Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bravo Paavo
Media Room
by Kathleen Doane

It’s the sentiment we greeted him with when he became the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director, and one we say again as we prepare to say good-bye.

It hardly seems possible that nearly a decade has gone by since banners went up all over town proclaiming Bravo Paavo, our collective welcome to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s new maestro, Paavo Järvi. The arrival of this charismatic young Estonian conductor was a bright spot in a year filled with unprecedented tragedy, first for our city with the April 2001 riots, then a few months later, for our country with the events of 9/11. To fully appreciate the journey that Järvi and the CSO have taken in the years since, it’s probably best to go back to the beginning.

During a yearlong search as one millennium drew to a close and another loomed, Järvi emerged early on as a favorite. He had gotten high marks from the orchestra as a guest conductor on three different occasions in 1999. Audiences at those concerts also clearly saw and heard a newly energized orchestra under his baton. The hopeful buzz was confirmed the afternoon of January 24, 2000, at a press conference when then CSO board chairman Peter Strange named the 38-year-old Järvi as the CSO’s new music director. Järvi stepped into the room to the enthusiastic applause and cheers of the crowd gathered in Corbett Tower.

With no prepared notes in hand, he talked about his exhilaration at accepting his first full-time position and the connection he already felt to the CSO through his teacher and former CSO music director, Max Rudolf. Then he got down to business, outlining his plans and dreams for the orchestra. First and foremost, was his desire to create a much higher profile for the orchestra. And there were other goals: to champion the works of young composers and to provide a stage for rising stars. Of course, no challenge was more important than the most basic of his job responsibilities: Helping the orchestra live up to its potential, which is the best place to start when taking stock of Järvi’s years with the CSO.

Measuring that success comes down to one thing: sound. “From his first appearance as a guest conductor here, Paavo always demanded an especially rich and full sound from the orchestra, especially the strings,” CSO Concertmaster Timothy Lees says. Technical perfection was necessary, of course, but only the starting point. Getting 100 musicians onboard with Järvi’s own musical instincts lay at the heart of creating the kind of intense, emotional music-making that flows from stage to audience.

“There’s nothing more important in making music than personality,” Järvi says. “We have soloists in this orchestra who are playing incredibly expressively with a lot of individuality and risk,” he adds. “That is something I’m very happy about.” That collaborative philosophy often doesn’t characterize the relationships between a symphony orchestra conductor and the musicians. “As a leader in the orchestra, it’s important for me to be on the same musical page as Paavo from the very first rehearsal,” Lees says. “He’s always been very open to my own musical instincts and suggestions.”

The Järvi years also have given local audiences an opportunity to hear new works by young as well as established contemporary composers. During the previous nine seasons, there have been six world premieres, including prairyerth, by Cincinnati composer, Robert Johnson. Järvi’s first concerts as CSO maestro, three days after 9/11, featured the emotional premiere of Steetscape by New York-based composer, Charles Coleman. “Very often, this music might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t matter,” Järvi explains. “There are a lot of composers in this country who deserve our attention, and we must never forget that our mission is to create and support new music. It’s what keeps us relevant.”

To further that mission and celebrate Järvi’s 10th season and WGUC’s 50th anniversary, the classical radio station and the CSO commissioned five composers from around the world—Jonathan Holland, Jörg Widmann, Stewart Goodyear, Charles Coleman, and Erkki-Sven Tüür—to write fanfares, premiering during the second half of the season.

Giving talent its due by providing a stage for young soloists is another of Järvi’s passions. In fact, under his reign, a gig with the CSO has become a rite of passage for many young performers, especially European or Asian artists looking for an American debut. “We are known as the orchestra who takes chances with young artists,” Järvi says, proudly. “The bigger orchestras like New York or Chicago now call us to ask, ‘Do you think we should hire this person because we know they just debuted with you?’ ” Some of those young artists are now well on their way to becoming major stars, such as cellist, Alisa Weilerstein , violinists, Alina Pogostkina and Henning Kraggerud and trumpeter, Alison Balsom.

The CSO’s prestige and reputation beyond our borders has grown tremendously during Järvi’s tenure. “A great orchestra like this constantly needs to feel the pulse of the world by being a part of the international musical scene,” he says. “I only had really two ways of doing this: recordings and touring.” To that end, Järvi managed to take the orchestra on European tours in 2004 and 2008 and to Japan in 2003 and 2009. It became clear wherever they played that the rest of the world confirmed what we already knew. “There’s a certain electricity that he [Järvi] brings to everything he conducts, and audiences abroad had the same positive reactions that audiences at home did,” Lees says.

Järvi’s tenure also included three tours in the states: a 2003 East Coast tour, a 2004 Florida tour, and 2007 California tour. Still, he has regrets: “We were in Europe twice but never managed to get to Estonia and had invitations to play the London Proms Concerts [in Royal Albert Hall], but we couldn’t go because we couldn’t finance the tour.”

The other piece of building CSO’s global awareness—recording with the orchestra on the Telarc label—yielded 16 recordings in nine years. With the demise of Telarc’s classical label last year, the CSO found another way to record by creating its own Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Media label. Its first recording, American Portraits, was released earlier this year. Järvi believes that continuing to record is the most important component of preserving the CSO’s legacy. “We have recordings of all the great conductors who have been here before. Not to do that in the future would be a big mistake.”

Just as vital to the future is the work to preserve and renovate Music Hall that Järvi set in motion shortly after he arrived. “The plans that are in place make me very happy,” he says. “When it’s all finished, it will be a new lease on life for the orchestra, a rebirth of sorts for years to come.” And for anyone who still may harbor doubts about preserving the integrity of the hall, especially its celebrated acoustics, Järvi says: “Chicago did it. Cleveland did it. Carnegie Hall did it, and Detroit Symphony Hall did it. We can do it, too. Great halls can become even greater without losing anything.”

Devey agrees: “It’s too bad it didn’t get completed under his watch, but it will be a great moment when it’s all done and he can come back to see this part of his legacy fulfilled.”

Ultimately, that legacy—the thing people will most often mention when the Järvi years with the CSO are discussed—will revolve around the memorable, often magical, performances that we came to expect each time he stepped in front of the orchestra and lifted his baton. “When you play music, you cannot just be the keeper of someone else’s tradition,” he says. “Whether a Beethoven symphony or a contemporary work, you must make it new every time.” You always do, Maestro. And for that, we can’t help but say: Bravo Paavo.

Kathleen Doane is a freelance journalist who writes about the arts. She is a retired Senior Editor of Cincinnati Magazine where she covered the local arts scene for 10 years. Prior to that she was an Assistant Features Editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer.

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