Can the CSO's Paavo Järvi charm the music industry and the public into accepting his mission?
By Kathleen Doane
Cincinnati Magazine, April 2004, Vol. 37, Issue 7
One doesn't encounter many people who love their jobs as much as Paavo Järvi. It is evident in the smiles he flashes and the energy he exudes minutes after a rehearsal ends. In fact, his enthusiasm for making music with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra nearly tongue-ties the maestro as he grabs a Diet Coke and sits down to chat in his office just off the Green Room backstage at Music Hall. "I can't tell you exactly how it makes me feel, but [my] expectations are very high," Järvi says. And judging from the buzz that has surrounded Järvi since he arrived two and a half years ago, patrons generally agree that he is the best thing that has happened to the CSO in nearly 30 years. The comment heard most often is, "They've never sounded better," meaning that, as individuals and as an ensemble, the musicians are playing with a new precision and passion.
It is difficult to articulate the chemistry between a conductor and musicians that enables that kind of magic to happen. It usually involves few words, often none at all. "It is gestures and looks," Järvi says. "Sometimes during a rehearsal I can see a look on a musician's face and know that the person is feeling the same thing I am about the music. It's very intimate and personal." And powerful, because the result is that "sound" that rolls over the audience like a giant wave of emotion.
Any thought that perhaps that connection was just a local phenomenon disappeared after the November tour to Japan. "The audience was just screaming," he says of the concert in Suntory Hall in Tokyo. "It was such an amazing moment for us, [I felt] so incredibly proud." Indeed, it was a defining moment for Järvi, who was able to check off two of the goals he set for himself upon arriving here: take the orchestra to a higher level of excellence and tour so the rest of the world could hear just how good they are. Not that anyone will be coasting on past praise. "There are no limits to how well we can play," Järvi says. He isn't being arrogant when he talks like that, although it is said with total conviction. It is just his nature to push himself and those around him. "I constantly go home and think that a rehearsal or a performance was good, but that I can do it better."
There also are few limits to Järvi's ambitions for the CSO, which involve building on past success by continuing to introduce local audiences to new music and to young artists on the verge of greatness.
Järvi's success in presenting the new has put to bed the myth that CSO patrons either a) hate contemporary classical music or b) aren't sophisticated enough to appreciate it. "Who am I to say it's too difficult for our audience?" asks Järvi, adding that the only consistent complaint he's heard is, "Why don't you play more unknown music?" Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor elect and Cincinnati native son James Levine applauds Järvi's penchant for musically mixing things up. He recently told Järvi, "I like that you don't do ordinary things." The opening concert this season was a prime example: works by two 20th-century Russian icons, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and the world premiere of a piece by the dean of the College-Conservatory of Music, Douglas Lowry.
Another primary goal of Järvi's long-term agenda is his dedication to the next generation of classical stars. "We need to set the trends, and I've told the staff, 'Don't call Chicago and New York to ask how so-and-so performed.' I don't want to make my decisions based on someone else's long-distance approval."
The bottom line is that Järvi is looking for the same connection with guest artists that he has with orchestra members. "Playing with someone you haven't had that close musical relationship with is a little like a blind date. You've heard good things and there might be something there, but you never know." Which means if there isn't "something there," you probably won't see that soloist back onstage at Music Hall, at least during Järvi's tenure. Still, the buzz is out there: Young artists and their agents have heard that a gig with the CSO can be an important step in launching a solo career and are increasingly approaching Järvi.
He embraces new composers as well, especially young American composers. Järvi's very first concert with the CSO featured the world premiere of "Streetscape" by then-32-year-old Charles Coleman. The piece, commissioned by the orchestra, was inspired by the sounds of the composer's New York neighborhood. It was an instant hit.
Since Paavo Järvi's arrival the CSO has commissioned four works. This month the orchestra presents another by 30-year-old Michigan-born composer Jonathan Holland, titled "Halcyon Sun." And there are more in the works. "We already have a CD's worth of new music by new American composers," Järvi says. "And it's very important to commit them to disc." And that's where the maestro, who has generally gotten everything he asked for since arriving, runs into resistance. For even Telarc International, which has been recording the CSO and the Pops for more than 25 years, is unwilling to oblige.
The fact that the orchestra records regularly at all (five new CSO CD releases since Järvi's arrival with a sixth recorded in January) makes it the envy of most other American and European orchestras. Such long-term arrangements between orchestras and recording companies are a thing of the past, swept aside when the large recording companies began to merge. "Classical music is such an insignificant part of their business," Järvi says. A classical recording might be lucky to peak at 5,000 total sales; compare that to singer Norah Jones's latest CD, which sold a million in its first week.
Still, Telarc, run by Robert Woods, is committed to recording classical music. Why? "He's a musician and runs it like a musician," Järvi says. In fact, it was the CSO's exceptional and long relationship with Telarc that helped entice Järvi to the CSO. Although new CDs of classical standards and contemporary works will keep coming, convincing the folks at Telarc to embrace Järvi's mission of preserving the new works of young composers will be a hard sell. Recouping even the cost of producing such a recording is nearly impossible. "Telarc finds it financially unfeasible," Järvi says, adding, "but there are some things we just need to do. You can stumble upon some unbelievable things that will make a mark in history."
And, in fact, the CSO did just that in the early 1940s, when under Eugene Goosens it commissioned Aaron Copland to write a piece. The result was "Fanfare for the Common Man," an American classical standard. Perhaps the Coleman piece will enjoy the same fame someday.
"We need to be missionaries for music of our time," Järvi says, infusing his words with passion. Right now, the CSO stands alone among major orchestras in its dedication to taking on that mission. "We can leave a legacy of new American music that we have not only commissioned but recorded," he says. "It is the way the orchestra can make its mark in the world of classical music."
Given the orchestra's current million dollar — plus deficit, it's clear financial help for such a project will have to come from the outside. What is needed is a benefactor or two also looking to make a mark on the world of classical music by financing that first CD. Surely there are deep pockets willing to lead this crusade. Given the Paavo touch for winning friends and influencing patrons, he'll no doubt find them.
"WE NEED TO BE MISSIONARIES FOR MUSIC OF our time — to leave a legacy of new American music that we have not only commissioned but recorded, to make our mark in the world," says Paavo Järvi.