Sunday, March 30, 2003

Cincinnati's Drama Major

On the eve of the Cincinnati Symphony's performance at Carnegie Hall comes this article by James R. Oestreich of the New York Times (3/30/03):

Cincinnati's Drama Major

FOR good or ill, it was a defining moment for the conductor Paavo Jarvi, and one that few symphony patrons here are likely to forget.

As Carl Nielsen's muscular Fourth Symphony (the "Inextinguishable") winds into its climactic finale, a second timpanist rudely challenges the proceedings. When the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra played that work in 1999, with Paavo Jarvi (pronounced PAH-voh YAIR-vee) conducting, that timpanist, in civilian dress, strode down the aisle and onto the stage from a seat in Row 13 of Music Hall and whacked the drums as if he were a member of the audience, mad as hell, for whatever reason, and not going to take it anymore.

This, in Mr. Jarvi's second appearance as guest conductor of the venerable and staid orchestra, was his way of heightening the theatricality of a moment of high musical drama.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with this kind of touch," Mr. Jarvi, whose young tenure as the orchestra's music director is being promoted with the slogan "The Paavo Touch," said over lunch in a hotel here in January. "It's an event. It adds drama and is an important happening in a complex piece. If it becomes show biz, it's ugly. But you also have to have fun in life. You can't take yourself too seriously."

The listener-turned-drummer, Richard Jensen, a percussionist in the orchestra, agreed that the gesture was "not gimmicky at all," that it served a serious musical purpose.

This particular coup de théâtre, even more than the others (and there have been others), must have tickled Mr. Jarvi, himself a percussionist. But he has gone on to make a bigger, louder impact. He took over as music director in 2001, and the buzz about him has been building, here and around the country. Some of the reasons were apparent in January, in two searing concert performances of Beethoven's opera "Fidelio," as they have also been in sonorous recordings of works by Berlioz, Sibelius and Eduard Tubin for Telarc.

Tonight, as part of Mr. Jarvi's first national tour with the orchestra, he conducts music of Stravinsky, Ravel and Sibelius at Tilles Center in Brookville, N.Y. Tomorrow, at Carnegie Hall, he offers some of the same Sibelius — the Violin Concerto, with Vadim Repin as soloist — along with Shostakovich's 10th Symphony and the New York premiere of "Exodus" by Erkki-Sven Tuur, a native Estonian, like Mr. Jarvi.

During the recent wave of conductor hirings at major American orchestras, critics clamored for the consideration of young Americans. Mr. Jarvi, 40 and a naturalized citizen, may not be precisely what they had in mind, but of the music directors ultimately hired, he fits the bill better than anyone except the 41-year-old Robert Spano in Atlanta. The New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony hired older Americans, Lorin Maazel and James Levine. The orchestras of Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore and Minnesota chose Europeans.

"Paavo is very American," said Steven Monder, the president of the Cincinnati Symphony. "Jesús was very European," he added, speaking of Jesús López-Cobos, Mr. Jarvi's immediate predecessor, a Spaniard who led the orchestra for 14 years. "Jesús is also 20 years older."

Twenty-three, actually. But more to the point, Mr. Jarvi projects a youthful, dashing image.

The players, to judge from conversations with several of them, almost invariably refer to Mr. Jarvi as Paavo and to his predecessor as Maestro López-Cobos.

"I don't think `Maestro' necessarily means respect," said Eric Kim, the principal cellist. "It's not to say that we respect Paavo any less. I feel like I've known him for a long time. I guess I could call him `Maestro,' but it doesn't seem right somehow."

All of which suits Mr. Jarvi just fine. "I don't feel that building an artificial wall is a help," he said. "It has to happen naturally. My father has earned the name `Maestro.' It suits him well."

His father, the well-traveled and wide-ranging maestro Neeme Jarvi, is the music director of the Detroit Symphony. His scheduled departure, in 2005, will contribute to the current wave of vacancies at North American orchestras (including those in St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Montreal). Perhaps Paavo Jarvi's younger brother, Krystjan, the founder of the Absolute Ensemble in New York, will be among the candidates, though a strong predilection for contemporary music may stand in his way.

Not that Paavo Jarvi shies away from it. His repertory is broad, with a particular specialty in Scandinavian music. Cincinnatians are reportedly also growing to share his native fondness for Estonian music.

The Jarvi household in Talinn was evidently a hotbed of musical adventurism, fired by Neeme Jarvi's voracious enthusiasms.

"Every week there was a new `greatest composer' in our house," Paavo Jarvi said. "One week it was Glazunov. The next week, Reger. The next week, Bernstein and his `Mass.' It was a game, an orgy, but it was really informative. I never studied with my father, but I learned a lot in a gradual way."

The children were not pressured to go into music, Mr. Jarvi added, but they all took it up with enthusiasm. His sister, Maarika, is a flutist.

But Neeme Jarvi did apply a rudder, steering Paavo toward percussion. "He said that if you have any talent, the likelihood of reaching a level to play in an orchestra comes earliest in percussion," Paavo Jarvi said. "I played in all sorts of orchestras and bands. I got to see a lot of conductors. I think he was preparing me all along to be a conductor." That, at least, is where Paavo's own leanings soon took him.

In 1980 the family left Estonia, going first to Austria and then to the United States, where it now maintains a compound in Palm Beach, Fla.

Mr. Jarvi attended the precollege division of the Juilliard School, but his next great formative experience, supplementing his father's attentions, came at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. There Mr. Jarvi studied not only with the currently reigning master, Otto-Werner Mueller, but also with the revered Max Rudolf, who died in 1995.

"Mueller taught us how to approach a score," Mr. Jarvi said. "He was able to point out how little we knew. He was good at that." But it was a lesson that didn't entirely stick, to judge from Mr. Jarvi's later remarks.

Rudolf himself conducted the Cincinnati Symphony from 1958 to 1970, after 13 years at the Metropolitan Opera. The distinguished line in Cincinnati (which also included Leopold Stokowski from 1909 to 1912) continued with Thomas Schippers, an American who died at 47 in 1977, Michael Gielen and Mr. López-Cobos.

"Max was the master here," Mr. Jarvi said. "Schippers was the great hope."

Rudolf was a less dogmatic teacher than Mr. Mueller, Mr. Jarvi added: "He would tell us: `Bring in "La Mer" next week. How you learn it is your business.' "

Mr. Jarvi went on to quote one of Rudolf's patented pronouncements: "What I teach you here is not going to get you a career, but once you get a career, it will make your life easier. The only thing that will get you a career is personality."

Rudolf famously had that in abundance, and to hear the Cincinnati players tell it, Mr. Jarvi does, too.

"There's an electricity that he brings to the music," said Mr. Kim, the cellist. "It makes work not seem like work when you can come to the hall and good things happen. Still, the drinking rate among the players may go up. I'm wiped out after rehearsals and performances. He's in your face constantly, making sure that every note you play counts."

Mr. Jarvi's other great encounter, though a glancing one, was with Leonard Bernstein at a Los Angeles Philharmonic institute. He was not, as often advertised, a pupil of Bernstein's, but he took in the aura.

"He was there for a week, and it changed me somehow," Mr. Jarvi said. "He had incredible energy and layers of knowledge and information. That summer I realized that I didn't know everything." Again. "And I learned that it is not enough to do things well. Your enthusiasm has to be infectious."

This time the lessons seem to have stuck. "He has an energy that is really unique," said Mr. Jensen, the percussionist. "He brings everything out that's in the music, and he accomplishes this not by micromanaging but by getting you to play together with a concept."

Mr. Jarvi's professional career has included stints as principal guest conductor with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and the City of Birmingham Symphony in England. Last year he also became the artistic adviser of the Estonian National Symphony, and he maintains a full schedule of guest conducting. But now, he says, the main focus of his musical life is Cincinnati, where he is buying a home to complement the one in London.

His professed goals for the Cincinnati Symphony are realistic if not modest. "If we can maintain self-growth, we're doing more than enough," he said. "The only real success is slow, gradual success. It is not important to impress people in New York. The place where the orchestra is based is the important place to make music."

So far, it appears, people in Cincinnati are impressed.