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‘Most conductors today don’t really have technique. They also don’t believe there is such a thing’

Paavo Järvi is from a family of conductors – but a strong technical schooling is still vital before anybody takes to the podium, he says

The Estonian-American conductor Paavo Järvi is part of a major musical dynasty. His father, Neeme, now in his mid-80s, is Estonia’s most celebrated conductor. His younger brother, Kristjan, is also successful in the field. It turns out that there is a fourth family member who also conducted. Neeme’s older brother, Vallo (1923-94), was a successful opera and ballet conductor who spent his life working in Estonia. And almost everyone else in the family is involved in music somehow or other.

They’re definitely not peas from a pod. The generational gaps, Järvi says, “already make for a certain amount of difference. And there are three different musical personalities. It all comes from my father, obviously. He’s the important influence, a kind of master of everything. In the Soviet Union, when we were still living there, he was known for his classical expertise. He did Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart, even Bach.”

When the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels wanted to play a cycle of the Beethoven piano concertos, “He requested my father, because he thought he had this special expertise.” Three Gilels/Järvi Beethoven concerto recordings were reissued in the Gilels 100th Anniversary Edition by Melodiya in 2016. Neeme went on to become one of the great advocates of less well-known music, and his prolific enthusiasms are well-documented in recordings. I once heard him given the odd encomium, by somebody who worked with him, of being “the world’s greatest conductor of second-rate music”.

“I’m somewhere in the middle,” says Järvi, who turns 61 at the end of December. “I am basically a traditionalist, someone who gets a real kick out of what I do. I love the orchestral repertoire, from Haydn to the 21st century. I do everything and, with different orchestras, I concentrate on different areas of repertoire. With the Tonhalle in Zurich it’s Bruckner and Mahler. With the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen it’s Haydn and Beethoven, and with Estonian orchestras maybe Baltic, Nordic music.”

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But, generally, he says, there’s nothing really unexpected about his repertoire. On the other hand, his brother Kristjan, who is a decade younger, has found “a completely different niche with an orchestra that he created, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, where everybody plays by memory, and they’re doing these long shows that are all without a break. They’re kind of happenings where they mix pop music with various genres, new music, and he also composes. So it’s really a very different niche. And somehow it all works; there is a common thread of coming from, basically, classics.”

Do their conducting techniques differ? “The schooling or the philosophy, if you will, of what conducting is, it’s very much the same. But how it looks to others, and how it manifests, is clearly tailored for each individual personality and body type. My father is a big man, tall and everything. His gestures, his way of using his hands and body, are clearly different from mine. I’m much smaller, shorter. And Kristjan is somewhere in between. All of the principles have to be tailored to fit your own body and personality.”

But, he says, “What’s important is that the technical aspects of conducting all came from my father. He’s one of the very few people alive in that field who actually believes that there is a really strong technical base and need for a strong technical schooling that allows conductors to have a vocabulary and a way of clearly communicating what they want. In today’s world, it’s pretty much a dying art.

“Most of the conductors who conduct today, they don’t really have technique, but they also don’t believe that there is such a thing. Right now there is this basic shift to believing that everybody who is kind of musical, and who has musical ideas, can somehow, through some individual power, communicate these ideas to the orchestra without studying or without having a formal education in conducting. And that’s why you have a lot of conductors right now who just can’t express themselves any other way than with words.”

He suggests that “the test of does one have a technique or not comes when you cannot say anything, in a concert where you actually need to communicate whatever you want to communicate without words. Often these moments are very spontaneous, things that you need to be able to organise without previous warning or previous rehearsal. There are people who can do it and others, the majority, who can’t.”

I remind him of the story of Wilhelm Furtwängler, principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, showing up at the back of the hall during a rehearsal by an indifferent conductor. After he was spotted by the musicians his mere presence raised the quality of the playing. Järvi says he has seen and heard it himself, when his father was working with the Leningrad Philharmonic and the orchestra’s legendary principal conductor, Evgeny Mravinsky, showed up. “They had such incredible respect for him. And fear.”

There are just two composers in Järvi’s Dublin programme: Haydn (Symphonies Nos 97 and 102) and Beethoven (the First Piano Concerto, with the German pianist Fabian Müller). The Haydn connection is deep. “Haydn has a very personal meaning for me, because my father was a big Haydn lover. He’s somebody who always played Haydn. We played Haydn four hands with him on the piano and from the score. And we listened to all kinds of recordings. He just really loved Haydn, and somehow that carried over and became something that I really liked.”

He explains, “It really helps when somebody brings you to this music and shows you all the little nuances, little charming moments and funny inner voices in a piece. It helps a young kid to have somebody who kind of walks you through and opens the door. So it reminds me of my father and my childhood. And generally I just love the language.”

His father, he says, was one of the few musicians who was occasionally allowed to travel out of Estonia in the days of the Soviet Union – and he always brought back recordings. This was long before the rise of historically informed performance style. “One of my favourites and one of his favourites was Sir Thomas Beecham, who had so much character and so much joy and wasn’t afraid to bring all these jokes that Haydn wrote and not apologise for them.” He praises Furtwängler, too. And he seems to have been catapulted on to a new plain after encountering the historically informed performances of Roger Norrington, which he initially found shocking.

Beethoven wouldn’t become the same kind of enthusiasm until much later. “Beethoven clearly is part of every young musician’s education. But for me the real discovery happened when I joined the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. That was more than 20 years ago, and we started exploring Beethoven. I had this idea, after I first listened to the orchestra and conducted, I think it was, the Fourth Symphony, that if ever I had the luck to record these pieces that it would only be with this orchestra.” He knew what he wanted, and they gave it to him.

It was, he says, a kind of “total immersion for about 10 years, and finally we recorded all of them. The orchestra really has it in their DNA. What’s interesting about it is that this is a self-governed orchestra. It’s an orchestra that really doesn’t function along the same lines as other orchestras do. So there’s a lot of individual input and discussion. We really discussed every doubt and every line. Everything was discussed almost to the point of ridiculousness. It became so important to everybody, repeating it and rethinking it a lot and really trying to stay very close to the text. We’d really try to go for all of what’s in the score. It takes an incredible amount of time, you know, and of course it’s philosophically not for everybody, this approach.”

I ask him about the best musical advice he has received, both within the family and from outside. With great difficulty he settles on his father’s belief that “really the only success worth having is a gradual success”. And then Leonard Bernstein. “He once said something that I really live by. He said, ‘You have to do your homework. You have to know everything. You have to know the score. But when you stand on the podium at a concert, throw it all out of your head and feel.’” Järvi corrects himself. “And feel, baby. He always had baby at the end.”

Paavo Järvi conducts the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen in Haydn and Beethoven at the National Concert Hall, in Dublin, on Thursday, December 7th. Their recording of Haydn’s Symphonies Nos 101 and 103 was released by RCA earlier this year