Talking Heads: Paavo Järvi

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

If anyone typifies the flexibility of the modern conductor today, that person is Paavo Järvi. Like his father Neeme and younger brother Kristjan, he has an eye-watering workload and schedule, but such is his deep love for his art that it is not a factor in his musical life.

When our conversation starts, Järvi has just finished rehearsing in Estonia – in his home city of Tallinn. This time his role is that of a visiting conductor, in charge of the NHK Symphony Orchestra. The Japanese group, now 95 years old, appointed him as their chief conductor in 2016 and recently extended the arrangement until 2022. Their recent recording releases present a partnership that can only be described as going from strength to strength.

On the night of our conversation they have a concert in Tallinn itself, followed by a visit to the Royal Festival Hall in London three days later. Their program is an enticing one, beginning with Takemitsu’s orchestral piece How slow the wind. Järvi confesses to being a slow starter with his music. “I have been an admirer of his music for a long time, but recently in the last couple of years we have recorded his works with the orchestra. It has just been released in Japan, and it includes all of his orchestral music. In the last couple of years it was a big project that we took on, especially with him being so big in Japan. He died before I ever had a chance to meet him unfortunately, but as you know he is a major figure in Japanese musical life. His is the only real name from the Western world that we would know as being from Japanese music. I grew up knowing the name but not the music. It’s been a new experience for me but something I am very proud of, a new musical experience.”

One of the NHK Symphony Orchestra’s recent releases with Järvi is a searing account of Mahler’s Symphony no.6, which they gave to great acclaim in London in 2017. Wishful thinking it may be, but I suggest that some of Takemitsu’s writing draws from Mahler’s ability to write chamber-like music in the depths of the Sixth. “I think it is more likely that the influences are Messiaen”, says Järvi, his sonorous voice deeper than ever. “It was Messiaen who taught him, and the line goes back to Debussy before that, but there are echoes of certain other worlds in Takemitsu’s music for sure. Mahler could have been one of them.”

Sol Gabetta joins the orchestra for Schumann’s Cello Concerto, a work which has seen its fortunes on the stage revitalised in more recent years, before Järvi leads the orchestra in Rachmaninov’s Symphony no.2 in E minor. This is a work he recorded with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra back in 2006, but as he admits his view of the piece has changed since then. “It has changed, and I have changed in that time too”, he admits. “I have fewer inhibitions since I made that recording, and I am not as cautious about the piece as I used to be. It is one of the most Russian works of Rachmaninov’s output, but it cannot be taken too literally. The orchestra have played the Second quite a lot, and it is extremely familiar music within Japan. There is certain music that they play really well, and the Second Symphony is certainly one of those pieces.”

Nor have they required much persuasion or coaching to make the move to Mahler in their recorded output. “The orchestra is extremely well versed in German Romantic music, and they have had a lot of conductors who have encouraged them to play it. Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm used to conduct regularly in Japan, and so did Eugen Jochum. Most of the Western conductors came with their own orchestras. A lot of Western conductors were connected with the NHK Symphony Orchestra – Wolfgang Sawallisch, Herbert Blomstedt and Horst Stein just to name a few – so they know the repertoire extremely well.

Alongside the Mahler release is a programme of Bartók orchestral works, comprising the Divertimento for string orchestra, the Dance Suite and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Jarvi prides himself on the output, and the overall orchestral sound, which has an extraordinary clarity. “That’s something we have been trying to get”, he admits, “the directness of sound, so that it is transparent and clear. We had to work on that a bit for the Bartók, but as you can hear the orchestra is very versatile.”

The London leg of the NHK’s mini tour will take place on Estonia’s Independence Day, which Järvi describes as ‘a very nice coincidence’. This helpfully leads me on to a new recording he has made with the Estonian Festival Orchestra of the music of fellow countryman Erkki-Sven Tüür. The main work here is his Symphony no.9, dedicated to Järvi himself, with orchestral pieces Sow the Wind… and Incantation of Tempest.

He describes the new Ninth. “It’s a big piece, and very interesting. It describes the Estonian history from its beginnings right up to today, so it is a very long narrative – but it is very atmospheric too. He (Tüür) is a master of creating great layers of sound. I think it’s an epic piece, and because I have a lot of years performing his music it is very special for me as a culmination with the Estonian Festival Orchestra. It makes it even more special because it is very close to home.”

Järvi’s familiarity with the music of Tüür goes right back to the 1990s, and a disc of new music by him and fellow Estonian contemporaries. “It’s a great place for new music”, says Järvi of his home country. We have a lot of good new music, and established composers like Arvo Pärt and others.” In spite of his worldwide travelling, he keeps up with developments. “ It’s not difficult to keep in touch with the possibilities for Estonia”, he says, “as they are all there with the internet. I am always looking at what’s happening in musical life in Estonia, and even when I am far away my heart is here all the time.”

This year will see the tenth season of the Pärnu festival, founded by Paavo Järvi in 2011 together with his father, Neeme. How does he look to bring new audiences to classical music? “This is what we are always thinking about”, he says with feeling. “I don’t have a magic formula, other than one has to do it really well and be engaged. If the programme is interesting then that is the first important thing. The other thing is to enjoy the music. Very often with orchestras it can look like business as usual, and they play as if they are working.”

That was emphatically not the case with the Estonian Festival Orchestra when they made their BBC Proms debut last August, and who were noticeably all smiles. “I think that’s the way it should be”, says Järvi. “It is very hard for me to imagine playing music and looking like you’re not enjoying it, it’s not logical to me. Orchestras that come together occasionally, like the festival orchestra does, have an advantage, but it has to happen with every orchestra. It’s such a very logical thing, and if you enjoy it makes sense to do something which is very contagious. Energy comes through being contagious!”

The NHK Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi perform Takemitsu, Schumann and Rachmaninov at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday 24 February.

You can listen to the orchestra’s new recordings of Mahler and Bartók on Sony Music on Spotify above, and follow the link to find samples and buying options on the Presto website – the Mahler here and the
Bartók here.

Järvi’s disc of Tüür’s Symphony no.9 will be available on the Alpha label in March – for more details click here

Oxford Lieder Festival – Mr McFall’s Chamber: Solitude

Mr McFall’s Chamber (above – Cyril Garac, Robert McFall (violins), Brian Schiele (viola), Su-a Lee (cello), Rick Standley (double bass), Maria Martinova (piano)

Sallinen Introduction and Tango Overture Op.74a (1997)
Pärt Für Alina (1976)
Tüür Dedication (1990)
Mustonen Toccata (1989)
Pēteris Vasks A Little Summer Music (1985)
Toivo Kärki Täysikuu (1953)
Sibelius Einsames Lied (arranged for piano sextet)
Unto Mononen Satumaa (1955)

Holywell Music Room, Oxford
Wednesday 17 October 2018 – 5:30pm

Written by Ben Hogwood

This recital, given in the intimate surrounds of the Holywell Music Room, was centred on Solitudes, a recent release of Baltic chamber music from Mr McFall’s Chamber, a group founded by violinist Robert McFall and centred around friends from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

This is surely how chamber music should be – a group of friends playing music that has mutual appeal – and the chemistry between the group was that of easy familiarity and affection. That affection spread to the audience, thanks to an easygoing set of introductions from McFall to put the music in context.

Over an hour’s concert we had seven very different and well-chosen pieces, linking nicely with the Oxford Lieder Festival’s theme of the Grand Tour and providing context of the Estonian music ahead of the evening concert from Kai Rüütel and Roger Vignoles.

Neighbouring Finland also got in on the act, and the Introduction and Tango Overture from Aulis Sallinen proved a bold opening piece once its persuasive rhythms and bold melodies got going. We heard more of the tango in Finland towards the end, with brilliantly swung versions of Toivo Kärki’s Täysikuu and Unto Mononen’s Satumaa.

Contrasting nicely with this was a brief but very poignant excerpt from SibeliusBelshazzar’s Feast, Einsames Lied (Song of Solitude, giving the concert its name), and a substantial Toccata by Olli Mustonen, which took Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as its inspiration but used powerfully driven rhythms and motifs to make a punchy piece with full bodied Romantic harmonies. As with the tangos, these were performed with great character and verve by the sextet.

To balance the concert rather nicely there were pieces for reduced instrumental forces. The brief meditation of Für Alina from Arvo Pärt, Estonia’s favourite composer, left a lasting mark through the sustain applied by pianist Maria Martoniva. So too did the powerful Dedication for cello and piano by fellow Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür, whose output falls under the influence of his time in progressive rock band In Spe. This blended catchy melodic riffs into a powerful call and response between cello and piano, with expressive cellist Su-a Lee and Martoniva quick to get to the heart of the piece.

Meanwhile A Little Summer Music, from Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, offered a sunny counterpart, its six short movements bursting with life and melody. Written as something of a pastiche, this did nonetheless work beautifully as six brief picture postcards of a Baltic summer, the violin imitating insects in the final movement while exploring attractive Latvian dances in the second, third and fifth. Cyril Garac played these with great dexterity and energy, helped with the fulsome accompaniment of Martoniva.

This was a hugely enjoyable concert, opening the door to a number of musical discoveries. Yet Mr McFall’s Chamber had one more trick up their sleeve, an encore of the hymn from SibeliusFinlandia, with the piece de resistance a solo role for Su-a Lee on musical saw. It was strangely moving as well as humorous – and capped a terrific concert.

Further listening

You can hear all of the repertoire from this concert performed by Mr McFall’s Chamber on Spotify. The album was made for Delphian Records:

Live review – O/Modernt / Hugo Ticciati at Kings Place: Looping Time

O/Modernt (above) / Hugo Ticciati (below)

Hall One, Kings Place, Friday 21 September 2018

Tüür Violin Concerto no.2 Angel’s Share (2018)
Adams Shaker Loops (1978)
Pérotin arr. Johannes Marmén Viderunt omnes (c1200)
Glass Symphony no.3 (1995)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The Time Unwrapped series at Kings Place has dealt out a number of very interesting concerts. This program from the young Swedish-based but European-sourced O/Modernt chamber orchestra combined established minimalist forebears with new interpretations of working with small musical cells – or waveforms as the program called it.

In a change to the order of the program we began with the Violin Concerto no.2 of Erki-Sven Tüür, premiered in the composer’s native Estonia earlier this year. Tüür has an intriguing past where progressive rock meets classical, and it has furnished him with a very strong sense of dramatic structure and the gift for vivid storytelling. This work, subtitled Angel’s Share, was all about interpreting the gap of air that appears in the barrel during the ageing of whisky, and how that can be applied to the wisdom of an adult as they grow older, ‘letting go of the unpleasant tastes’ in the words of the composer.

Cannily he captured this in musical terms, culminating with the release of the cork at the start of the concerto’s third movement, where the (sadly unnamed) percussionist dealt a striking blow. The start employed the other end of the percussive spectrum, with a high metallic note from which Ticciati’s solo part germinated. The soloist was superb, inhabiting the part and its distinctive figures, while the strings’ counterpoint was consistently absorbing and meaningful, right up to the affirmative finish. It would be great to hear this work again soon, and certainly those present appreciated it – among them violinist Fenella Humphreys.

John AdamsShaker Loops followed, a relatively early minimalist classic from 1978 that remains a success in concert. The near-constant tremolos require great stamina and control on the part of the string players, but that was never an issue with the 19-strong orchestra here, who danced and shimmered in tune with a sensitively handled light display. Double bassists Ben Griffiths and Jordi Carrasco Hjelm were the rock on which the three-movement piece stood, but the way the slower lines undulated over the top was particularly affecting, capturing the deep spiritual roots of the piece – which is after all a representation in music of ‘shaking’. Adams is in thrall to Sibelius when he writes for strings in this way, but the harmonic language is an extension and has a distinctly wide-open, American feel. Ticciati and his charges took us out onto that plain.

Johannes Marmén‘s arrangement of Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes opened the second half, a curiousity that showed how even in the 1200s music had minimalist tendencies. On occasion it was difficult to see Perotin’s original thinking, however, as the arrangement took hold, but the final paragraph from the double basses took us back into his world. It showed how ancient and modern can still integrate – we use largely the same notes after all – and how both are still relevant and complement each other. The fly in the ointment, unfortunately, was extraneous but unidentified noise from the roof of Hall One that threatened to disrupt the performance.

Ticciati had to acknowledge it with a rueful smile before moving straight into the jewel of tonight’s crown, Philip Glass’s Symphony no.3. The previous work in his symphonic output is on Brucknerian dimensions, running for nearly an hour, but in the Third Glass compresses his musical argument into an impressive, cohesive whole. O/Modernt got right to the heart of the small cells that are cleverly manipulated here, but also found the deep emotion of the central Chaconne, which has a dark heart but opens out with major key harmonies to find greater optimism – before going back into the minor key again. It is an ebb and flow that proves extremely affecting on repetition, and was the centrepiece of a fine performance, whose outer movements showed the virtuosity of these string players to the highest degree.

This was a very fine concert and an ideal showcase for minimalism as an extremely valid form of composition, showing also that there is a sizable library beyond the works of Steve Reich. By way of an encore we had Rufus Wainwright in the style of John Adams, his song Across the Universe played with beautiful precision and lovingly directed by Ticciati.