Friday, February 17, 2017

Paavo Järvi: ‘There’s a fanaticism about music in Japan that is lost in Europe’

The times.
Neil Fisher

As Japan’s best orchestra comes to London, the Estonian conductor explains why he loves working in Tokyo. 

The 54-year-old conductor Paavo Järvi belongs to Estonia’s “first family” of musicians.

Thirty-odd floors up in a hotel bar in Tokyo, Paavo Järvi is outlining the hierarchy of classical music appreciation in Japan: what’s at the top, what goes in the middle, and which repertoire stays at the ground floor. “It’s very clear. If a German conductor comes, with Mahler, Bruckner, or Richard Strauss, that’s music. Then the Russians come and do Tchaikovsky. Then there’s French music, also fine, but it’s already becoming niche. And then everything else is . . . kind of interesting.”

This Japanese-German love-in reached an apogee, Järvi reckons, with the concerts given in Japan by the late Günter Wand of works by Anton Bruckner. “It was like a mass pilgrimage. And I saw it, it was fantastic — but what was going on — were they looking at the messiah?”

Järvi doesn’t think he is the messiah. In fact, the 54-year-old Estonian, part of the Baltic country’s “first family” of musicians, can be a rather naughty boy. On a rare free night in 2015 the conductor live-tweeted during the Eurovision Song Contest, a performance he reprised last year. And since taking up the role of chief conductor of Japan’s most highly rated orchestra, the NHK Symphony, Järvi’s Instagram has filled up with cheeky pictures of him in the altogether in various Japanese onsen, traditional hot-spring baths where swimming costumes are forbidden.

Järvi has taken to Japan. Now in his second season as chief conductor, he has extended his contract for three years and brings the orchestra to the Southbank Centre next month as part of the group’s 90th birthday celebrations. And if he concedes that tastes in the Far East are not as broad as they should be, he’s unashamed about how much he values the regard that the Japanese give to classical music. “There’s a fanaticism that is still alive here that has sort of disappeared in Europe.”

In many respects — the halls, the audiences, the thriving record shops — Japan is paradise for classical music lovers. Yet Japanese orchestras (and Tokyo has eight major symphonic groups, all lavishly funded) have rarely won international followings. Unfair bias, Järvi suggests. “To a lot of people in the West it still seems a little unbelievable that one of the best orchestras in the world is actually in Tokyo, because somehow we have this understanding that the centre of the world is central Europe or America. I don’t think it’s so clear any more.”

A fantastic, musical city needs to have at least one great hall. And you don’t.

Don’t the best Japanese players leave to play in the West? “This trend is reversing — a lot of the [Japanese] students go to study in Germany, in England, the US or Russia, and then they come back here and get a job.” This cosmopolitanism, Järvi argues, also means that, while Japanese orchestras are pretty much exclusively filled with Japanese players, they draw on other styles and backgrounds. “Many speak German in rehearsals, some French. There’s been a generation ‘changeover’ and a lot of the younger players have a European connection.”

Mahler — a magnet for Japanese and British concertgoers — will form the backbone of the London concert, which features the Sixth Symphony prefaced by Takemitsu’s Requiem for Strings. In Tokyo I hear Järvi and the NHK despatch the even larger-scale Third Symphony, a test of an orchestra’s stamina and virtuosity which, by and large, they pass in style. If there’s a quibble, it’s that the seamlessness sometimes glosses over the rougher edges of the music.  

Järvi concedes that the players are at times “uncomfortable” about “exaggerating certain characteristics, or making ugly sounds — which sometimes one needs to make”. One thing he’s still trying to puzzle out is how, physically, to command attention. “I always insist on eye contact — not looking in the direction of someone, but looking at them in the eye. In this culture that’s considered aggressive and impolite.”

An old-school technician on the podium and not prone to crowd-pleasing gestures, Järvi is also not a conductor who fashions clever soundbites. He is typically plain-spoken on the need for a new concert hall in London, where he now lives and where his older daughter from his first marriage was born. “I’m not going to say it for dramatic reasons, but in such a fantastic, musical city, one needs to have at least one great hall. And you don’t.”

Järvi grew up with music. His conductor father, Neeme Järvi, championed the Christian compositions of Arvo Pärt while the Soviets were cracking down on anything with a whiff of religion. Eventually, Neeme grew tired of the repression and took his family to the US when Paavo was 18. All three Järvi children — Paavo is the eldest — have followed him into musical careers. His younger brother, Kristjan, is also a conductor and his sister, Maarika, a flautist. “We always did things together, played piano, went to my father’s rehearsals, listened to a lot of recordings.” Did he never want to have a teenage rebellion? “He never pushed me, so I had nothing to rebel against. He said if you want to do it, do it, if you don’t want to, don’t. But we always wanted to, because he was having so much fun.”

Estonians are seeing a parallel with what happened after the Second World War

Now a regular fixture in Estonia too (Järvi hosts the yearly Pärnu festival with his Estonian Festival Orchestra), the conductor is grappling, as his father did, with an overbearing and aggressive Russia. “We are very worried,” he says. “A lot of people, especially the older generation, are seeing a direct parallel with what happened after the [Second World] war.” An invasion? “It’s unpredictable. We are literally next door, we have a common border.

“It’s a very stupid situation to be in again, after all these years. We thought we had reached that point that international law and sovereignty of borders could be respected, and now we see that in Georgia and Crimea that is not the case.”

So what’s a humble conductor to do? “Symbolically, we can be very important. In a country that has only 1.5 million people, art and culture acquires an entirely different political dimension. We are the export! The most well-known Estonian happens to be a composer, Arvo Pärt, not an athlete, not a rock star.”

What about his Russian fellow artists, some great and important conductors among them? Should they speak out? “I don’t have an answer for this, because as an ex-Soviet citizen, I saw a lot of people actively participate in political affairs only to benefit what they wanted to do, without believing for one second in the political propaganda side of it. But they needed to survive.” Boycotting those who “collaborate” with unsavoury regimes is not the answer. “If we used the same logic, we’d never play Shostakovich.”
The NHK Symphony Orchestra plays at the Festival Hall, London SE1 (020 7960 4200), on March 6

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