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Kristjan Järvi: Energetic, Passionate, Versatile

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 2, 2011 - 11:51:33 PM in news_2011

Kristjan Järvi (photo by Peter Rigaud)

Järvi’s don’t have days off. 

Except when they do, and then they really don’t, explained Kristjan Järvi.

“We pretend, in all good faith,” he said, by phone last week from Palm Beach, Florida, where he makes his home with his wife and four children.  Järvi was spending a “day off” before coming to Cincinnati this week to conduct the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.  Concerts are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Nov. 4 and 5) at Music Hall.

It will be Järvi’s third appearance with the CSO and his fourth in Cincinnati.  (His actual Cincinnati debut was with Cincinnati Opera in 2007 conducting John Adams’ “Nixon in China.”).  On the program are Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Haydn’s Symphony No. 86 and the Violin Concerto by Aram Khachaturian with guest artist Mikhail Simonyan. 

Järvi, 39, younger brother of former CSO music director (now music director laureate) Paavo Järvi and son of esteemed conductor Neeme Järvi, is quickly becoming one of the busiest and most versatile conductors on the planet.

He is music director of the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, beginning in the fall of 2012, artistic director of the Basel Chamber Orchestra and music director of Absolute Ensemble, the electro-acoustic chamber group he founded while a student and piano major at Manhattan School of Music.  Much lauded for his recordings – he has won a Swedish Grammy for Best Opera Performance, the German Record Critics Prize for Best Album and a Grammy nomination for Best Small Ensemble Performance -- he has an exclusive recording contract with Sony Classical.  Next spring he will record the soundtrack for the new Tom Hanks film, “Cloud Atlas” with the Leipzig Radio Orchestra.

Järvi's recent recordings include Bernstein: Mass (Chandos, 2009, Editor's Choice, Gramophone magazine), Joseph Haydn: "Paris" Symphonies (Preiser, 2009), "Absolute Zawinul" (Intuition, 2010), Arvo Pärt: "Cantique" (Sony Classical, 2010) and Reich: "The Desert Music" (Chandos, 2011).

He is also founding conductor and music director of the Baltic Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, which he describes as “not just a youth orchestra.  It’s a cultural and social education project, the only unified Baltic export in the world.”

The BYP is privately funded. “There is no government support whatsoever,” said Järvi.  With musicians from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and Denmark (ages 18-30), the orchestra “has a much broader appeal than just music.  It has a lot of social and geo-political implications.  It’s a project that brings together people who normally would never have the opportunity not only to do things together, but probably even be in the same room together.”  Lending support is a high-powered artistic council, made up of Valery Gergiev, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kurt Masur, Mariss Jansons and Marek Janowski.

Plans are to expand the BYP from a three-month program in the summer to a “full-time Baltic education system, which is going to operate within the ten countries and have the BYP as its cornerstone.”  

Estonian born Järvi, who came to the U.S. with his family when he was seven years old, maintains what he calls “long term relationships” with several orchestras.  They include the London Symphony Orchestra, with which he has toured and recorded.  His latest CD with the LSO, “Two Souls,” with Simonyan in the Khachaturian and Barber Violin Concertos, has just been released by Deutsche Grammophon.

Järvi prefers close relationships with orchestras to guest conducting per se, where “you’re basically going to an orchestra once, or every three years or something, and rarely have a relationship with them.  You kind of show your face and do one program.  To go back to orchestras where I have these temporary relationships is very satisfying, because you get to do the projects that you want and the programming you think is going to work best.  Every program has its unique flavor and probably can be best conducted only by the person who actually made it, rather than somebody who has been asked to conduct it, which I find is the most ridiculous thing in the world.”

The night before flying into Cincinnati, Järvi joined Absolute Ensemble at  Le Poussin Rouge, the Greenwich Village-based cabaret in New York.  Absolute Ensemble epitomizes Järvi’s wide-ranging musical tastes.  He has performed and recorded everything from Mahler to Frank Zappa with Absolute and commissioned and/or premiered dozens of new works.  He wears the label “musical omnivore” with ease, he said.  “If I really need a label, that might as well be it.  For example, most of what I listen to on the radio is not classical music.”  He is a big fan of Swanee, he said, and keeps track of the top 20.  “I really like to hear the newest music around.  In fact, for me, the most interesting new music is actually within the realm of pop and rock.”

That said, Johann Sebastian Bach is Järvi’s favorite composer.  “He basically set the foundation for everything that has come afterwards.  He’s really the god of music.”

Järvi believes that, like Bach, today’s musicians should approach music in a “much more practical way.  If we really thought about the tradition of the great masters, we have to look at how they created their music.  For the most part, they were much more practically involved. They performed a lot of this music themselves, actually most of it.  And all of them improvised.  All of them were very entrepreneurial in organizing their own concerts.”

Great composers of the past were open to doing things in new and different ways, too, he said.  “Their approach wasn’t set in stone.  It was ‘we do it this way today and we do it a different way tomorrow.’  With Bach, it wasn’t the kind of situation where he sat down and started thinking about some incredible philosophy to write a piece.  He was much more practical in terms of hands-on-musicianship.  I feel like we need to bring that sort of approach back to music.”

Järvi speaks passionately about the importance of education.  “I feel like that’s actually the only thing that’s really lacking within a very rich and prosperous American cultural scene.  There is no definition to the word ‘culture,’ and that comes because there’s a lack of cultural education rather than anything else.  It’s not for the lack of culture itself, but a lack of education for this culture.”

Kristjan Järvi conducts the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra with guest artist Mikhail Simonyan, violin, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Nov. 4 and 5) at Music Hall,  On the program are Haydn's Symphony No. 86, Khachaturian's Violin Concerto and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Tickets begin at $10. Call (513) 381-3300, or visit www.cincinnatisymphony.org