Monday, December 18, 2006

Paavo Järvi – The Man Who is Going to Reveal the Best-Kept Secret

Somehow, I missed this interview back in October. Hope you enjoy it now!
Paavo Järvi – The Man Who is Going to Reveal the Best-Kept Secret

»No game-playing, no testing the limits, no showmanship« - the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra starts the 2006/07 season with its new chief conductor.

It’s sometimes good in an interview to have one or two empty pages at the end with no questions written on them. You never know. Perhaps the interviewee would like to add something that isn't a response to a specific question? Many people would simply say »No thanks« or rattle off some glib generalisation. Not so Paavo Järvi. As with all of the preceding questions, he thinks about the non-question for a long time. And his answer begins almost philosophically. He says that a question always opens a door, that thoughts are set in motion, one question leads to another. »Everything is interconnected. The intellect leads you.« If there's no question, there's no answer. If there's no discussion, there's no insight.

Paavo Järvi, born in Estonia in 1962, is a very careful conversation partner. And he’s a very careful musician, never someone who is always just passing through, either musically or thematically. It might appear like that at first glance. After all, he is chief conductor of three orchestras – the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and – his most recent addition – the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. You could never say Paavo Järvi, who was brought up in the US after his father Neeme Järvi moved there with his family in 1980, takes it easy.

If you ask him about the differences between working with a US and a German orchestra, he’ll immediately cut through the surface to delve much deeper. For Paavo Järvi, it’s not purely the sound that differentiates a US orchestra from a German one. No. With the exception of the Staatskapelle Dresden, the German sound doesn’t really exist any more. It’s more in the attitude to music of the individual musicians that you notice the difference. In the US, the orchestra knows the piece before the first rehearsal. Every musician already knows his part. »You’re dealing with a perfectly oiled machine. In Cincinnati, I can do as much in a single rehearsal as I can in two weeks with other orchestras. Everyone is prepared. Everyone brings with them their technical ability. But no-one asks questions, ever,« says Paavo Järvi.

With a German orchestra, on the other hand, you need longer. »You must work to achieve something. A process occurs, there are discussions, perhaps even differences of opinion. And that means you delve deeper into the music, into the meaning of what you’re playing. That’s what I love about my work in Germany. The question isn’t: how fast or how slow? How loud or how quiet? But why? What is behind the music?« And so it doesn’t matter to Paavo Järvi if every thing lasts just that little bit longer, if it allows you to go that much deeper. »That’s not laziness or a lack of preparation on the part of the musicians. What’s better than an orchestra that really wants to understand the music?«

And it’s precisely an orchestra like the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra that is used to asking questions and is used to getting involved. After all, Hugh Wolff was its chief conductor for the past nine years, ruling the orchestra with an open, an inviting hand. The much smaller Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, too, sees itself as a democratically organised ensemble. But for Paavo Järvi, real democracy is a chimera in the orchestral world. »How can there be democracy, when there’s someone standing at the front with a stick?« he asks.

For him, the most important task of a conductor is to have a point of view. »And that’s not democratic by nature. It’s personal. Music without a point of view is uninteresting, mediocre, at best, simply correct music-making.«

On issues such as power, authority and his own role, Paavo Järvi ponders a great deal. He searches for the right image. The orchestra isn’t an army, it's more a football team, whose players must put their trainer’s ideas into practice if they want to succeed. The players need to trust in their trainer’s abilities and in his ideas, even if those ideas are not immediately clear to everyone at the same time. Nevertheless, for Järvi it is both self-evident and irreversible that the Maestro of the past has had his day. »My generation of conductors very consciously seeks to avoid anything reminiscent of power or of the abuse of power. The conductor as despot, that’s a thing of the past.«

From that point of view, there is continuity for the orchestra of Hessen radio. Paavo Järvi is a receptive, stylistically open-minded orchestra chief, someone who’ll carry on the ideals of Hugh Wolff. The performance practice of the first Viennese school is a case in point. Valveless horns, vibrato-less strings. »An orchestra of the 21st century must simply be able to do that,« Järvi says.

(He’s just performed all the Beethoven symphonies with the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen with the exact number of players usual in Beethoven’s time. But Järvi doesn’t want to be dogmatic on such issues. His response is different for each of his very different orchestras.)

At the same time, the orchestra is going to move in a new direction, to a repertoire where the »sound« plays a very special role. Järvi believes that the Frankfurt Radio Symphony's sound potential is perfectly suited to the symphonies of Bruckner, which have hardly been played at all in Frankfurt over the past decade. Bruckner’s symphonies »combine beautifully that with which you associate the ›German sound‹ and a homogenous, powerful brass. It’s the perfect mix,« says Järvi. In the coming season, he’ll be performing a lot of Stravinsky with his new orchestra. And he’s very curious to see how the orchestra handles the brilliant, individual sound with its Russian sharpness. »Sound is not about how an orchestra plays, but how it hears and how it wants to hear,« he says.

Before they even knew that Järvi was going to be its chief conductor, a great many musicians, soloists and colleagues told him that the best-kept secret in the German orchestral scene was Frankfurt's Radio Symphony Orchestra. He liked that. It confirmed he had made the right decision. It felt good, it was the right starting point. But the bit about it being the »best-kept secret«: Järvi knows that could change very quickly. And he knows that the medium of radio with its ability of reaching larger audiences will play a substantial role in changing that, as will a prominent position on the CD market. Paavo Järvi likes to have a visible profile, too.

Finally, Paavo Järvi decides to accept the carte blanche invitation, to give a response without a question being asked, after all. Something is fermenting inside of him. But he takes his time. Ten, 15 seconds go by and still he doesn’t begin. He deliberates, struggles with how to put it into words. Then finally it comes: One question he is often asked is: why can he be the chief conductor of three orchestras at the same time? Is he a workaholic? In the past he’s always argued that it was primarily the differences of each orchestra, the different styles and the repertoires. But it’s not just that – if he weren't able to have three so fundamentally different orchestras, he’d just as readily take three more similar ones. The reason is that as a guest conductor you never get the same results as when you’re chief conductor.

Guests come for one week and then again three years later. Nothing substantial can develop. »But when I say ›good morning‹ to my orchestras in Bremen, Cincinnati and now Frankfurt, I know the names of all the musicians and they know me. They know exactly whether I’ve had a coffee or not. And we can start to make music straight away. There are no games to play, nobody feels they have to show off, test any limits. If something doesn’t work, I know immediately what the reason is, that perhaps this particular musician hasn’t had his coffee yet, or perhaps the problem lies elsewhere.«

Järvi is keen to stress that having three orchestras doesn’t mean there’s a lack of loyalty, a refusal to commit oneself one hundred percent. Quite the contrary: it’s about a personal bond with people he wants to work with. »I’d rather have three different families than 25 different one night stands,« he says. And adds – in case anyone gets the wrong end of the stick – that he means that strictly metaphorically.

Stand: 11.10.2006

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