Sunday, January 30, 2000

Maestro has a master plan

CSO's just-named music director hopes to conduct a wider audience down a daring musical path

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Paavo Jarvi outside Music Hall
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        The mood was high at Music Hall on Monday, following the announcement that the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra baton would be passed to Paavo Jarvi, 37, a conductor born in Estonia and trained in the United States.

        Who is Paavo Jarvi? As the CSO's 12th music director, how will he face the challenge of leading the venerable orchestra when he succeeds Jesus Lopez-Cobos in September 2001? How will the orchestra, which faces a diminishing audience for classical music, make its new maestro a household word in Cincinnati?

        Relaxed, urbane and fluent in at least four languages (Estonian, Russian, English, German, plus “a little Swedish and Finnish”), Mr. Jarvi has a deep baritone voice that is as gripping for its authority as for its charm. He is thoughtful and speaks eloquently in public without notes. Tall and slightly balding — which makes him appear older than his 37 years — he makes a distinguished and dynamic impression on the podium.

  • Recent recordings: With the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic: Sibelius' Kullervo and Lemminkainen Legends; and Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar's Symphony No. 2, Excelsior (a tone poem) and two songs with Anne Sofie von Otter.
  With the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: An album of Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten concertos with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger has just been released; also, a Leonard Bernstein disc. All are on EMI/Virgin Classics.
  • Favorite repertoire: “I do a lot of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, all Sibelius, Nielsen and French music, like Roussel, Honneger, Poulenc and Milhaud. I find (French music) ingenious and light and fresh and clever, not burdened with Germanic quest for meaningfulness.”
  • Likes to listen to: Jazz. “If I am at home and I don't know what to listen to — I don't listen to a Brahms symphony. I listen to Miles Davis.”
  • Major league sports fan? “I'm ashamed to say I don't understand the rules of football. But I am a great basketball and hockey fan. I'm amazed about the strategy that goes on in a game like that.”
  • Claim to fame: “I am trying, not to be famous for conducting Estonian music, but to be somebody who can introduce Estonian music to audiences outside of Estonia.
  “Personally, I'm very proud to actually manage to push through a recording project so strange as three Estonian composers. (Searching for Roots, music by Arvo Part, Erkki-Sven Tuur, Eduard Tubin, is now out of print).
  “It's the first time a major label has committed to something that could not possibly be a marketing dream for anybody and won't make anybody into a millionaire.”
  • People would be surprised to know: “How many classical musicians are big fans of jazz. When I was a kid, I never felt like practicing piano. I absolutely hated doing scales. My piano teacher figured out that the only way he could make me practice, was, as a bonus, he would give me an Oscar Peterson scale.
  “For a 10-year-old kid, this was heaven. I worked hours and hours on my assignment, so I could get a new jazz scale from him.”
        Mr. Jarvi is an experienced guest, but the CSO is the first orchestra he can call his own. He respects the musicians' experience, and talks about “teamwork,” saying, “you want to impose your views, but with an understanding that you're also open to their suggestions.”

        Most refreshing about Mr. Jarvi is his attitude about the music business.

        “Music does not exist to keep orchestras alive. Orchestras exist to keep music alive,” he said in an October interview. “We often forget that, because it seems that music and the music business are there for one reason — to keep the big machinery called the orchestra going.”

        It may have been serendipitous that the CSO was looking for youth as well as profound musicality just when Mr. Jarvi happened on the scene.

        Mr. Jarvi (pronounced YAIR-vee) began turning heads several years ago with major appearances that had orchestra managers scratching their heads and asking, “Is he really as good as I think he is?”

        He quickly was eyed as a prime catch in the competitive race to land maestros at eight major orchestras.

        His credentials are impressive, from his knowledge of orchestral repertoire to his ideas on orchestra survival in the 21st century.

        Perhaps most telling is that he is a respected member of the international musical community.

In company of conductors
        His musical ties begin with his father, Neeme Jarvi, the Detroit Symphony music director, and link with other maestros such as Simon Rattle, music director at the City of Birmingham (England) Symphony, where Mr. Jarvi was, until recently, principal guest conductor; and his friend Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where brother, Kristjan Jarvi, is assistant conductor.

        “This connection with my father being a conductor — it has everything to do with the fact that I'm a musician,” says Mr. Jarvi, who studied piano and percussion and sang in a boy choir in Estonia.

        “We talk very often, and we are very close. We always talk about music and different interpretations. It is very much give and take. We often do things radically differently, and I try to show him my view; other times it's vice versa.”

        Among his influences are the American conductor Leonard Bernstein, with whom he studied for a summer in Los Angeles. He also worked with former CSO music director Max Rudolf at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, a twist of fate that connects him directly to his new orchestra.

        Mr. Jarvi's appointment comes at a decisive point in the CSO's history. At 105 — the nation's fifth oldest orchestra — the CSO has enjoyed golden periods. Its musicians are top-notch and play in a beautiful hall. Yet Mr. Jarvi is aware that Cincinnati's orchestra is “the best-kept secret in America.”

        In recent years,the CSO has struggled for an audience. But Mr. Jarvi knows that propelling the CSO into the international arena — whether through tours, recordings or “concerts on the Internet” — is hardly more important than cultivating an audience at home.

"Clearly looking ahead'
        How will Mr. Jarvi accomplish these goals? Last week he said he plans to target young professionals. We also find clues in his comments about Mr. Rattle, an orchestra-builder in England, and now music director-designate of the Berlin Philharmonic.

        “Simon Rattle ... is managing to combine the old-fashioned maestro role with something very new, very progressive and very forward-looking,” Mr. Jarvi says. “His repertoire, his approach to music and his manner of conducting are clearly looking ahead.”

        Like Mr. Rattle, Mr. Jarvi is “by nature a risk-taking person.” Playing it safe, he says, is “the death of music.”

        But Mr. Jarvi also believes in balance, finding “good middle ground” in programs. That, he says, is how a music director builds trust in the community.

        “If there is a buzz, if people know that there is something interesting and exciting going on — even though they might not know the name of the composer — people are much more willing to see an experiment with repertoire,” he says.

        “Audiences in America have to be given credit. American programming is patronizing; there's a strong marketing influence. If we're only thinking that way, in 50 years we will not have an audience.”

        One question is whether the CSO, which did not aggressively market either of its previous two music directors, is equipped to take advantage of this opportunity to promote its new one. In a consumer-driven world, even the most distinctive leader needs a brilliant marketing plan.

        While Cincinnati is just getting to know Mr. Jarvi, he hopes to become well-acquainted with his future home. . On Monday, he walked through Music Hall's foyer for the first time, stopping to look up at its sparkling grandeur, smiling to himself as if in disbelief.

        “I don't know Cincinnati very well. I have only been here three times,” he says. “Seeing the foyer, this is all a completely new experience for me. The majesty of this is quite unusual.”

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