PAAVO JARVI – PODIUM DYNAMO

By Lawrence Budmen

The Estonian born conductor Paavo Jarvi is a veritable dynamo of the podium. Already well established as Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Principle Conductor of the Bremen based Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, and Artistic Advisor of the Estonian National Symphony, Jarvi is about to become Principal Conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. Between concerts with these ensembles he keeps up an active schedule of guest engagements. A return appearance with the New World Symphony (after a stunning debut in 2002) brought Jarvi to Florida in April.

Jarvi is a member of a distinguished musical dynasty. Conducting comes naturally to him. His father Neemi Jarvi recently completed a decade as Music Director-Conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and a long tenure as Principal Conductor of Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony. (Jarvi Sr. is hardly resting on his laurels. Next season he becomes Music Director of both the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Hague Residentie Orchestra.) Paavo’s brother Kristjan Jarvi is Founder of New York’s Absolute Ensemble. His sister Maarika Jarvi is a renowned solo flutist. 

Neemi Jarvi has been an inspiration for his gifted son. “My father is an erudite musician,” Jarvi told me. “His sense of musical curiosity always ignited when he learned about new works and new composers. His enthusiasm is infectious. He really enjoys the process of music making.” 

Leonard Bernstein was another icon for the conductor. (Paavo studied with Bernstein at a Los Angeles Young Musicians’ Orchestral workshop in 1986.) “This was a fantastic opportunity. Bernstein was a true giant. He had great charisma and a magical presence. You had the feeling that you were in the presence of someone exceptional. He was so direct on the podium. Bernstein did not emphasize the mechanics of conducting. For him it was all about music making and communication,” Jarvi recalled. 

Paavo’s principal conducting teacher at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute was Max Rudolf, long a stalwart at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and former Music Director of the Cincinnati Symphony. “Rudolf was an incredible person. Although he was frail he was absolutely brilliant. He had the ability to really illuminate a score. Rudolf had great charm and a wonderful sense of humor. He also had great fondness for Cincinnati. I still hear from my audiences there what a strong impact he had on the orchestra and on the city’s musical life,” Jarvi said. 

Looking forward to his appearance with the young New World musicians Jarvi waxed enthusiastic. “I love working with youth orchestras. In addition to the New World Symphony I have led the European Union Youth Orchestra, the Russian-American Young Artists’ Orchestra, and the Verbier Festival Orchestra. These young ensembles have fewer preconceived ideas and bring tremendous energy to their music making. When I made my debut with the New World Symphony in 2002 I conducted a score by my friend Erkki Sven Tuur. The NWS musicians really identified with the music from the point of view of rock. They understood when I told them to play this piece like Led Zeppelin – a very fond memory.”

The music of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is very close to Jarvi’s artistic heart. “Nielsen deserves more recognition. His music is looking for a good champion,” the conductor noted. For his New World concert Jarvi chose Nielsen’s late, enigmatic 6th Symphony. Jarvi marvels that “the symphony was written in the first quarter of the 20th century (1925) at the time of Walton and Copland. The musical language of the Nielsen 6th Symphony is fantastic, wonderfully strange, and extremely original.” 

When Jarvi mounted the New World Symphony podium on April 16, 2005 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, Florida, USA he galvanized the young musicians to some of their most riveting performances of the season. At once witty and pessimistic, Nielsen’s Symphony No.6 (Sinfonia Semplice) is a musical portrait of a world on the verge of chaos and disintegration. The score’s opening subject is deceptively light and elegant. Thematic and harmonic ambiguities preface the grim humor of the Humoresque movement (with an enlarged percussion battery). The Proposta seria movement is deeply moving with its darkly pensive and emotional writing for the lower strings. Jarvi’s magisterial performance never lost sight of the grand arc of Nielsen’s musical discourse. He superbly gauged mercurial changes of tempo and mood in the concluding Theme and Variations. Jarvi and his superb players recreated a unique sound world that encompassed Mahler’s expressionism, Stravinsky’s tart neo-classicism, and Schoenberg’s excursions beyond tonality. While vividly delineating the agony and the ecstasy of this restless score, the conductor demonstrated a vibrant dynamic palette. Jarvi unleashed the ensemble in full throttle fortissimos and brought the sound down to a mere whisper. A great performance! 

Jarvi preceded the Nielsen with Mozart’s Symphony No.39. He promised an unconventional performance. “I use a small string section – not a Wagnerian sized orchestra,” he explained. “It is important to understand the performance practice of the era. In Mozart’s scores Adagio has a different meaning than in the works of Liszt or Wagner. I have been greatly influenced by the early instrument movement. When I heard Nikolas Harnencourt and John Eliot Gardiner conduct this repertoire, it was shocking and extremely powerful – a totally different sound and logic.” 

Jarvi led a brisk, supple account of this Mozart masterpiece. His bracing performance was definitely not powdered wig Mozart. From the first bars of the introductory Adagio Jarvi commanded astonishing orchestral control. Taking his cue from the period instrument movement, he fielded a reduced ensemble with vibrato less strings and felicitous woodwinds. It was delightful to hear the Menuetto played with such incisive energy and vigor. (No one has led this movement at such a rapid clip since Toscanini.) The final Allegro sparkled with vivacity and élan. 

Jarvi is not didactic about orchestral size in 18th and early 19th century scores. “We are at a healthy place in terms of symphony orchestras playing chamber orchestral repertoire,” he says. “I want to bring Bach back to the major concert stage.” He is looking forward to performing Bach’s B Minor Mass in Cincinnati with large orchestral and choral forces. Jarvi notes that “Mahler, Furtwangler, and Mengelberg performed played Bach’s music with a large orchestra and chorus. Mengelberg’s Bach was deeply profound.” 

Now firmly ensconced in Cincinnati, Jarvi is proud of his accomplishments with that orchestra. “We have performed 50 pieces (over four seasons) that were new to the orchestra’s repertoire. It is important to keep the art alive, to present works in context, and to include challenging repertoire. The Cincinnati Symphony is the fifth oldest orchestra in North America. Our support is tremendously strong. The orchestra really matters to the community.” 

Jarvi has undertaken a series of acclaimed recordings with the stellar Cincinnati ensemble. A recent disc coupled Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with Nielsen’s 5th Symphony. (There is always logic in Jarvi’s combinations of scores on his recordings.) “The Stravinsky and Nielsen are similar in concept – two views of barbarism about ten years apart. The Nielsen symphony is almost threatening,” Jarvi elucidated. His next recorded project in Cincinnati is the Concerto for Orchestra of Bartok and Lutoslawski. “The Lutoslawski work is not absolutely standard repertoire.” Recent recordings have paired symphonies of Dvorak and Sibelius with works by Bohuslav Martinu and Eduard Tubin. The latter Estonian composer is particularly dear to Jarvi’s heart. “One of the paradoxes of the musical world is that there is such a rich library of works; yet the repertoire remains limited to what is considered standard. Tubin is an unjustly neglected composer with a distinctive musical voice. My father recorded a complete set of Tubin’s symphonies,” he observes. 

Following summer appearances at the Verbier Festival, fall finds Jarvi touring South Germany with the great Dresden Staatskapelle (which recently gave memorable performances of Beethoven and Brahms symphonies in South Florida under the baton of Myung Whun Chung). He will conduct a complete Beethoven symphony cycle with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. “We are a touring orchestra similar to the Chamber Orchestra of Europe,” he observes. “The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie plays everything from small Stravinsky to Brahms.” Performances in the Far East and Asia also loom on Jarvi’s calendar. Clearly he upholds the family tradition of superb music making with ensembles that span the globe! 


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