by Polk Laffoon IV
Paavo Järvi, who this month concludes 10 years with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to return full-time to his native Europe, is dressed entirely in black: black shirt, black jacket, black pants and shoes, and a black scarf draping his shoulders. The choice reflects something fundamental about him, an innate formality and elegance to be sure, but also a stripping away of things he finds less important, like ornament and decoration, so the things that are important—values, mission, and music—come into sharp focus.
Järvi says his time in Cincinnati has helped him grow. He has traveled between Europe and the U.S., blending his experiences to focus his craft. “The cross-pollination has made me develop as a conductor,” he says. “It makes me constantly think: What’s optimal? What will make the next performance better? I’ve been blessed with an orchestra happy to go along with this process, never rigid, never acting like they are soldiers and I’m the general, but all of us acting as musicians together.”
During his decade in town, Järvi has been married, had children, gone through a divorce, and formed many lasting friendships. “Cincinnati has changed my life in profound ways. I have learned some hard lessons, and I’m grateful for them. But of the many things I’ll remember, making music stands out. That’s what my life is all about. It is my primary activity. Right now we are rehearsing Beethoven’s Fifth. And some may say: Why rehearse it, you already know it? And the answer is: Because we’re always looking for what’s new, what’s the truth in any piece of music.”
I interviewed Järvi once before, and I was impressed then with his crystalline vision of the CSO’s sole purpose: to create art. “If I wanted to fill the hall with marquee names and only the most popular repertoire, I could do it,” he had said, “but that’s not what we’re all about. We should be playing new music that is good but not yet known. We should have guest soloists who are excellent but undiscovered. We should also be playing music from the past that is very, very good but maybe overlooked.”
Now, in anticipation of his departure, he reaffirms that credo: “Our goals have to do with the role in society of an orchestra, the musician, and music. In recent years, all of this has changed. ‘Music’ today, to most people, means pop. So we don’t qualify as ‘music.’ We’re art.” Järvi sees any attempt to compete commerically with pop music as “pointless” and contradictory to the orchestra’s true mission. But economic pressures pull many orchestra managers toward that popular rat race. “I try to convince them that we should not see ourselves as competitors to pop music,” he says. “We can be entertaining, but our mission is to keep the art alive. Nothing will kill us sooner than the grayness and middle ground straddling classic and pop. Our mission is to create and promote the new music of contemporary composers and to keep alive 500 years of the classic repertoire—and that’s a huge task.”
The CSO is the fifth oldest symphony orchestra in the nation. It has a distinguished history, including the American premieres of many European classics and the commissioning of new works like the extremely popular “Fanfare for the Common Man” by American composer Aaron Copland. “It’s not very modest, but the CSO is in the best shape it’s ever been in,” Järvi says. “It has more precision, more clarity, and more range than when I got here. It is more flexible, more elastic.”
While searching for the one right word to encapsulate the orchestra’s evolution during the past decade, Järvi notes that it had always had a beautifully warm sound, one perfectly suited to the late romantic repertoire. But it had not played enough of composers like Haydn and Mozart—“certain compositions that only the classic repertoire can teach you, music that requires clarity and stylistic understanding.” Then, suddenly, he exclaims, “Subtle!” He has found the word. Subtlety is what the orchestra has developed. “For me, it is a very important aspect of music.”
Time, says Paavo Järvi, is a great equalizer. The boundaries of what is appropriate in music are constantly changing. Today, music that was considered too difficult 10 years ago (Stravinsky, Messiaen, Schoenberg, Shostakovich) is accepted. “Our goal is to keep discovering and promoting music that will be acceptable 10 to 15 years from now,” he says. “We cannot be museums.” The problem is that it’s increasingly difficult to explore new material in the U.S. because the economic system imposes such pressure to be profitable. That means playing the tried and true. “America used to be in the forefront of commissioning new works,” he continues, “but now much of what’s new is written in Europe.”
He sees advantages in both the European and American systems, but his preference is clear when it comes to where the arts are best supported. “I completely and thoroughly reject the idea that art is something to be taken care of after everything else. This is Philistinism,” he says. “Art is not just for the rich. It is the history of our humanity. It is what being human is all about.”
Järvi emphasizes that private support for the orchestra in Cincinnati has been “incredibly generous” and that Louise Nippert, who committed the income from $85 million to the CSO in early 2010, is “a guardian angel.” But even in lean times, he says politicians should be reminded of the need to support the arts. “The Republicans want to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Public Radio. What kind of Middle Ages do we live in?” He says the financial meltdown of 2008 “made me realize how vulnerable the arts are to financial manipulation in this country. They exist at the mercy of a few rich people, and there is something in such a system that is not quite safe.”
Even so, Paavo Järvi looks forward to returning here often, especially to visit his children. After a year, he expects to guest conduct, and he anticipates with joy doing so in a renovated Music Hall. “When that happens,” he says, “this will be a Mecca of culture in the Midwest. I am very proud, and very optimistic, about what’s going on here.”
Illustration by Sean McCabe
Originally published in the May 2011 issue.