Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Paavo Järvi: The Andante Interview

Before it completely disappears from Google's cache, I thought, for the record, I should post the interview with Paavo by Thomas May which appeared on Andante in May 2001. It is lengthy, but still highly pertinent almost five years after its original publication. I hope you enjoy it.
The exciting young conductor, soon to take over the Cincinnati Symphony, talks with andante about the Internet's role in the classical music world and the relationship between an orchestra and its audiences.

As classical music moves into the 21st century, several of the hottest stories in the business have focused on the podium, with an unusual number of American orchestras in particular scrambling to find viable new leaders. It has been a game of musical chairs and peevishly observed personality contests as Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Houston, and Cincinnati (among others) go through the process of determining the destinies of their respective orchestras. One encouraging trend can be seen with the choice of Paavo Järvi, who will take over as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in September 2001. His appointment has generally been greeted as a sign of hope for the fifth oldest orchestra in the United States, which faces its own struggle to connect with a younger generation. In many ways Järvi represents exactly the kind of bridge that has been lacking in the contemporary musical landscape.

Born in 1962 in Tallinn, Estonia, Järvi is routinely introduced in the context of his extraordinary musical family. In fact, you can scarcely come across a profile of the young conductor that fails to bring up the rest of the Järvi clan, from brother Krystjan (founder of New York's Absolute Ensemble and former assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and sister Maarika (a flutist) to his famous father Neeme, who leads the Detroit Symphony. But for all the attention given to the father-son relationship, Paavo evinces a deeply secure sense of his own identity and place within his generation of conductors. He has experienced a musical formation that sets him worlds apart from the often superficial jet-set attitudes of an earlier era.

Järvi began as a percussionist (he was in a rock band as a teenager) and studied initially at the Tallinn School of Music. He immigrated to the United States in 1979, took American citizenship and studied at the Curtis Institute. Yet his most formative experiences seem to have been a brief and intense seminar with Leonard Bernstein and his period as principal guest conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony during Simon Rattle's tenure. It's an apprenticeship to which Järvi often refers; in some ways it seems even to provide the model for an organic relationship of loyalty and trust between conductor, orchestra, and audience - the sort of relationship whose rediscovery may prove critical to the health of symphony orchestras in the 21st century.

As the beginning of Järvi's CSO tenure draws nearer, we're likely to hear about him much more frequently. Telarc will soon release his first recording with the orchestra (the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique). Recently, Järvi spoke with andante contributor Thomas May about his particular vision of what it means to be music director of an American orchestra today, from the nitty-gritty of marketing realities to core issues of repertoire. Ever the technophile, Järvi shared his notions about the role of the Internet and discussed what really promises to connect with an exciting new audience.
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Thomas May: What are some of your ideas for running an American orchestra? What did you learn in this regard from your experience with Simon Rattle during his Birmingham days?

Paavo Järvi: Cincinnati is the first orchestra [of which] I will be a music director, so it's early to say what my working strategies will be. But [I agree that] if you were to choose an example of [the ideal] 21st-century music director, then for me that would be Simon Rattle. While remaining within the frames of the classical music industry as a sort of business, he has constantly dared to broaden the perception and the standards of what's acceptable and what's not in the concert hall. Simon educated the audience to the point where they started trusting him. It's [about] creating a relationship which I think is basically lost in bigger cities, like New York, where they have no relationship with the audience and are trying to sell [concerts] as if they are all special events.

TM: You're an Internet-savvy conductor - in fact you even have your own Web site. What are your thoughts about how the Internet might affect the classical music audience?

PJ: The Internet, as far as I can see now - since I'm a very strong believer in live music - is probably going to become most important in its capacity for reaching wider audiences in order to promote classical music, rather than for actually listening to it. One problem with the classical music community is that [it needs] a central source of information where you can log in and not only have the party line, so to speak, but where you can find out about programs everywhere, who the soloists are, etc. [We need a place where] you can also have a truly live, constantly updated news service for classical music and a live column about what's going on and where and what happened. That's something that, in classical music especially, travels by word of mouth, but is always a bit distorted.

TM: But how should new audiences be cultivated today?

PJ: All the traditional methods that have been used are moderately successful, but they aren't specific enough. For example, obviously it's important to have educational children's concerts. But what is not so effectively done is the cultivation of audiences in their late 20s to 50s - that's a time in your life when you start looking for things that might be more meaningful, when your lifestyle is changing. That generation has been so firmly brought up with an understanding that classical music is somehow for old people, for the wealthy; changing their minds is almost impossible. So targeting this group of people is the main goal - at least for what we'll be trying to do in Cincinnati.

TM: What is the best way to capture the interest of that group?

PJ: We shouldn't be in a war with pop culture, because we cannot win; we should be a sophisticated alternative. In fact, we should be the alternative for people who are looking for better things. The whole idea of trying to be populist is fundamentally wrong. We should be proudly elitist. "Elite" implies something special and good in every other area except, for some reason, the arts. We should be the ones who say, "Look, if you actually want something with a much more lasting quality and a certain emotional depth which isn't as mindless as a lot of the pop stuff is, then there is another alternative."

TM: How does that philosophy affect your choice of the kind of repertoire that you'd like to program and record?

PJ: I think that's a misconception, because there is nothing wrong with repertoire [per se]. It's a question of how it is promoted and marketed. A Beethoven symphony will always be a Beethoven symphony, [the same with] a Brahms piano concerto or "The Rite of Spring". To try to assume that certain pieces have a certain sex appeal for certain groups is a dangerous route to go down. To try to somehow be guided by the taste of the public is exactly how we're going to lose them. That's why I believe in intelligently designed programs, where you can say there is a reason why these pieces are together. But the angle [shouldn't be] simplistic - there has to be something intellectually stimulating. And one thing that the Internet can help with - this is what pop music has so successfully done - is to realize that you cannot sell concerts or records unless you really capitalize on a personality or the performer. And therefore performers have to be treated as personalities, including the orchestra - like a [rock] band, it has to be publicized in a way that makes the orchestra attractive and glamorous.

TM: So what sort of "personality" do you want to develop for the Cincinnati Symphony?

PJ: There's basically going to be a heavy emphasis on youth and the future. I have deliberately chosen a lot of people who are not familiar to Cincinnati, who are not the established [group of] overpaid - and complacent - superstars. I'm interested in people who will be vital, central to classical music in the years to come. We have a lot of people who are literally in their early 20s to 30s, who are superb, accomplished artists. We're doing world premieres of two young American composers who are in their late 20s. [The important thing] is that attempt to find a coherent angle to the whole season and to reinforce it every week, within each concert.

TM: What would you say characterizes your own generation of conductors as something set apart?

PJ: I think it's a very healthy time right now. The younger generation has produced a lot of good conductors: they are the ones who are the future hope, because the middle generation - those who are 10 to 15 years older than I am - have been kind of coasting. The one thing that I wish is that American conductors would be given more posts where they could actually change the environment.

TM: What accounts for that difference from earlier models?

PJ: I think that they are simply better trained. Basically when it comes down to it, in classical music and especially in conducting, it's all about the talent and preparation. You have to have the schooling. And maybe the strength of the younger generation of musicians is that we are living in a time already where thankfully all the big muses, who have been dictating what kind of new music is valid are less important. That generation of composers - who were overly conscious and tied to music as an intellectual rather than a communicative exercise - is changing. People come to music from different angles now, and it's enriching the scene.

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