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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 10 July 2007

Paavo Järvi: Intuition and Emotion

by Wah Keung Chan / July 31, 2007

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Making music is like a conversation between two human beings, no two performances are the same,” says Estonian Paavo Järvi, one of the most prominent 40-something conductors on the scene today. “Conducting is often misunderstood. It’s more than organizing others and beating time, it’s formulating a strong view about a piece.” Our conversation on the art of conducting and the importance intuition and emotion play in making live performances special had been slated for 45 minutes, but it ended up lasting an hour longer.

Born in 1962 in Estonia, eldest son to conductor Neeme Järvi, music was always around Paavo. Neeme was music director of the orchestra and opera in Estonia and Paavo attended all the rehearsals. “My father was very interested in variety of repertoire, and also in the history of conducting, and we got to know different repertoire and different conductors at an early age,” he relates. At the Tallinn Conservatory of Music Paavo studied conducting. He also studied percussion, as that was the quickest way into an orchestra.

After Neeme fell out of favour with the Soviet authorities for conducting Arvo Pärt’s Credo in Estonia without permission, the Järvi family immigrated to the US in January 1980 with only $100 in their pockets. Today, with 357 recordings under his belt, Neeme Järvi is arguably the most recorded musician ever.

Paavo soon enrolled in the Curtis Institute and during a summer course at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute fell under the spell of Leonard Bernstein. “His philosophy was to become the piece, to get to a much deeper emotional level than usual,” Järvi explains. As he remembers one particular group session, he tells us, “Bernstein was conducting Afternoon of the Fawn with one finger and I’ve never heard a performance like it again. It was magic. Some people are just given more by God.”

One might think that following in the footsteps of a famous conductor would make Järvi feel he had something to prove, but Järvi has only admiration and respect for his father. “We talk almost every day, and mostly about music. In this business, there are no short cuts; the only thing that matters is experience. There is nothing more valuable than having an older conductor who is willing to share his experience. My father is a goldmine. He has an amazingly infectious enthusiasm, and he taught us to be curious. He is my sounding board, someone whose opinion I trust. You can't buy this for any money.” Neeme’s influence has also resulted in Paavo’s younger brother Kristjan and sister Maarika being professional musicians, a conductor and a flautist respectively. This doesn’t mean that Paavo is a copy. “I see things through my own eyes and temperament. The goal is to get into the piece on your own terms,” he says.

“On Järvi’s terms” means trusting his intuition. “A good schooling is very important, but the danger is that in the process, you are taught to trust your brain more than your intuition, but it’s the intuition which will bring you to a more inspired place.” Järvi brings up Marinsky’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, “I never understood why everyone was copying it. The work is an incredible tormented personal statement which can only really be effective if you honestly convey the emotions Tchaikovsky was going through. I treat it as a tone poem.”

For Järvi, learning a work involves studying, analyzing the keys and the forms and listening to available recordings. But when that’s done, the most interesting is to see what’s behind the music. “You start to create images, listen to what the music is telling you and to your reactions to the music.” Järvi recently performed Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn songs with Matthias Goerne and he points out that Mahler’s use of familiar clichés should not be taken literally. “He is trying to create a reaction in the listener; it’s different for different people. Theses impulses open a door to an inner world; it’s a brilliant way to manipulate the human soul.”

But what goes on in Järvi’s brain during a performance? “It’s a balance between being the organizer and becoming the character you’re conducting. The more you are able to identify with the inner world, the better and more convincing the emotional part of the performance is going to be.” Järvi brings up Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. “You need to convince a German orchestra to be a Gypsy band and it’s easier if you are a Gypsy conductor in front of them.”

Adding to the three permanent orchestras he already conducts, just last May, Järvi was named the music director of the Orchestre de Paris, to replace Christoph Eschenbach starting in 2010. Although this seems like quite a load, Järvi has carefully designed his career to avoid the jet-setting guest-conductor lifestyle. “I consider that a mating dance,” he said. For the best artistic quality, Järvi prefers to work with the ensembles he knows on a first name basis.

Järvi’s first permanent posting was with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 2001, where his arrival was feted with billboards screaming “Bravo Paavo”; his contract there has been extended to 2012. In the intervening six years, Järvi has turned the CSO into an American powerhouse, lauded for their sound and winning a Grammy Award in 2005. “I always talk about sound in the context of a piece. There should be a different sound for Brahms, Debussy and Stravinsky. To understand this requires collective intelligence,” he says. Järvi compares the sound from the great old Russian orchestras playing Tchaikovsky with the Dresden Staastkapel playing Schumann. “Both give rich and dark sounds with a certain legato-based sostinuto, but they are two different universes.”

Already the artist advisor of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, in 2006 he was appointed conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. His other band, Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, is currently in the midst of recording the Beethoven Symphonies for RCA, and he will be taking the cycle on tour in North America this summer with a stop at the Lanaudiere Festival.

When Järvi talks about Beethoven, we really penetrate his music-making process. “The score (Barenreiter Edition) is always the starting and ending point. In between, you as the interpreter have to make choices,” Järvi explains. He believes the authentic movement of gurus such as Roger Norrington and Nicholas Harnoncourt towards Beethoven was necessary but too academic. “It’s unhealthy to play just what’s written, you have to find what’s behind the piece. Furtwangler’s interpretations are still valid because he found the emotional, human, deeper content behind the music.” With the Deutsches Kammerphilarmonie, Järvi has the right-size orchestra (playing modern instruments with traditional trumpets and timpani) that understands period practice but is open to experiments. “We never once discuss style. It’s always about the character, what this line symbolizes, why we are slowing here when it’s not written,” he clarifies. Järvi mentioned the Eroica the most, “every time you play the Eroica, you have to take a deep breath and you feel you are in the presence of greatness. You just need to have enough focus, direction and clarity for the first two chords in Eroica, and everything else will be a journey. If you are lucky, things that didn’t happen yesterday will happen today.”

Järvi believes his approach fits today’s audience. “For classical music and Beethoven to be relevant today, it needs to speak to people today. If you listen to the Funeral March in the Eroica, you realize that it must have meant something else for someone playing it during the bombings in WWII. We need not be shy to view it as if it had been written today. We need to respect tradition but not be paralyzed by it.”

Järvi performed the entire Beethoven Symphony cycle for the first time last year in Japan, and most recently last month in Strasbourg. “Doing them in chronological order makes you realize how logical the sequence is. After the 7th, you realize Beethoven had to make a radical change in the 8th, and the same after the Eroica.” As the performer, Järvi learned the importance of channeling his mental energy rather than relying on pure adrenaline. “After the first three symphonies, I want to have a week off. No one movement of any symphony can be done in the same character.”

With all Järvi’s successes as an orchestra conductor, it’s easy to lose sight of his love of opera, which he conducted earlier in his career. “Opera is a great art of compromise; all you need is one weak link and the whole thing is not going to work,” said Järvi referring to today’s conductor’s lack of input in putting together the team and cast. “I’m not that good with artistic compromises.” Recently in Chicago, Järvi took advantage of Tower Records’ going out of business sale to snap up $3000 worth of operatic DVDs and CDs. “Our favourite is the Abbado, Balsa, La Scala Barber of Seville, which helps put my 3-year-old daughter to sleep.”

Järvi also has an 8-month daughter and finds it difficult to be away from his family. Does he want his children to grow up as musicians? “We were never pushed into music. We did it because we wanted to. My father made it so much fun. I definitely want my children to be involved with music, but not necessarily as professional musicians. If you can’t go to a concert hall and listen to a Mahler or Beethoven symphony and get something out of it, then your life is going to be poorer. If you can’t get involved in that beautiful world, then something important to you is closed. I can’t imagine my children living without understanding that world.”

Ever the modest, Järvi excused himself for having difficulty explaining music by quoting Heinrich Heine, “music starts where the words end.” n

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