Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Paavo Järvi: A conductor rocks

April 15, 2007

By Edward Ortiz - Bee Arts Critic

Paavo Jarvi, 44, leads the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, but he has a rock background.
Somewhere behind the focused and regal bearing of Cincinnati Symphony conductor Paavo Järvi is a glimmer of a young man wielding drumsticks to Black Sabbath's "Iron Man."
"I was playing in a rock band that had much less artistic aspirations than classical music," said Järvi, via the telephone from Orchestra Hall in Cincinnati.
The Estonian-born Järvi, 44, is part of a generational shift in the conducting world, and one for whom rock music was an important influence.

Now in his 12th year of conducting the Cincinnati Symphony, Järvi does not shy away from new works, including those that reference rock music.
But on the podium, it is his musical DNA that he's influenced by most of all. He's the son of highly regarded conductor Neemi Järvi, who was music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 1990 until 2005 and now conducts the New Jersey Symphony.
Järvi is one of a younger spate of conductors in their 40s who include the Atlanta Symphony's Robert Spano and David Robertson, who conducts the St. Louis Symphony. This younger generation is keen on programming new and recent classical works by living composers, along with the standard repertoire.
That focus will be evident on Saturday night when the Cincinnati Symphony performs "Zeitraum" by Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis. That work will share the program with Brahms' Concerto in D major for violin and orchestra, with violinist Leonidas Kavakos as soloist, and Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 4 "The Extinguishable."
Tüür's work shows how rock pervades the pieces written by many living composers.
"If you listen to this piece you will immediately notice that this is a composer who has a background in rock music," said Järvi. "The way he uses rhythms and percussion, it gives a certain groove to the music."
Tüür, like Järvi, grew up studying classical music while playing in rock bands. Tüür is one of the more prolific Eastern European composers, and he and Järvi have played in rock bands together.
Järvi describes Tüür's work as springing from an Eastern European modernism heavily influenced by not only rock music but by Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke.
And as this modernism goes, it differs from the modernism of the West as embodied by the work of Arnold Schoenberg and Béla Bartók.
"Russian modernism has always had a certain emotional impact," said Järvi.
"Tüür's music engages the brain but it's also very emotional music," he said. "It's an interesting kind of study between what one would call active and passive music."
To counterbalance Tüür's work, Järvi has programmed a not-often-performed piece -- Nielsen's Symphony No. 4. This work cannot be accused of lacking in emotion with its bombastic opening and its darkish interior that skirts doom and tonality. The work offers a stream-of-thought musical development that ends on a hopeful note.
It's a concert program that acknowledges the distant and recent past as well as representing the present.
"What we do in Cincinnati is try to have as much new music as possible," said Järvi.
With Nielsen, Järvi seeks to cast a spotlight on Denmark's most well-known composer, who wrote six symphonies that are as brash as they are powerful.
"I consider him one of the two great symphonists of the 20th century along with Prokofiev," he said.
Järvi bemoans the fact that Nielsen's symphonies are not represented enough on concert programs. He blames that on the programming timidness of many U.S. orchestras.
"There's no reason to be a slave to 40 or 50 standard classical pieces," he said. "In a way, doing that is a dangerous path to go down because your repertoire begins to get more and more limited."
His focus on Nordic music comes as no surprise; he was born in Tallinn, Estonia. After studying classical music and playing in rock bands, Järvi left Estonia at 17 to attend Juilliard's pre-college program in percussion performance. Although he was focused on percussion, Järvi had larger goals in mind.
"I always wanted to be a conductor and all the years of playing percussion I knew that it was in preparation for a career in conducting," he said.
Järvi later attended the Curtis Institute of Music and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, where he studied under Leonard Bernstein. His first major conducting assignment was for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and he later took a three-year post as principal guest conductor with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England.
Järvi's appointment, at the age of 36, to the conducting post in Cincinnati was seen as a bold and risky move by the 112-year-old orchestra, whose prior conductors include Leopold Stokowski and Fritz Reiner. Under Järvi's leadership the orchestra has carved a niche as having a robust sound, and is known as the biggest champion of Nordic music outside Europe.
The orchestra remains one of the few second-tier orchestras in the United States that record regularly. And it is one of the few that tour a program with a bent toward new music.
"I grew up in a musical family where there has always been a curiosity about new and lesser known music."
And if his inclusion of Tüür's "Zeitraum" on the Mondavi concert program is any indication, one of those curiosities also plumbs how rock music has seeped into the musical language of a living composer.
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center, UC Davis
TICKETS $49-$69 general, $24.50-$34.50 students and children
INFORMATION: (530) 754-2787 , http://www.mondaviarts.org/

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