The role of a conductor has been passed from generation to generation throughout history. Paul Pelkonen talks to two generations of Jarvi family conductors on their love of music, the grandeur of the concerts and keeping tempo with the rest of the world
The tradition and profession of the orchestra conductor is one that is marked by the importance of family. From the Bayreuth intertwinings of Wagner, Liszt and Hans von Bulow to modern conducting families like the Abbados and the Sanderlings, the role of the maestro passes from generation to generation.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi (pictured), who has had an illustrious intercontinental career on the podium since he and his family defected to the West in 1980. Now a grandfather, Järvi works with three orchestras on two continents, and boasts a prolific recording output of over 400 CDs, making him one of the most-recorded artists in the history of classical music. Yet, his greatest musical legacy lies outside the concert hall: his three children, Paavo, Maarika and Kristjan, are all prominent classical musicians in their own right.
Paavo Järvi is the eldest of the three and, like his father, is music director of three major orchestras. Maarika is an acclaimed flautist, while Kristjan is the enfant terrible of the family, exploring modern music from John Adams to Frank Zappa with his own Absolute Ensemble and delving into new compositions by contemporary composers.
A history steeped in music
The first Järvi to take up conducting was Neeme's older brother, Vallo. Thirteen years older than Neeme, Vallo was a talented jazz guitarist with his own ensemble, "The Golden Seven". He was also a conductor of operas and symphonies and mentored his brother, introducing him to the world of music. "When he was older, he started music school, and finally he became a conductor, the first professional conductor in our family," Neeme explains. "He conducted opera and ballet at the theater in Estonia and conducted at the opera house all his life. All the influence of my musical future came from him."
At the age of four, Neeme started playing the xylophone. Eventually, he became a percussionist in his brother's orchestra, specialising in that instrument. He then went to St Petersburg to study with legendary conductor Evgeny Mravinsky and made his professional debut as a conductor at the age of 18.
When Paavo was born, music continued to play a crucial part in the Järvi household. Neeme recalls how their home in Tallinn would have regular visitors like violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Emil Gilels. All this may have been unusual in any other home, but it didn't seem unusual to Paavo.
"When you grow up in a conductor's family," Paavo explains, "you think that this is normal – that this is how everybody grows up. Not everyone is as involved in music as we were. It wasn't just studying, but being in the process of listening – going to the opera, to concerts, to rehearsals. It was a full time involvement in music. My father was always able to make it really fun."
Paavo points out that for would-be conductors and musicians, it is important to find the right teacher. "It is hard to determine which teacher to believe," he says. "We skipped that period in my family. When you grow up in a conductor's family, you are taught what is right and what is wrong from five years old. My father was very pragmatic about conducting principles. They were worked into our play."
He elaborates. "We'd be in the living room, listening to records or the radio – Haydn, Mozart things like that and he'd suddenly say: 'Go conduct in four'. Then he would tell us: 'Your elbows are too high.' 'Your wrists are too stiff.' 'You have to breathe.' Without realising, you assimilate a lot of those techniques. A lot of people don't think about them until they get start to study conducting."
According to Neeme, "I just behaved as a father would at home. I didn't think that I'd be teaching all the time. I remember Paavo played the xylophone – he was very good. I remember him playing the Khachaturian Violin Concerto with my brother, playing the solo part not on violin but on the xylophone."
"I played all kinds of percussion. Xylophones, snare drums, mallet instruments," remembers Paavo. "I did a lot of concerts as a xylophone soloist. When I was a small boy there were children's concerts and young people's concerts. I was like a circus monkey, you know, dress up and play the 'Sabre Dance' on the xylophone."
Later, Paavo went from the xylophone to the full drum-set, playing some of the great British progressive music of the 70s like Yes, Genesis and Led Zeppelin. Most of their repertoire came from underground tapes, smuggled under the noses of the Soviet censors. Eventually, he hung up his drumsticks and went to study music in Tallinn and St Petersburg.
"Conducting," Paavo explains, "is not as clear cut as playing the piano or violin. At the end it is so individual. A lot of what people see at the performance, on the podium, is just the tip of the iceberg of what it is to be a conductor. You must have understanding of basic technique and communication skills to communicate with the players. Nobody really knows what is the right way of conducting, but people immediately know a good conductor from a bad conductor."
While Paavo's career path has paralleled his father's, Kristjan is the maverick. "Kristjan is playing more modern music and jazz," Neeme says. "It's such a difficult thing, but he wants to do it. It's in his nature. He wants to show the world new music. The basic interest must be music in our time."
Serving the composers
"We have to help composers," Neeme says. "Composers are, in a way, victims. If someone has good relations with a composer and the composer is good, why not perform them and represent their music? Also, I don't think that it's right that dead composers are forgotten. I tried to bring them forth here in America – difficult, different American composers like (George Whitfield) Chadwick and (Randall) Thompson."
In the course of his recording and conducting career, Neeme has delved extensively into the repertory of these lesser-known composers, moving beyond the German trinity of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. He has conducted and recorded the symphonies of Berwald, Stenhammar and Nielsen, three noteworthy Scandinavian composers all but forgotten outside Northern Europe. He has explored Russian music with recordings of Borodin and Shostakovich, and premiered works by noted Estonian composers, most notably Arvo Pärt and Eduard Tubin.
The Järvi family left Estonia in 1980, following controversy over Neeme's decision to conduct the 1979 premiere of Credo, a religious-themed work by Arvo Pärt, without seeking approval from the censors. "The Pärt thing was the icing on the cake," Paavo says. "My parents felt that the system was too restrictive. It didn't let him develop any further. The timing was right too – the system was broken enough that we could get out of Estonia!"
The art of conducting
Both Neeme and Paavo Järvi believe that the conductor is there to serve the orchestra and the music, not vice versa. Neeme expressed incredulity at conductors who would close their eyes during moments of orchestral ecstasy. "How can you do that?" he asks. "How can you close your eyes? You need those to communicate with the orchestra, with the players. If the eyes are shut, you are gathering nothing from the orchestra."
Neeme doesn't see a problem with constantly moving from podium to podium, from orchestra to orchestra as the family keeps up its busy schedule of appearances. "People don't come to the concert hall thinking 'his hands are in the right place, his feet are right, he's breathing correctly.'
"All music comes from singing," Paavo says. "When you conduct, if you don't know how to breathe, you won't be able to let the singers breathe, to let the musicians breathe. Everyone else has to take a breath and have time for preparation – not just the winds."
"One of the misconceptions about symphonic conducting," he adds, "is that you have to somehow treat instrumental music different from opera. The beginning of everything is vocal music. I went to every single rehearsal my father would conduct, every performance at the opera house. To me, it's a second nature. I don't know how to conduct differently."