Enter your email address and click subscribe to receive new articles in your email inbox:

Maestro on the Move

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 4, 2004 - 7:00:00 AM in news_2004

(first published in Ohio Magazine November, 2004; first place, "Best Arts Reporting," 2005 Ohio SPJ Awards)

Paavo Järvi
Time is Paavo Järvi’s enemy.
   The clock is ticking as the Cincinnati Symphony music director sits at an outdoor café in Pärnu, Estonia, having just left a press conference where details of an upcoming music festival were announced.
   Last night, he led the Estonian National Orchestra in Parnu’s sparkling new Kontserdimaja (Concert Hall). Järvi, 41, is artistic advisor of the ENO.
He has a concert to attend tonight.
   It is mid-July and Järvi has come to Pärnu to coach students at his father Neeme Järvi’s annual master classes in conducting.
   Neeme and his sons – Paavo’s brother Kristjan Järvi, 32, is founder of New York’s Absolute Ensemble and chief conductor of the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra – conducted earlier in July at Estonia’s national event, the Estonia Song Festival in Tallinn, where they were wreathed with oak leaves following two days of singing for a hillside of 100,000 listeners.
   "It’s unique. There is nothing like it in the world," said Paavo, who made his debut at the 135-year-old festival leading the ENO and combined male choirs in Sibelius’ "Finlandia." Conducting from atop metal scaffolding at the foot of the huge, bowl-shaped amphitheater was "amazing," he said.
   Järvi became something of a hero in Estonia when he won the nation’s first Grammy in February for a CD of Sibelius Cantatas with the ENO, the Estonian National Male Choir and Ellerhein Girls’ Choir (Virgin Classics).
   An Estonian couple sits nearby, no doubt hoping to eavesdrop on my conversation Järvi.
   In a couple of days, he will jet back to the U.S. to make his debut at Cleveland’s Blossom Festival, then stop in Cincinnati for housekeeping chores. He has just bought a condominium near the downtown area where he will move in September with his daughter Lea and her mother, violinist Tania Berman.
   Since becoming CSO music director in 2001 – his inaugural concert fell three days after 911 – Järvi has lived in a mid-town loft apartment where traffic noise hampered his scarce moments of rest.
   Tania and Lea are with him in Pärnu for their first visit to the country. Lea, born February 3 in London, has brought a new spark into his life. Describing how he felt when he held his newborn daughter "is very hard to tell in words, because I don’t really know that word - and I still don’t know that word. It’s unlike anything else that I’ve experienced before."
   Järvi has been energetic all of his life, particularly about music. As far back as he can remember, he wanted to be a conductor.
   "It wasn’t because I knew what it’s all about. I just saw my father having so much fun and I thought this is what I want to do."
   Like Neeme, he also played xylophone.
   "I didn’t have the patience for violin. I wanted to play in the orchestra and percussion was the easiest and quickest way to do that."
   "Percussion is good for a conductor. It gives rhythm," said Neeme, who played xylophone on Estonian Radio with his older brother Vallo, also a conductor.
   Järvi was 17 when his family left Estonia. He was in love, ill and about to join a friend’s rock band, not necessarily in that order. (The illness, a serious reaction to a tetanus shot, could not be treated satisfactorily until when he came to the U.S.).
   "I had very mixed feelings about it, but I remember clearly, if someone had point blank asked me, ‘Do you want to go or not?’ I would have said yes. It was not against my will."
   Tiny Estonia, population 1.37 million, was a part of the Soviet Union then, having been forcibly annexed in 1940 as part of a secret pact between Hitler and Stalin.
   "There was an intense hatred of the political system," said Järvi. "Everybody grew up with the dream of leaving, especially when it was magnified by the fact that you couldn’t leave."
   Neeme, who had built the Estonian State Orchestra into one of the finest in the Soviet Union, chafed under Communist restrictions, particularly what he could or could not perform. The scrutiny increased after he conducted fellow Estonian Arvo Part’s "Credo," a no-no because it contained words from the bible. Fed up, he decided to leave and pursue a career in the West (he is now music director of the Detroit Symphony).
   Neeme, his wife Liilia, Paavo, Maarika, 16, and Kristjan, 7, arrived in New York on Jan. 20, 1980 with two suitcases each and a total of $200.
"There was a small group of Estonians with this little homemade sign, ‘Welcome to America,’" said Paavo. The ride to their new home, with an Estonian family in Rumson, New Jersey, was like a wrinkle in time.
   "There were so many cars. It was late at night and we were on the highway. I thought, ‘My God, there are millions of lights and I don’t know anything.’ It felt like entering a complete unknown."
   The children attended public school. Paavo studied percussion in the pre-college program at New York’s Juilliard School.
   Walking into a public high school in New York just off the boat and without English wasn’t as scary as it sounds, he said.
   "We were very well treated. They even hired somebody who specially dealt with my sister and me." He and Maarika were somewhat exotic, however. "People, including the teacher, just had no idea where Estonia is. It was astounding."
   Paavo’s classmates were impressed by his independence. "I went to New York alone on the bus to orchestra rehearsals at Juilliard every Saturday and didn’t think anything of it. The kids were like, ‘You’re going to New York alone?’ Living an hour away, some of them had never been to New York."
   Paavo’s initiative grew when he entered Rutgers University the following year. There was no conducting program at Rutgers, so he created his own. With the help of his piano teacher, Samuel Dilworth-Leslie, he organized a chamber orchestra, dubbed The Mozart Orchestra. It was something of a one-man enterprise, with Paavo as conductor, contractor, stage hand and fund-raiser. He hired émigré string players from New York, made posters and somehow raised the money for three or four concerts a year.
   "We had a ‘guest artist’ each time, sometimes Tchaikovsky, sometimes Beethoven," Järvi recalled with a smile.
   He had imbibed conducting literally at his father’s knee. He and Maarika were regulars at Neeme’s rehearsals and concerts. Maarika, a flutist who lives in Switzerland, remembers a few hi-jinks such as hiding their father’s baton.
   Music filled the Järvi home, too. Neeme played musical games with the children and singing was practically a mother tongue.
   "When we traveled from Tallinn to Pärnu and back, we sang songs all the way," said Neeme, "happy songs about Maarika and Paavo." The family spent idyllic summers in a little house in Pärnu where the Pärnu River empties into the Baltic Sea. Their music-loving grandmother Elss Järvi, who lived at the corner of Suur-Kuke and Karjamaa streets, always sang with the children, Paavo said.
Although they encouraged music, Neeme and Liilia did not pressure the children to become musicians. "We were parents, not teachers," Neeme said.
   So when Paavo began conducting at Rutgers, Neeme suggested he find "a pedagogue." Leonid Grin, a Soviet émigré who later became music director of the San Jose Symphony, had just arrived in New York. Grin had been associate conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic and was one of the last students of Nikolai Rabinovich, Neeme’s teacher at the Leningrad Conservatory in St. Petersburg.
   Ukrainian born Grin welcomed the gung-ho 19-year-old, who hopped on the bus again and trekked to Brooklyn on weekends for further grounding in the art of conducting.
   "Paavo was always very enthusiastic, very flamboyant, outgoing and emotional," said Grin. "Music was the food of his life.
   "He was quick to learn and very hard-working. He was standing straight on his legs from a very young age."
   Järvi was also a born communicator, Grin said. "Paavo has a very strong and clear vision of what he wants to achieve, and he always knows how to deliver his message, which is very, very important for conductors."
   When Grin left New York to join the faculty at the University of Houston, Järvi bought a cheap used car and headed for the Lone Star State. He enrolled there and assisted Grin with the student orchestra.
   About the same time, he attended master classes at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, where he studied with Leonard Bernstein.
   Bernstein was like a lightning bolt. "He was such a fantastic personality that one was under his spell," said Järvi. I still am, when I think of it."
   Somewhere in the land of lost luggage is one of Järvi’s most prized possessions, a score of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony annotated by Bernstein. "It was a score he was teaching and he wrote some things in it for me." It disappeared in a suitcase of formal wear on a flight from Toronto to Malmö, Sweden, where Järvi was music director in the mid-90s. He still mourns its loss.
What Järvi learned from the legendary Bernstein was that he had a lot to learn. "The amount of information he had, the parallels he could draw, the analysis - I realized I needed to know more. I tried to eliminate a lot of what I used to do in terms of free time and really started educating myself."
   Soon afterward, he was accepted by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where one of his teachers was Max Rudolf, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony from 1958-70. He became an American citizen in 1985. He earned a bachelor’s degree in conducting from Curtis 1988.
   Gulls fly over the restaurant in Pärnu and Järvi glances at his watch. He had hoped to spend time with his Estonian relatives on this visit to Pärnu.
   Having heard about Cincinnati from Rudolf, becoming one of his successors at the CSO seemed almost seemed "pre-ordained," said Järvi. He had conducted all over the world and been principal guest conductor of both the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and England’s City of Birmingham Orchestra when he stepped onto the podium at Cincinnati’s Music Hall in February, 1999 to make his CSO debut.
   The chemistry was immediate.
   "He was the real thing," said CSO president Steven Monder. "He just reached out across the footlights and grabbed the audience. Everybody was saying first of all re-book him, then get him. We spent some time together and it was clear that he was not only a charismatic and effective conductor, but a very serious and knowledgeable fellow with a large intellect.
   "We knew we should move and move quickly."
   Sealing the bargain took less than a year (a short time in the orchestral world). Järvi returned to guest conduct twice. Monder sneaked him up the back stairs at Music Hall when his appointment was announced in January, 2000.
After three years - including tours of the East Coast, Japan and Florida and six CDs for Telarc, the CSO’s recording label - Järvi and the musicians enjoy a close relationship and are busy carving out a new profile for the well-regarded orchestra (which unlike most in today’s troubled economy, is debt-free and enjoying a rise in subscriptions).
   "He’s very serious and works very hard, yet is very approachable," said Monder. "He gets excited about the performances, and if you see him in the green room after a concert he’s happy to share that excitement."
   "Estonian reserve" ("inside is warmer than outside," explains Paavo) apparently doesn’t apply to Järvi, at least where the CSO musicians are concerned.
   "I have hopelessly fallen in love again," he told them at a post-concert reception in Osaka, Japan last fall. They make their first tour of Europe together this season.
   Järvi is a masterful communicator on the podium, said CSO concertmaster Timothy Lees.
   "He’s very focused and particular about what he wants, which makes us understand him completely as a musician. He’s very expressive with his face and his hands. He can conduct a very broad line without having to say a word about how he wants us to connect the notes." (Järvi’s blue eyes and deep baritone haven’t hurt either.)
   "The biggest thing he has done is to make us expect more of ourselves. He doesn’t settle for things that are good. He wants great things. He’s a perfectionist in the sense that he is never 100 percent satisfied. Although you can tell when he’s pleased, there’s always a sense that I can do this better next time."
   Telarc president Robert Woods, a fellow perfectionist, adds his praises of Järvi.
   "We have made some of the best recordings Telarc has ever done with him. He is bright and talented, but most importantly, accessible as a human being, which is why I think he communicates so well emotionally as an artist. I hope to create with Paavo an evergreen relationship that continues for as long as we all can manage."
   Järvi acknowledges that music is his primary passion and that "without any question," he is happiest on the podium. This may help explain why he spends so much time there.
   "It’s hard to know the answer to that because I think there are many reasons," he said.
   "One of them is that I like what I’m doing. The second is that there are so many interesting offers and projects that it’s hard to know how to pace yourself." This fall, for instance, Järvi became artistic director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, a chamber orchestra based in Bremen, Germany with whom he will perform and record all of the Beethoven symphonies.
   "Finally, I realize that when I am in the process of conducting week after week, I do it better. You know, it’s like a river. It has to keep flowing.
   "When I’m conducting, I am in my element, like a fish in the water."