Printed in "David's Voice" Magazine
By Isaac Selya
As a Jewish atheist, I would be the last person to trust astrology. But I admit that there is a harmonic convergence at the end of January. Those of us nerdy enough to celebrate the birthdays of classical musicians don’t get a break. Mozart, Schubert, Farinelli, Tallis, Furtwängler and Clementi share this birthday season with two musical Jews: Felix Mendelssohn and me. In honor of Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday on February 3rd, 2009, David’s Voice interviewed Maestro Paavo Järvi, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra since 2001. He shared his thoughts on Mendelssohn, the human function of music and the myth of the Jewish musical mafia.
Q: Maestro, when a famous composer like Mendelssohn has a major birthday, what goes through your head when you program music for the season?
A: It is complicated, but it is important to consider something as mundane as where we live. In Paris, in London, in New York, people can hear a different world-class orchestra every night; it makes sense to have a full-blown festival celebrating one composer. Here [in Cincinnati] we need to offer subscribers variety. In every concert, I program works that are in intellectual dialogue. Many times when there are festivals for Mozart or Mendelssohn, orchestras’ play the same small set of famous pieces.
Q: Is that an economic concern? Do audiences just want to hear familiar hits?
A: I wish it were that simple. Most musicians have a comfort level with specific corners of the repertoire. Audiences want more variety. Many people ask me why we don’t play more contemporary music or unknown pieces. We work with many talented guest artists who make their best impressions with pieces that the musicians know well.
Q: Mendelssohn has a rocky reception history owing to Wagner’s anti-Semitic writings. Did you notice any bias against Mendelssohn while you were studying music?
A: Not really. The bias against Mendelssohn was mostly in Germany. It is important to place Mendelssohn in context, because anti-Semitism during his time in Germany was taken for granted. Jewish composers learned to handle this. For example, Gustav Mahler wrote the “Resurrection” symphony to prove he was Christian. But every note of it proves that he was Jewish.
Q: This question might not be politically correct, but why do you think that so many Jews have been successful in classical music? Some people even refer to a “Jewish mafia” that ran the classical scene in the United States in the early 20th century.
A: (Paavo Jarvi laughs) Here I thought it was an Estonian mafia… In the early 20th century, musicians from Eastern Europe and Slavic countries developed the American classical community; many of these individuals were Jews. The American string sound in particular is very rich, and it stems from the Russian/Slavic school of playing. To play like that, you need to engage in an introspective quest about every element of the sound. Many Jews in Eastern Europe were brought up in a culture that emphasized rigorous study and introspection on questions of the human experience and religion. The kind of questions you can ask about religion can only be asked about one other subject: art. So instead of becoming the fourth generation of rabbis, some Jews became the first generation of violinists. Many Americans misunderstand this relationship between Judaism and music. They think that just being Jewish makes people talented.
Q: On the topic of the role music plays in the human experience, what are your thoughts about Venezuela and “El Sistema?” (“El Sistema” is a publicly financed private-sector music-education program in Venezuela, originally called Social Action for Music)
A: They have taken energy that was leading to poverty and crime and he [José Abreu] sublimated it towards music. Some people think that it is just propaganda to support [President Hugo] Chávez. But that is nonsense.
Smart people understand the diplomatic power of music and art. It is more compelling than any propaganda. That is why the Soviets sent their ballet company over here. And notice that the New York Philharmonic just went to a country that we have no “official” diplomatic relations with. Because there is nothing more powerful than the sight of young people making music. This is what “El Sistema” has tapped into; it reminds us of our common humanity.
Isaac Selya holds a BA in music from Yale University. He aspires to be an opera conductor. And he hopes to visit Japan one day.