This connection with my father being a conductor — it has everything to do with the fact that I'm a musician,” he says.

        The younger maestro grew up taking piano and percussion lessons, playing drums in a band, singing in a boy choir and playing four-hand piano transcriptions of Haydn symphonies with his father. They are close and discuss musical programs and interpretations often.

        “Where our repertoire overlaps, you can actually hear on a record that there are two different points of view. That's what makes music interesting,” Mr. Jarvi says.

        Part of his “gradual” approach to a conducting career has been observing the success of his father. He has also observed the immense progress of Sir Simon Rattle, music director of the City of Birmingham (England) Symphony Orchestra, where Mr. Jarvi was, until recently, principal guest conductor. (In a move that surprised some, Mr. Rattle is music director-designate of the Berlin Philharmonic.)

        “Simon Rattle is one of those very special kinds of conductors today, because he is managing to combine the old-fashioned maestro role with something very new, very progressive and very forward-looking,” he says.

        Mr. Jarvi is aware of the problems some American orchestras have in filling their halls.

        “The question is, do you have an understanding of what you're marketing? Is it enough to have a brilliant marketing team and a weak artistic team?” he asks.

        “If the artistic integrity is in any way compromised — or something that seems to be business-as-usual rather than something special — then all the brilliant marketing or the community participation is not going to do any good in the long term.”

The right balance
        Programming, he says, “is important, but it's not that simple.”

        “I want to have all people have a good time at the concert. It's a balance; it's finding the right middle ground.”

        He points again to Mr. Rattle, who won his audience's trust with exciting performances and provocative programs. “They respect him so much, that a woman who had a difficult time sitting through a Mozart piano concerto sat through three concerts of all six Nielsen symphonies. It was because Simon said, "I know you might think it's weird, but give it a try,'” Mr. Jarvi says.

        “These experiences are the ones that I will bank on, or draw on, if I need to be building something.”

        Perhaps it is that perspective that caused London's Financial Times to write, “Mr. Jarvi ... has proved himself the very opposite of a one-day wonder.”

        In Cincinnati, where he will lead symphonies by Beethoven and Nielsen, Mr. Jarvi would like to give the audience a different musical experience. He hopes to perform the Nielsen symphony first, followed by Beethoven in one performance — and switch them in the next.

        “First of all, you have the spirit of triumph. The "Inextinguishable' could be easily the name for Beethoven's Fifth,” he says. “I want people to come to both and see what they think. How does this effect their understanding of the same program?”

        It's not a cheap trick, he says. It has to do with his philosophy.

        “We should do interesting things,” he says. “Music does not exist to keep orchestras alive. Orchestras exist to keep music alive. We often forget that.”

        • What: Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Jarvi, conductor.

        • When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday.

        • Where: Music Hall.

        • Tickets: $12-$46; $10 students. Half price tickets on concert day, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. 381-3300 or

        • The program: Carl Nielsen, Symphony No. 4, “Inextinguishable”; Beethoven, Symphony No. 5.


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