Thursday, February 01, 2001

CONDUCTING ELECTRICITY

By Kathleen Doane
Cincinnati Magazine, February 2001, Vol. 34, Issue 5

While long ranked one of the top in the country, in recent years the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has been in a bit of a slumber. Thirty-eight-year-old PAAVO JARVI may be the necessary shock to its system.

Unlike politics and sports, the world of classical music doesn't call for many press conferences. So when faxes from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra front office popped out of machines around town the morning of January 24, 2000, announcing a conference for 1:15 p.m. in Music Hall's Corbett Tower and promising A Big Announcement, people paid attention. Lunch plans were canceled and media rivals called each other to speculate. Surely, all agreed, the orchestra was about to announce that after a yearlong search it had chosen a new conductor to replace the departing Jesus Lopez-Cobos.

By 1 o'clock the buzz in the hall focused on one name: Paavo Jarvi. Almost from the beginning the 38-year-old Estonian-born conductor had been at the top of everyone's short list. His guest appearances with the CSO had been a hit with the musicians and the front office, and he had proven podium power with the local audience. He possessed youth, enthusiasm and the musical goods to take the orchestra to new heights--and a charisma not talked about since the days of the late CSO conductor Thomas Schippers. Jarvi came from an exceptional bloodline: father Neeme is conductor of the Detroit Symphony; brother Kristjan, music director of New York's Absolute Ensemble; and sister Maarika, a flutist in Paris. In short, Jarvi could be just the spark necessary to ignite the venerable institution.

The arrival of a magnetic personality has been a long time coming. In the 23 years since Schippers's death, the the orchestra had continued to expand its outreach programs, seasonal offerings and tour schedule, but none of his successors--neither Walter Susskind, Michael Gielen nor Lopez-Cobos--had succeeded in creating the glamour that robed the orchestra during the Schippers years. For after all, music making--even classical music making--is show business, where success is measured by ticket sales in the case of the CSO, enough ticket sales to fill cavernous Music Hall at least twice a week during the orchestra's regular 24-week season. It's a challenge that has become increasingly difficult. The orchestra, like every other local arts organization, has struggled to market itself to a public, faced with a burgeoning menu of entertainment options.

The choice of CSO's new conductor was of interest far beyond Music Hall, in the greater world of classical music, due to the CSO's place as one of America's top 10 orchestras. As the press conference got underway, hopes ran high that, despite the unprecedented number of major U.S. orchestras that had been engaged in conductor searches in the previous year, including New York, Boston, Philadephia, Atlanta arid Minneapolis, Cincinnati had managed to woo Jarvi.

After some preliminary comments, board chairman Peter Strange stepped to the lectern and cut to the chase. Yes, indeed, Paavo Jarvi had been named the 12th conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Suddenly the buzz in the room became a loud hum of approval, and the normally jaded media smiled and nodded. Then Jarvi stepped from behind a curtain off to the side and walked center stage.

In a carefully modulated and confident baritone voice Jarvi, with no prepared notes in hand, talked about his exhilaration at accepting his first full-time position, his family's emotional high as yet an another Jarvi took the reigns of an American orchestra and the connection he already felt to the CSO through his teacher and former CSO music director, Max Rudolf. Then he began to outline his plans and dreams for the orchestra: "This is a world-class orchestra but it needs a much higher profile," he said to the crowd. "I want to create a national tour that includes all the important cities. I want to have an artistic collaboration [with the College-Conservatory of Music] and all the benefits and strengths that come with two important musical organizations uniting. To get more young people interested in the orchestra we need to show them that it is an orchestra filled with young people--people who look,just like them." It was clear that he understood the business of music as well as the making of music, vital to raising awareness that Cincinnati possessed what many consider a world-class orchestra.

As Jarvi stood fielding questions, he also talked about the importance of putting down roots in Cincinnati in order to become part of the community. "I want people to get to know me," he said. This month, on February 21, the city will get its first chance, when the maestro-elect will return to announce the programs for his first season beginning in September.

It will be the first indication of what's ahead not only musically but idiosyncratically--what Jarvi's personality will be bringing to the CSO and the city. It will also be the time to start learning about the man behind the music--a man with an all-consuming commitment to music, certainly, but also a guy who loves fast cars, good wine, late-night dining and violence on the ice. A guy who will never have a low profile.

"I don't have time for anything that requires equipment," Jarvi says, in answer to a question about sports. He's sitting down for a chat in Music Hall's green room, in town last fall for his final appearance with the CSO as a guest conductor. "It's impossible not to love [watching] basketball though," he adds. "They've been brilliant in making it into show business here [in the U.S.]"

But then bring up the subject of ice hockey and out comes a verbal flurry of enthusiasm befitting a rabid fan. And for this native of Estonia, a small country directly south of Finland, hockeymania has as much to do with the politics of the former Soviet Union as careening pucks. "When I was growing up in Estonia, the best team was the Russian team and very close to them was the Czech team. To us in Estonia, we were rooting for the Czechs because they hated the Russians and we did, too. The matches in the late '70s were amazingly exciting and it was always a war." His own hockey career involved school teams and pickup games on a pond near the Jarvi home. Told that Eden Park's Mirror Lake is frozen every winter, Jarvi says with mock seriousness, "I might start a hockey tournament." (Note to Cyclones: Talk to this guy; he may be just the ringer you're looking for.)

While home for Jarvi currently translates to apartments in New York, London and a place in Palm Beach for family gatherings, homestead central will definitely be Cincinnati. "I would really like to have a house and a little bit of space and a little bit of nature." He admits to having a girlfriend in Paris but declines to give her name or answer if she will be moving to Cincinnati. "One step at a time," he says.

Having his first "real" home--one with all the basic amenities--also represents a stability that goes hand-in-hand with his first full-time orchestra post, a job that will keep him in one place for long periods of time. And that is a luxury. Consider that during the first six weeks of 2001, Jarvi already has conducted four concerts in Rome with the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, nine concerts with the Israel Philharmonic, three concerts in Los Angeles and a two-concert debut with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The routine things of life have always received second billing.

"I've had my London apartment for five years, and I still don't have cabinets or a mirror in my bathroom. There's never any time when I'm there to go and pick out things." For the first year there, Jarvi admits the place was virtually empty. Thank goodness for sisters who lend a certain Martha Stewart sensibility to bachelor brothers. "My sister [Maarika] came to town one weekend and said, you're coming with me. We bought an entire kitchen full of necessities, sofas, a dining room table and chairs, even towels.

"My apartments look like storage houses," says Jarvi. "I have a quite decent collection of Russian icons, and I am a great lover of all kinds of gadgets: computer, Palm Pilot, all types of phones and little CD and DVD players. I don't have elementary things at home, but I have really, really good stereo equipment and a recording library of over 10,000. I will move all my scores and CDs here so I can have them in one place.

"My hobby is listening to different performances or interpretations of works. It's the best way to spend a really free day when I have no plans"--but then he adds--"that never happens."

Well, that's not entirely true. Throughout the year there are pockets of time free of concerts and rehearsals. It's just that he is constantly living music.

"When I have a week off, I disconnect completely and nobody can reach me. I'll go somewhere with a beach," Jarvi says, but even then he is preparing for future concerts, just part of the daily routine. This speaks to something basic about Paavo Jarvi. "Music is not work for me," he is quick to explain. "The only time I feel truly well in every respect--mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally--is when I'm making music. And I am very greedy when it comes to music, so it is an all-consuming process for me."

That means not only the time it takes to learn a particular piece of music but to learn as much as he can about the composer and the composer's other works. And it doesn't stop there. "You have to know what was happening with the history of the time, what surrounded the music. I love reading biographies on the beach. And diaries, because you find out what people were talking about, what they were thinking. All of this is a window to the music."

There is one time when work may take a backseat to another passion: driving, the kind Jack Kerouac made famous in On the Road.

"I absolutely love driving. It's not the car itself but being on the open highway without having any plans of ending up anywhere in particular," he says. (He doesn't presently own a car but plans to visit dealerships after settling in.) During road trips it's not Brahms or Beethoven pouring from the speakers but more likely jazz, rap or rock--not such a surprise when you find out that Jarvi played drums in a rock band as a teenager. "It's takes energy and you have this powerful sense of collaboration," he says, suddenly dropping the explanations and honing in on the band's real significance: "It's the most fun I ever had." And it possibly represents one of two times the son of maestro Neeme Jarvi's own destiny as a conductor got sidetracked. The other career temptation came at age 6. "For about a year I wanted to be a fireman."

Not that there was ever any serious doubt about the career path Jarvi would take. It appears he was virtually genetically destined to follow in papa Neeme's footsteps: first as a percussionist, then as a conductor. "He obviously had a plan," Jarvi says. "Kids love to beat on things, and if you were good there were a lot of opportunities to sub in the orchestra in Estonia. There also were all kinds of concert bands. I was literally in the orchestra at age 10, mostly just counting rests, sometimes just helping carry things. But it allowed me to see how conductors rehearse and how musicians react to the conductor. I loved it."

Still, there are more mundane things to worry about when a concert is in progress: making certain everything is pressed, buttoned and zipped before walking onstage; having a musical score to glance at should memory or concentration temporarily go south; and seeing that no one drops the ball in getting the U-shaped metal rail affixed to the back of the podium should a particularly exuberant move send Jarvi into the laps of patrons in the front row. It's a safety precaution most conductors forgo. "I don't want to constantly feel that I might [fall]. It's an attempt to take all necessary precautions." So far, it's worked. No unexpected plunges have interrupted the music making.

And when the concert is over and guests have been greeted in the green room, Jarvi is ready for something most people have done hours before: dinner. "I can't eat before a concert; it doesn't work." And therein lies the first complaint Jarvi has about the Queen City.

"We have to try to have some of the good restaurants to stay open after concerts," he says, making no attempt to hide a frustration he's already encountered with most kitchens shutting down by 11. "I want [places] I can take people out after a concert to have a good meal, some nice wine and talk in a setting that doesn't hurry you." When a writer says others have mentioned the same shortcoming about the restaurant scene, Jarvi becomes animated: "We must start a campaign! Restaurants that stay open and turn down the music!"

Until restaurants get on board with this idea, there is one option: Cincinnati chili, available until 4 a.m. on weekends at a chili parlor five minutes from the hall. (Note to new maestro: pace yourself on that maiden voyage and stand firm if companions urge you to order a fourth coney.)

As accessible and acclimated as Jarvi plans to become when he arrives--acquiring real estate, following the Cyclones, taking the 88-mile spin around I-275--there will be those dropout moments when the phone will go unanswered. They'll come when the concert is at hand. "I have to get myself in the proper frame of mind before I go to a concert. I always sleep two or three hours. If I don't, it's not the same. Sometimes I don't even sleep," Jarvi admits, "but I'm in bed and naked and not going anywhere and it all comes into focus."

Ultimately this pre-concert nap provides the centering that allows Jarvi "to use music as a vehicle to express something that ordinarily cannot be expressed." To do that he must reach that psychic place where knowledge, preparation, talent and intuition cross paths, and stay there all the way to the concert hall, through the act of changing into white tie and tails and walking onto the stage.

At that moment, as he steps in front of the orchestra, it is time to take the final mental leap to make each performance a personal rendering of the music. It is a lesson he learned from the late Leonard Bernstein. "I studied with him very briefly in Los Angeles when I was 20, but it changed my life," Jarvi says. "He said, 'Know everything about the piece and do as much preparation as you can possibly can, but when you step onto the podium, throw it all out of your head and just feel.'

"When you play music, you cannot just be the keeper of someone else's tradition," Jarvi says, adding his own philosophy. "You must make it new every time." It is the key to attaining the high profile Jarvi envisions for the CSO. The musical world will be listening.