PAAVO JARVI 045 BESTThe Maestro’s Song

From Cincinnati to the World

By Cindy Starr

Paavo Jarvi, like the great music he conducts, never stands still. He is constantly on the move, from one sweeping phrase of his life to the next. A rock star of the classical music world, the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra’s music director is an international celebrity — in the prime of his career, at the top of his game – and the global music community cannot get enough of him. Orchestras throughout the world want this charismatic, electrifying conductor on their podiums, and Jarvi responds by deftly balancing invitations to appear in Paris one week and Strasbourg the next. In 2007 alone he was scheduled to conduct 109 concerts in 37 cities in nine countries on three continents.

Is Cincinnati listening? Is it hearing the maestro’s song?

The answer is that it depends on whom you ask. Many arts lovers and critics wring their hands over the empty seats in historic Music Hall in Over-the-Rhine. They worry about an aging symphony audience and the reluctance of suburban residents to make the drive downtown. They note that young families are too busy juggling soccer schedules to tune in to classical music, and that too many members of Generations X and Y missed out on the concert music immersion as children and are likely lost to symphony halls–forever.

Then there is the view from the balcony. I attended a recent concert that was part of the 2007 Stravinsky Festival, conducted by Jarvi, and took note of the following: an enthusiastic crowd, a group of musically knowledgeable and casually attired 20-somethings seated in the row in front of me; a cheer (now standard) from a cadre of graduate music students (and clarinet players) when their teacher, principal clarinetist Richie Hawley, took a bow; a sustained standing ovation for principal cellist and soloist Eric Kim; and a crowd of 500 to 600 mingling in the lobby after the concert to the sounds of jazz in 1940s Paris. Not a bad evening for concert music in Cincinnati.

Perhaps most important is the assessment of the maestro himself, Jarvi (pronounced YAR-vee). It is a European view, and Jarvi, who was born and raised in Tallinn, Estonia, delivers it in European style, outdoors, over coffee. And because his is a European idea, we should pause here to place it in its appropriate context.

Jarvi is dressed handsomely, if mutedly, in trademark black with a gray, crew-neck sweater, his use of sartorial color limited to the blue of his eyes. One is immediately struck that he is smaller in person than he appears on the concert stage – no more than 5-foot-10, no more than 155 pounds. Slim and fit, he is a physical reflection of European balance, which is so often lost in America. Intellectually, Jarvi reflects this balance of appetites as well. He grew up behind the Iron Curtain, where artistic expression was restricted, and where artists – including his father, also a conductor – lived in fear of what might happen should they overstep artistic boundaries. Within this context, the success of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for Jarvi is not about mass appeal or coarse numbers; rather, it is about expressing and performing a symphonic art at a level that is heard in very few places in the world.

“The biggest misconception about Cincinnati and Cincinnati audiences is that we don’t have enough people who enjoy classical music,” Jarvi says emphatically. “That is in fact complete nonsense. We have 1,500 at a minimum at every concert. That is the size of an average concert hall in Europe. We need to look at the positive side; we need to ask, realistically, are we trying to do something that is not realistic here?”

The Road Not Taken
Thus, one of the world’s most sought-after conductors finds himself at a crossroads in a city with a long history of supporting the arts in general and classical music in particular. Jarvi would like to see Music Hall, which was originally created as an opera house and whose 3,516 seats make it the largest concert hall in the United States, restructured to offer a more intimate and physically comfortable setting of 1,800 seats. (Cleveland’s Severance Hall, by comparison, has 2,100 seats, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall 2,500.) At the same time, Jarvi is vehemently opposed to tinkering with a strategy that is bringing the orchestra global accolades for artistic achievement. (The CSO won two Grammy Awards for a 2006 recording with Telarc and goes on its second European tour with Jarvi this winter.)

“The worst thing that can happen to an arts organization in any city is to start competing with show business and with entertainment,” Jarvi says. “We are an organization that routinely gets 1,500 people in the hall, and there are quite a few instances where we have 2,000, sometimes 2,500. Now 2,500 is a huge, huge number; even 1,500 is a big number. But in our hall, we will never have an impression of selling out the hall. And, in a way, it really does hurt us. And it is not a question of filling the hall. The mentality needs to be changed here.

“The question that needs to be asked is, ‘what is our mission with the orchestra?’ If our mission is to sell out the stadium, there are certain things we could do to ensure that. We could limit the repertoire to the 40 pieces that we know will sell out. We could try to incorporate as much crossover material as possible. But that’s exactly what we shouldn’t be doing. Because what we are designed to do is to bring high-quality classical music to the people in this community. And there are plenty of people who want to hear it.”

Roots of A Master
Jarvi was born into a musical family, the eldest son of Neeme Jarvi, conductor of Estonia’s orchestra and opera. Music so permeated his childhood that he has no recollection of his first musical memory. “Whenever there was something playing in the background, my father always asked, do you know what this is? If you knew, then he would say, do you know which century it is from, or which country? And it became a sort of game. And it also made it clear how much variety there is. He was always having so much fun; you got influenced by that and you wanted to do the same.”

Jarvi was virtually preordained to become a conductor. In addition to his father, who is currently Music Director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, his uncle was a conductor, and his brother, Kristjan, is a conductor in Vienna and New York. “It’s kind of a genetic inclination I suppose,” Jarvi says. (Jarvi’s sister, Maarika Jarvi, is a professional flutist.)

A man of the world, Jarvi dwells little on his roots but is thankful for the luxuries, including freedom, that he enjoys today. “All the things that you read about or heard about the Soviet Union are true in many ways, but the problem is that for people who haven’t experienced how it was to live in a totalitarian regime, it’s very hard to explain,” he says. “Because even I, who have been away from Estonia for more than 30 years, certain things become kind of blurry, and certain things seem almost impossible to believe. We are so lucky to be taking certain freedoms and ways of just being for granted. It doesn’t matter how many people we are disagreeing with or are unhappy with in our society, we basically are so obviously people who are born in freedom and where fairness and the law actually matter — where one stands up for things and knows how to stand up for things that are just.”

Estonia, by comparison was “a system that on the one hand boxes you in and puts you geographically into a prison and doesn’t let you out – which is what the Iron Curtain is symbolizing — and then tells you exactly what is right and what is wrong and what you can and cannot do and punishes you for not being loyal or for not agreeing with the ideology that they are trying to convince you of. This system dealt very rudely with dissidents – we’re talking about concentration camps and death and so on. It has a cumulative effect on the whole society. People are perpetually terrified.”

His father, like other artists in Eastern Bloc countries, walked a tightrope between his artistic ambitions and the government’s rules. The family, Jarvi says, was “always” worried. In one unnerving period, Neeme Jarvi earned the disapproval of Soviet authorities after conducting a work by Estonian composer Arvo Part without permission. But in 1980, a confluence of events provided the Jarvi family with a fortuitous opportunity to leave.

“We escaped,” Jarvi begins, then pauses. “Escape may be the wrong word. We got lucky because in 1980, when we left, it was the first time the Olympic Games were going to be held in Russia. And it was exactly the time when Russia invaded Afghanistan. So on one hand they wanted to show themselves as a kind of a country that embraces a liberal and democratic way of being, and on the other hand they had just invaded Afghanistan and they were strongly criticized by the world’s opinion. They needed for the first time to open up the country to foreign visitors on a large scale — because that is what the Olympic Games are all about — and they needed to get rid of the people who could create problems – people like dissidents and prominent people who could use the fact that there were a lot of journalists coming in to shed some negative information. So they actually allowed a lot of people – and we were among them – to go. So we got lucky.”

America and the Influence of Bernstein
After arriving in the United States at 17, Jarvi studied at the famed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and, in a pivotal period, with Leonard Bernstein at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute. Jarvi was deeply influenced by Bernstein. “His philosophy was to become the piece,” Jarvi said in a recent interview with La Scena Musicale. Recalling one unforgettable rehearsal, Jarvi told La Scena, “Bernstein was conducting Afternoon of the Fawn with one finger, and I’ve never heard a performance like it again. It was magic. Some people are just given more by God.”

Jarvi was a rising star on the guest-conducting circuit when he made his debut with the CSO in 1999. It was, one might say, love at first sight. Jarvi was immensely well received, by both concert goers and the orchestra. “I think there are many things that set him apart,” says Eric Kim, the orchestra’s leading cellist. “He is human and compassionate and electrically charged at the same time. He walks into the room and you can feel the energy. You can feel the change.”

In another fateful development for Jarvi, the CSO’s music director at that time, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, was preparing to step down at the end of the 2000-01 season. Though talented and likeable, Lopez-Cobos did not consistently electrify the orchestra nor wow his critics. Thus, the courtship of Jarvi began. In his first concert with the CSO as music director-designate, in October 2000, Jarvi selected Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and the Love Scene from Romeo and Juliette. “I think ‘fantastique’ and love might not be a bad way to start the relationship,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

A Captivating Confluence
The chemistry between Jarvi and the musicians is palpable during performances and rehearsals, and the orchestra is performing at its highest level in decades, if not its highest level ever.

“Great performances have become the norm rather than the exception,” says Timothy Lees, who, as the orchestra’s leading violinist, serves as concertmaster. “I think that’s the mark of a great orchestra and a great music director. We can feel the audience’s response. There’s a great deal of chemistry between us and Paavo.”

Asked how the orchestra has changed under Jarvi, Kim, the cellist, pauses. “Where do I start … First of all, the orchestra has never ever sounded better. There’s a discipline in the orchestra that has developed over the years since he’s been here that was lacking. There’s something very modern about Paavo. You trust Paavo because he’s conducting major orchestras in the world while being our boss. Why shouldn’t you believe that he’s that good?”

Kim adds that Jarvi is not only his boss, but also his friend. “It feels like a complete relationship without being married. Making music with him is a wonderful experience. Equally so is spending time with him talking about life.”

Hawley, the clarinetist, describes Jarvi as a true leader who has that “intangible, un-learnable quality that is in the DNA” that enables him to influence people and make a difference in the world. “It’s reflected in that he has a commanding presence and he’s able to clearly convey his musical ideas to the orchestra in rehearsals and then lead us in a performance,” Hawley says. “He’s able to take risks to make his musical vision a reality.”

Jarvi’s creative artistry also extends to his use of language. Hawley recalls the time Jarvi was trying to get the orchestra to create a very specific sound during a rehearsal of Stravinski’s Petrouchka, “Paavo said, ‘It has to sound … happy … in a kind of … angry, puppet sort of way.’ Everyone burst into spontaneous laughter, but right away we knew exactly what he wanted.”

The Maestro’s Lure
Today’s CSO is also better than ever because Jarvi is attracting – and keeping – talent. The ovation for Kim during the Stravinsky Festival concert was delivered by an audience that deeply appreciated not only the stunning musical performance of one America’s finest cellists, but also Kim’s decision to continue living and performing here and to become one of Cincinnati’s own. Kim played a difficult concerto by memory, a feat regularly accomplished by touring soloists but rarely attempted by symphony performers. Surely Kim could venture away from Cincinnati should he so choose. “I’ve told Paavo countless times that one reason I’ve stayed here is because of him,” Kim says. “I’ve had some offers to leave and go other places. I’ve kindly said no thank you.”

If Jarvi has been good for Cincinnati, Cincinnati has been good for Jarvi. The symphony, with its 113-year history and strong financial support from the philanthropic and business communities, keeps the orchestra well endowed and enables it to maintain its blockbuster size. It ranks among the best-financed orchestras in the nation, with an annual budget of more than $30 million and an endowment approaching $80 million. The orchestra also had a recording history with Grammy-award-winning Telarc, which has enabled Jarvi to extend his influence through discography.

As for Jarvi’s personal life, he was for years the most charming and eligible of bachelors, devoted yet elusive.

“I suppose I had a reputation of being a confirmed bachelor, but it actually has never been true,” Jarvi says. “I’ve been … what is the right urban slang – a serial monogamist? I think I’ve always had long-term girlfriends, and I never really thought of myself as a bachelor. The thing is, in the last 10 to 15 years things have been, studio-wise, so incredibly busy. And the fact that I am never on the same continent for very long doesn’t really allow you to live a normal life. But on the other hand, I can say quite honestly that the relationships I have had have been all meaningful and long-term.”

Then, by chance, and during an unattached phase, Jarvi met his real-life Juliette. She is Tatiana Berman, known to her friends as Tanya, a Moscow-born violinist with porcelain skin and a sylph-like beauty. “It was one of those situations where, when I saw her first, I knew that this was probably going to mean a major change in my life,” Jarvi recalls. “We met at a mutual friend’s birthday party in London in a famous jazz club called Ronnie Scott’s. And a friend of mine whom I knew for years and years had a birthday and invited all of his friends there. And that’s how we met. And I pretty much knew that that was it.”

Today Paavo and Tanya are parents of two daughters, Lea, 3, and Ingrid, 1. They enjoy a home in East Walnut Hills and are frequent visitors to Ault and Eden parks. “We are personally very familiar with most of the ducks that are looking forward to our arrival,” Jarvi notes.

So what does Paavo Jarvi do next? There is little room for additional artistic freelancing, but clearly, his song is far from finished. He is inherently driven to perform as well as possible and better than before. “From a musician’s standpoint, he’s never really satisfied with what he does,” observes Lees, the violinist. “He is striving for more, and we are striving for more as well. That’s how the orchestra grows. I like that about him. I like that we’re always working for something. Not just another week, another program, but this will be the best one we’ve done yet.”

The future for Jarvi and the orchestra is about art, not numbers. Then again, one might argue that it is all about numbers. If Paavo Jarvi can leverage his charisma and leadership to achieve a more desirable Music Hall, if he can continue guiding his supremely capable orchestra toward symphonic perfection, and if he can continue to capture the imagination of the best young artists, perhaps more people in Cincinnati – perhaps everyone in Cincinnati — will pause long enough to listen.