Monday, February 20, 2017

‘Young people don’t think about the realities of being a musician’ says conductor Paavo Järvi

The Estonian conductor comes from a family of conductors (his father Neeme and brother Kristjan are both well-known conductors). So there can’t be many people better qualified to give advice on making it in music.

What’s your earliest music memory?

I was born into a very musical family so it’s very hard to exactly say what my first musical memory was. I remember going to opera rehearsals a lot when I was a kid. My father was rehearsing and my sister and I would always be at the opera house. Everybody knew who those two kids running around were, because we were very familiar with all the ins and outs and the little passages of the opera house.

How did you end up following in your father’s footsteps and becoming a conductor?

We never thought about it really, we were just surrounded by it and then in school I studied conducting and I somehow I found that I did not have to make a decision what to do next. It was kind of understood that we would become musicians and I suppose there is a tradition of boys wanting to be like their fathers – either they rebel or they want to be exactly like their father and I thought I wanted to be like my father.

What piece of advice would you give to someone trying to become a conductor?

The first thing any young musician should ask themselves is: do they want to be in this profession and are they aware of what they’re getting into?

The reason most musicians end up being musicians is because they love music, because they’re attached to their instrument. But “do you want to spend your life doing this?” is not very often asked. People don’t think about the realities of playing in an orchestra or, as a pianist, practising hours on end in a practice room. And it’s not necessarily something everyone is happy to do.

So I think the piece of advice is to make sure we want to do it, because it is a great, great art, but sometimes it can be quite complicated professionally.
What piece of advice do you wish you’d been given when you were training?

My teacher Leonard Bernstein once said “you have to do your homework and be very prepared, but when you stand on the podium throw it all out of your head and feel”. And I think that’s a great piece of advice, very liberating.
Which recording or project are you proudest of working on?

I have made about a hundred recordings now. So it is very hard to pinpoint one of them, but I can certainly be proud of my 2003 recording of Sibelius’ Cantatas because it became the first recording my Estonian musicians to win a Grammy. It was a significant record and it was done purely by Estonian forces: Estonian orchestra, Estonian producer, Estonian conductor, Estonian chorus and I was very happy.
Which recording would you like to go back and do again?

I think every record would fall into that category. In fact, I’m never really happy with any of the recordings I make. We make recordings, but then we develop and go further and that recording is a sort of a stepping stone. They always seem a little bit behind your own development so I try not to listen to them too much, because we keep progressing and these things are sort of frozen in time.
What place do you think music has in a world that feels very divided and full of conflict?

Music has one powerful force: that is the ability to unite. Classical music or any music will never solve actual conflict, never really actually make a problem go away, but at the same time it helps to deal with issues and helps to create more unity, more harmony and more togetherness. The arts can be more important in unifying people than ever before especially in this very political moment.
Finally, which composer, either still living or from the past, would you most like to have a drink with and why?

All composers are like gods for me – Beethoven, Mahler or Brahms and the thing is you don’t want to ruin your admiration for people who are elevated to this god-like status, because some of those great geniuses were quite awful human beings. So I would rather actually keep my distance and admire them from afar. But if one would need to choose then probably Mahler because he was an interesting combination a conductor and composer. But first of all it is not really a reality. And second, be careful what you wish for.

Paavo Järvi is currently recording a cycle of Struass tone poems with the NHK Symphony Orchestra – the first recording is out now. And he's performing with the orchestra in London on 6 March at the Southbank Centre.

He also runs the Parnu Festival in Estonia. It takes place every year in August and you can find out more on the website.

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

The best recordings of Dvořák's Symphony No 9, 'From the New World'

A quick guide to the most outstanding recordings of Dvořák's final, and most popular, symphony

Symphony No 9 with Martinů Symphony No 2
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra / Paavo Järvi

Having the most popular of Dvorák’s symphonies coupled with one of the most approachable by a 20th-century Czech composer is a neat and original idea, particularly apt as both works were written in the United States. Paavo Järvi reveals his keen imagination and sharp concentration in both performances and under his guidance the Cincinnati SO is consistently excellent: ensemble more than matches that of the rival versions, including Järvi’s father Neeme in both works.
The quality of the playing is highlighted by the refinement and clarity of the brilliant Telarc recording, with cleaner separation than in any version listed. In the Martinu the Cincinnati performance easily outshines that of the Bamberg SO, which is not helped by a relatively distant recording, while the comparison with Bryden Thomson’s strong and positive reading shows how well Paavo Järvi brings out the Czech flavours in the writing: the first movement is open and fresh, with rhythms that echo Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances.
In the New World Symphony, too, Paavo Järvi is a degree warmer than his father, a shade readier to allow flexibility in tempo and phrasing but never sounding self-conscious or unspontaneous. Speeds are similar between father and son, with István Kertész’s classic LSO reading a little plainer at speeds a fraction faster and with rhythms less lilting in the Scherzo. Though there are many highly recommendable versions of this much-recorded work, this one is a strong candidate in every way; and, quite apart from the outstanding recording quality, has its unique coupling to commend it.řáks-symphony-no-9-from-the-new-world

Friday, February 03, 2017

Philharmonia Orchestra/Paavo Järvi – Haydn’s Clock Symphony & Nielsen’s Sinfonia semplice – Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff & Lars Vogt
Antony Hodgson

Using a slightly reduced orchestra with ‘period’ trumpets and timpani, Paavo Järvi’s reading of Haydn’s ‘Clock’ Symphony was a fine example of how a modern orchestra can present 18th-century music convincingly. The generally swift tempos were ideal in the context of this interpretation and the dashing first movement (the main section is marked Presto) was particularly vivid; strongly pointed with the occasional brief crescendo adding force to the more-significant chords, attention was held throughout. There were personal touches within the short repeats of the second and final movements and that of the Trio played more softly, but this never impeded the music. The Andante which is the basis of the work’s title was accented to delightful effect. It is legitimate to perform the long Minuet rather faster than the required Allegretto, though the quaint fading of tone at the end of the first phrase each time it appeared was something of a surprise. There was superb string-playing in the Finale; the demanding fugal section, both quiet and rapid here, was immaculate. The timpani, also in the Beethoven, were placed behind the violas, but this did not prevent Antoine Siguré from being suitably powerful at dramatic moments; this was imaginative playing.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto was given a lyrical outing within Järvi’s symphonic approach. There was none of the all-too-common relaxation at the arrival of calmer melodies, but the elegant way in which the soloists yielded to one another as each in turn repeated or decorated the themes showed great rapport. The cello is generally the first to expound the opening ideas and Beethoven develops them in different ways – the first movement in Sinfonia concertante style but in the central Largo Tanja Tetzlaff announced the tune with utmost gentility before Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt expanded it in their different ways. The subtle entry of the Finale alla polacca has another subtle difference, each solo instrument commenting on the theme rather than varying it.

This was the final concert in Paavo Järvi’s series incorporating Carl Nielsen’s Six Symphonies. The first publication of No.6 did not give the title ‘Sinfonia semplice’, but this is how the composer referred to it.

Clearly there is nothing ‘simple’ about it and after beginning with a gentle phrase there comes an interesting idea notable for its slightly broken rhythm. Many diverse elements combine to make up this first movement and Järvi sustained a firm pulse. The Philharmonia achieved exciting dynamic contrasts and there was much lyricism – especially when the opening phase was expanded nobly by the horns. In the anguished penultimate section the immensely powerful brass section was superb. The subsequent ‘Humoresque’ is a true scherzo although the joke is somewhat bitter. The weird, disjunctive combination of woodwinds and percussion with the occasional yawning glissando from trombone was given with great precision – the effect is disturbing. The questioning string-based Adagio that follows is also of little relief.

The Finale sets many moods in juxtaposition, announced by bassoon, played expressively by Robin O’Neill. What follows varies from the aggressive to the charming. Contrast of mood is at its height when we reach a winsome waltz for strings interrupted more and more forcefully by cross-rhythms from the rest of the orchestra until brass hammers home a caricature of the dance using unrelated rhythm and tempo, and the exactness with which these wild phrases were performed was extraordinary. Only at the end is the listener offered comfort; the music subsides and under a final flourish we hear the underpinning weight of the bassoon which is left exposed. This was one of the finest Nielsen performances of Järvi’s admirable series.