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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Where Do You Start?

From the Vault Dept.: Paavo Järvi is now in his third season as Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris. Earlier this year, it was announced that he’ll become Chief Conductor with the NHK Symphony Orchestra in 2015. He’s spent the past five years as music director of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. He was music director of the Cincinnati Symphony for a decade beginning in 2000. He tours and guest conducts in every prestigious city. He has made acclaimed recordings of the complete symphonies of Beethoven and Bruckner, but his discography goes well beyond that. Twenty-three years ago, you’d find him in the Albany area, as the profile I wrote back then describes. It’s followed by my review of the concert mentioned therein.


YOU’RE LIKELY TO find him in a concert hall on his days off. Many Manhattan residents fall into a malaise of cultural avoidance, but conductor Järvi, who has lived in New York for most of the decade, wants to see as much music performance as he can. “I go to every dress rehearsal I can for the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic. I also attend chamber music concerts and piano recitals and the like, which is where you can really learn about music performance.”

Photo by Tom McFarlane
The 26-year-old Järvi was recently named music director of the Empire State Youth Orchestra and makes his debut leading the group tomorrow (Friday) at 8 PM at the Troy Music Hall. Born in Estonia, he is fluent in Estonian and Russian. And English.

Don’t let the accent fool you: his English is impeccable and makes perfect vehicle for his dry wit. He resists the interviewer’s impertinence with charm: “What do you want to know? My hobbies? I like to go hunting and bowling. My favorite composer? My favorite color?”

He’s all business when he works. Rehearsing with the young players he continually exhorts them to listen, to watch – he even deliberately changes the beat to be sure their eyes are on him.

But he’s handsome enough that some of the players seem unable to take their eyes off him.

Järvi is a pepperpot of opinions. “Have you read Kurt Vonnegut?” he asks. “I’m reading his early books right now and they’re hi-lar-ious.” He stretches each syllable of the adjective. “I think Breakfast of Champions is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.”

On audience behavior: “Why do they insist on these ovations? Do the boards of directors really think that an ovation is the measure of a good performance? I saw a concert with Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony that ended, you know, so quietly – ” He sings the phrase. “And there was a storm of applause! Why can’t they just sit quietly for a while? I have to conclude they either weren’t listening or just have this thing about applauding.”

On music performance: “Toscanini said that tradition is the last bad performance. Pieces just can’t be played today in the same way they were back then. We can never bring back what Toscanini had, what Bruno Walter had, what Furtwangler had.”

On music education: “I conducted a concert in Tamarack High School recently and I asked everyone who’d been to see a symphony orchestra to raise their hands. Only teachers responded, and I’m not sure if all of those hands went up! That’s embarrassing! I mean, I felt as if I had asked, ‘How many of you have sat through the complete Ring cycle?’”

Very few conductors can reach young people these days, says Järvi. “Bernstein does. His audience is always full of young people, and you find them backstage. But he is extraordinary. Most conductors who face the New York Philharmonic are scared of the orchestra. Except Bernstein. They all love him, or most do, and if they don’t they certainly respect him.”

Järvi finds it often easier to work with young musicians. “It’s very often difficult to convince the older players to do it your way. With these young musicians it’s always a challenge for both of us, and we learn from each other.”

Metroland Magazine, March 30, 1989

CONDUCTOR PAAVO JÄRVI made his debut as music director of the Empire State Youth Orchestra with a concert that presented a cornucopia of challenges. Two big Romantic pieces flanked a delicate sculpture by Mozart. From the standpoint of virtuosity, it gave everyone a chance to show off, especially the conductor.

And Järvi has good reason to do so: this young man has a gracefulness and command that harkens back to a generation of orchestral stylists who had individual, recognizable conducting voices, not like the homogeneous conductors of today. His left hand alone has more personality than so many of the interchangeable music directors we see.

But even the impressive Järvi had to take a temporary back seat when bassoon soloist Michelle Fenton took the stage. She played Mozart’s Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Major, an enchanting work that doesn’t get the concert time it deserves, but then an audience of star-chasers recognizes no bassoon soloists as stars.

May I suggest Fenton? She had complete technical command of her instrument, tossing off tough licks (often in a high tessitura) with the abandon of an authority, all the while making the dialogue with orchestra an intelligent and witty one.

The orchestra was slimmed to an ensemble of about 30, which can lay a group uncomfortably bare. Strings were well coordinated and were working towards a well-balanced sound. Even the horns, upon whose shoulders some of the worst tonal trials can lie, did nicely, sounding no worse than some of the sections you hear in the antique-instrument ensembles.

And nothing challenges an orchestra more than a slow-movement accompaniment to a Mozart concerto. Järvi and his players had a superior coordination, coming very close to the ideal wherein the movement becomes a thoughtful duet with everyone singing the same fanciful lyrics.

Mozart’s concerto was made all the more remarkable coming as it did on the heels of Wagner’s overture to Rienzi. Trumpets and low strings were given the discomforting job of beginning, slowly, with passages of sustained pianissimo. As the overture kicked into gear there was a freshness about this performance that is a good reminder of what many workaday orchestras forget: you have to rediscover a work with every reading.

The promise of the Wagner was more than satisfied in the big piece of the program, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1. Scorned by the composer, played far too infrequently by major orchestras, and certainly not a piece in the student orchestra repertory, it was a bold programming idea that came off superbly.

Although I suspect there was more “follow the leader” in this interpretation than in many of the works this orchestra plays, it will ultimately pay off. Here’s what I mean: the performance sounded as if the players were applying ideas given by Järvi without entirely understanding the reason. But by following them, they sounded good, if a trifle insincere.

But this sets an excellent precedent. When a performance comes off as well as this one did, the players can then examine what they were told in light of the success and better understand how to apply those principles next time around.

And next time around, for this group, will be a European tour. We should be very proud to have them represent us as musical ambassadors.

Empire State Youth Orchestra

Conducted by Paavo Järvi
Troy Music Hall, Mar. 31

Metroland Magazine, April 6, 1989

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