I caught up with CSO music director laureate Paavo Järvi yesterday in his office backstage at Music Hall, just after a rehearsal with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Although he goes in and out of town frequently to see his two young daughters, who live here with his ex-wife Tatiana Berman, his concerts this weekend with the CSO mark his first trip back to the conductor’s podium since May 2011.
Question: What does it feel like to be back?
Järvi: Absolutely wonderful. It feels like home. The answer seems predictable, but it feels like home. It’s so nice to be back, because it’s been more than a year. It literally took three minutes of making music, and we were back in the same mode as we were before I left.
Q: When you’re in town, what do you like to do?
Järvi: I am a big connoisseur of the parks these days. Playing with my kids in the park is a big thing. You have Alms Park, Ault Park, all the nice places to spend some time outdoors.
When it comes to restaurants, I am loyal to the two places that I still consider the best for serious dining: Nicola’s and Jean-Robert’s Table. There are many other good places. But there’s something nostalgic about going back to these places, because I know the chefs, and the environment is welcoming and there are many friends.
Q: Fans have been asking where they can buy your recordings of Bruckner, Schumann and Beethoven symphonies with your German orchestras, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.
Järvi: The question of where to buy CDs these days is, anyway, a question. Whenever I buy anything, I download it from iTunes. But if you want a physical copy, the best way to find it is to go on Amazon. (Also check Amazon.de, the German site.) But even large cities are losing record stores now. Just yesterday, the Virgin record store in Paris filed for bankruptcy. Or go directly to the record label website, such as Sony or whatever.
Q: What’s it like to be back in Music Hall, after playing in so many halls in the world?
Järvi: My feeling hasn’t changed much from all the years of being here. On the one hand, it’s just a magnificent sight, to look at the hall. I wish people would have the experience to come onstage and look out into the hall. You see the whole majesty and beauty and shape of it.
But there is no way to soften the reality that it’s just too big for most of the music that they are playing. Most of the music a symphony orchestra plays requires a smaller hall. If you play a Schumann, Haydn, Beethoven or Brahms symphony – in order to fill the hall you have to work very hard to produce the sound, you have to blow harder, you have to sacrifice the dynamics. Our bass section knows that unless they are going to play everything mezzo-forte, they won’t be heard.
Music making is not a spectator sport. It’s something one has to be in the middle of. In an appropriate sized hall, you feel close to the musicians, somehow connected better.
Q: Have you seen the latest the plans for Music Hall’s renovation?
Järvi: I have seen them. I like what they’re planning. I think it’s an important step and will only further the kind of stature that the CSO will have in the future. But the details are not very clear yet to me.
Q: Were there any surprises this time with the orchestra?
Järvi: I forgot how far the distance is from the back of the celli to the back of the first violins. It’s a very large stage. I was aware of it before, but somehow coming back it struck me again.
Q: They are about to announce Louis Langrée’s first season. As you program for your orchestras in Europe, is it very different from how you programmed for an American orchestra?
Järvi: A little bit different. … It is very largely based on two things: The community that you live in, and the music director’s personality and the philosophy of what’s important, what direction he wants to take the orchestra.
I was often criticized when I was here for bringing in too many things that were off the beaten track, too many Nordic things, too many unknown things. I didn’t do it to annoy anybody, but I thought it was important the orchestra and audience had exposure to things that were off the beaten track.
We are not here to teach in a kind of academic way. But there is a certain element of education which comes with arts. I think our audiences are very intelligent, but one needs to make a decision where the balance of playing just showpieces and masterworks, and when bringing in something else — for example, the Lutoslawski this time, especially when it is the 100th anniversary of one of the great composers.
We get a little bit distracted by box office issues. Market research is fine. But do you think that Leonard Bernstein cared about market research when he did the amazing American premieres? He did what he thought needed to be done – with Mahler, with Nielsen, Sibelius, Honegger, Messiaen – he was a personality who had a mission.
I remember when I came here, I kept bringing young people (guest artists) who nobody knew about. They are huge stars now. They’d say, nobody knows them. But we took the chance. Janine Jansen, Lars Vogt, Christian Tetzlaff — they are huge now. One needs to continue this. Because if you look at the programs of all American orchestras, you have a rather closed circle of 15 artists who go around and do their performance. They are outstanding musicians, no question, but there are no more than 15 of them.
We’re slipping into an event culture, which is a bit of a dead end. You can’t sustain anything serious. A Bruckner symphony is a journey, it’s not a gala. I’m not negative about it. … But at the end of the day, programming has to be driven by a strong personality and a view point. Somebody who has a reason for it, who has a bigger picture in mind.