Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Paavo Jarvi leads Cincinnati Orchestra on European tour

April 1, 2008

By George Loomis

PARIS: 'The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is one of the best American orchestras," said the conductor Paavo Jarvi, "but it's hard to convince people of this." Jarvi himself is hardly an unbiased source, having served as the orchestra's music director for the last seven years. But in that capacity he has a chance to convert new audiences to his view when he leads the orchestra in a 12-concert European tour beginning Friday in Frankfurt.
Clearly, the orchestra has prospered under his leadership, and so has his career. Last May the Estonian-born conductor was appointed to the helm of another orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, where he will succeed Christoph Eschenbach as music director. He takes over only in 2010 but conducted the orchestra in Paris in February, when we talked about the forthcoming tour at his hotel near the Place de l'Étoile.
"Coming to Europe, we want to show our strongest possible side," he said of the Cincinnati Symphony. "There is a sex appeal associated with larger, more glamorous American cities, but Cincinnati is real America." Yet, as he points out, it is "the most Germanic city in America, with a strong affinity for German music and amazing private support for the arts for generations and generations." The orchestra is America's fifth oldest.
It did well under its previous conductor, Jesús López-Cobos, but under Jarvi it seems to be moving to new heights. I recall observing him work with the American Russian Young Artists Orchestra in Moscow not long after he took over in Cincinnati and how his innate musicianship coupled with his strong but congenial personality brought out the best in these young musicians, a combination that seems to be working in Cincinnati as well.
Jarvi came to the United States at age 17 when his father, the conductor Neeme Jarvi, obtained permission to leave Estonia and settled his family there in 1980. No one knew at the time that Neeme was bringing a veritable music dynasty with him. Paavo's younger brother, Kristjan, is also a conductor with a significant career, and their sister, Maarika, is a noted flute soloist. When Paavo entered the Curtis Institute of Music, he says he didn't feel any different from other students because of the high number of foreigners. "Students were chosen because of talent, not nationality," he said. But the household in Estonia supplied a unique environment for nurturing young talent.
"My father toured in the West with Soviet orchestras as second conductor under men like Evgeny Mravinsky, Evgeny Svetlanov and Gennady Rozhdesvensky. Most musicians would return from tours with things they could sell on the black market, like jeans or pushbutton umbrellas, a new invention to us. But my father came back with records and miniature scores." The family held regular listening sessions. "We probably had the largest private collection of records and scores in the Soviet Union," Jarvi said. It made up for the inability to hear foreign orchestras, other than those from the Soviet bloc.
Over the years young Jarvi built up a substantial repertory of works he knew aurally. He said he was six when he learned Debussy's "La Mer." "And we listened to a lot of America music, like the Bernstein Mass, which Kristjan just recorded, and works by Walter Piston, Paul Creston and Irving Fine. When I got to Curtis, I was amazed that many conducting students knew nothing of composers like Sibelius or Nielsen," he said. Jarvi chose the tour repertoire "to show what the orchestra can do."
Among the major works is Shostakovich's "virtuoso" Tenth Symphony. "The second movement is a portrait of Stalin, according to the people I have talked to.But the music must speak for itself and be meaningful to people who know nothing about it," he said.
Mention of the symphony led to a discussion about how he shapes the long opening theme. "It must flow like organic material - too much point-making and you can lose out." Schubert's C Major Symphony (the "Great"), which will also be heard, reflects the orchestra's Germanic roots. Some of the concerts pair Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten."
Curiously, the programs lack any American music. "Something like 'Appalachian Spring' would be too easy, and European promoters don't want to pay the royalties that works by living American composers would require.
"Much as we may dislike standard programming, there is a reason it has become standard. It allows for music varied enough so that everyone gets something out of a concert. An opening overture is now just as likely to be a new piece. And since conductors want to do lesser known symphonies, the soloist often has to bring in the audience."
The tour has two soloists of first rank, the pianist Nikolai Lugansky and the violinist Janine Jansen. But the orchestra under Jarvi has performed plenty of offbeat repertoire, including works by Estonian composers such as Erkki-Sven Tuur, Eino Tamberg and Eduard Tubin, several of which, along with Nielsen and Martinu, it has recorded for Telarc, with which the Cincinnati Symphony has an exclusive contract.
Once Jarvi takes over the Orchestre de Paris, he may have to do some prioritizing because, in addition to Cincinnati, he is music director of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and artistic leader of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie in Bremen, to both of which he has strong ties. As for Cincinnati, he says that, "not to be too self-congratulatory, it was in very good shape when I took over but better now. It is the most European orchestra we have in America, with American brilliance, color, technical capacity, but European sensibility and sound production - two worlds meeting in the middle."

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