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A Neeme Järvi Moment

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Jul 27, 2003 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2003

   It was a Neeme Järvi moment.
   Clutching a bouquet of lilies in his left hand, the Detroit Symphony music director led the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and the State Academic Choir of Latvia in an encore from Mozart’s Requiem Sunday evening in Pärnu, Estonia.
   Revered in his native land, Järvi closed Pärnu’s annual David Oistrakh Festival to the sound of foot-stomping and rhythmic applause from a capacity audience at the town’s sparkling new Kontserdimaja (Concert Hall). The mayor of Pärnu pinned a medal on his jacket, drawing applause in turn and a playful thumbs up from Järvi.
   It was a similar scene three days earlier when Järvi conferred bear hugs and diplomas on the graduates of Neeme Järvi’s Conducting Academy, a program of master classes and concerts taught by Järvi and Finnish pedagogue Jorma Panula in conjunction with the festival. The ceremony was held onstage at the Concert Hall following the Academy’s final concert in which 13 young conductors took turns leading the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in works by Alfred Schnittke, Rossini, Mozart and Heino Eller.
   Now in its fourth year, the conducting program will expand next summer (July 5-16) into a full-fledged international conducting competition. Participating will be the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Academic Symphonic Orchestra.
   "It is a small place Pärnu (population 45,040), but we are trying to be part of world culture," said Järvi. A jury (to be announced) will select four finalists during the first week of the Academy. First and second place winners will receive cash awards and guest conducting engagements. Further details are being worked out, said Oistrakh Festival artistic director Allar Kaasik.
   Though he will lay down his baton at the end of the DSO’s 2004-05 season, there will be no grass growing under Järvi’s feet. "He is booked into 2008," said his wife Liilia. He will lead his first Wagner "Ring" cycle beginning with "Das Rheingold" in 2005 in Stockholm. "Who does not once in [life] want to do ‘The Ring,’" he said. He will add one opera a year, ending with the complete cycle (four operas) in 2008.
   And it doesn’t stop there. Plans are underway - at Järvi’s instigation – to build a new opera house and concert hall in Tallinn. He will open it in 2008 with Estonia’s first "Ring," to be shipped across the Baltic from Stockholm.
   The hall will stand in the harbor, adding to the panorama of Tallinn "like the opera house in Sydney (Australia)," he said.
   Järvi’s word is magic in Estonia, having inspired the building of the Pärnu Concert Hall as well.
   Though born in Tallinn, Järvi, 66, has a special bond with Pärnu, an idyllic resort town on Estonia’s southern coast.
   "My parents were here (their home town). We spent summer vacations here with the children, Paavo, Maarika and Kristjan. We had a small summer house just five, ten minutes from the city on the riverside, a beautiful place. We came with car full of summer belongings for two, three months, a real vacation. They had nice time with both grandmothers (Liilia’s mother also lived in Pärnu)."
   The house is now owned by his nephew, cellist Teet Järvi, whose son Madis, 15, an aspiring conductor, dropped in on Academy sessions from time to time.
   While in Pärnu, Järvi and Liilia like to stay at Tervis, one of the town’s famous health spas, which like its warm water beach, draws flocks of visitors each summer. Around the corner is the small wood frame house where Oistrakh (famed Russian violinist for whom the festival is named) used to spend his summers.
   Already a sought after experience, Järvi’s Conducting Academy drew over 100 applicants this year. The students – from Great Britain, Japan, the U.S. (including University of Michigan graduate Chris Younghoon Kim), Italy, Holland, Germany, Belgium, Finland and Estonia – worked on a daily basis and performed concerts with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, the excellent Pärnu City Orchestra and the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra.
   The work was intense and the standards were high.
   "The conductors come with a lot of problems," said Järvi. "Each one is different. One is very heavy, one very light. One is very good outside, empty inside. One is very rich inside and uninteresting outside. You have to shape them all.
   "I like to establish a good relationship, because shouting to each other doesn’t help very much. It depends on how you educate, but basically you have to be father-like and give good advice."
   The students, some returning from previous years, praised Järvi’s artistic mastery and his uncanny ability to get inside the music. "He plays the orchestra like a piano," said German born Nils Schweckendiek, 25. "He unlocks your creativity."
   Järvi is a "show me" conductor. More than once he stepped to the podium and carved a moment of music out of the air for a flagging student.
   "The problem is you have to talk with your hands with the musicians. You have to explain with every gesture, like you’re breathing. If you’re not breathing you’re not alive. This kind of a relationship - always showing what you want - works so beautifully, and American orchestras are the best to be a conductor, because they are so professional. Just show them and it’s done. If you are not showing, nothing comes. You are just beating, no music."
   Järvi honed his craft as a student at the Leningrad Conservatory (now St. Petersburg), where his teacher was Nikolai Rabinovich. "Rabinovich was all beautiful hands and upbeats and everything that conductors need." He was also a graduate student with Leningrad Philharmonic conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, whose performances made a deep impression on him.
   The Leningrad school of conducting was closely connected with the German school, Järvi said. His own teachers learned from some of the great German conductors. "When they were young, it was Nazi time, and all the great German Jewish conductors were conducting abroad. Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer conducted in Leningrad every year, and these young Rabinovichs and Mravinskys looked [at them] every day, as I looked at Mravinsky and Rabinovich 30 years later."
   Panula, retired master teacher at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy, where his students included Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste of the Toronto Symphony and newly appointed Osmo Vänskä of the Minnesota Orchestra, complemented Järvi with his superb command of technique and musical detail. The two men’s methods differed markedly. Panula was on his feet constantly, stabbing the air with his finger to draw attention to balances, rhythm and ensemble. Järvi was the artistic cajoler – "Mozart, it’s so beautiful, enjoy it" – and he often guided the students’ hands and arms for more expressive effect.
   Both could be severe: "Boring music-making! Do something with it!" railed Järvi in one session. He egged on their spontaneity, too: "If you are in the middle of a piece and want to do something, DO it."
   He had a way of breaking the tension, though, with a bit of wry humor - and by snapping the students’ photographs with his digital camera (his hobby, said Liilia).
   Järvi is watching his health since a near-fatal aneurysm felled him at the 2001 classes (Panula took over for him that year and has been back ever since). "It was all overworking, stresses, flights," he said.
   "I don’t feel I am old, but I feel overbooked and that makes me worried. There’s no free space and I have to give up something." He is relinquishing his post as chief conductor of Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony in 2004 after 22 years. After Detroit, he will most likely settle in or near New York City, where he has an office, he said.
   "If I want to be a conductor, all life is in New York, so I will stay there and see what experiences happen."
   He has a special wish for his valedictory season with the DSO.
   "There are a lot of Järvis. I have the idea to invite them for my last concerts in Detroit."
   Neeme and his late brother Vallo are the founders of a whole dynasty of musicians. Neeme’s sons Paavo and Kristjan are both conductors. Daughter Maarika is a flutist. All have been invited to return for their father’s farewell in 2005.
   Cellist Teet (Vallo’s son) has five children, including a pianist, violinist and cellist. To include them, Järvi would like to program the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2. "There is a big violin solo and cello solo. It’s a beautiful thing. Why not do it?"
(first published in the Detroit Free Press, July 27, 2003)