Conductor  Neeme  Järvi
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Let me say right at the outset that this brief diatribe deals with the small segment which concerns itself with Concert Music, the so-called Classical Music audience and its professionals of various kinds.  As one who provided a constant stream on the radio during the last quarter of the 20th Century, I prided myself on giving listeners an opportunity to enjoy both established masterworks and lesser-known repertoire. 

During that time, I was buoyed by the industry which was chugging along with new recordings coming out every few seconds.  There were good things and bad things about that, and now that the whole landscape of sound distribution has shifted, we can look back and assess what happened and what did not happen.  There will probably be lengthy discussions and scholarly treatises about all of that, but for now, let it be remembered that many people made records, and a few artists made a lot of records. 

The bad thing about this phenomenon was that a small segment of the repertoire was being rehashed over and over and over and over again by just about every stick-wielder who stood even briefly in front of an orchestra.  The good thing is that eventually, more and more of the repertoire became available thanks to a few noble souls who brought a better balance to what was heard both at home and in halls around the world.  And perhaps the most laudable of this small breed is Neeme Järvi, whose pile of recordings is both immense and diverse.

A brief biography appears at the end of this interview, and his current schedule
— as well as his full discography, which at the time of this writing is up to 417 discsis available on his website.  

He was in Chicago for the first time in November of 1985 and returned for a dozen more programs over several seasons.  Each time he brought
some music which the orchestra had never played  or had rarely done, and several recordings were issued.  Everyone was pleased with the results — the orchestra played well for him, the audience cheered the concerts, and he was happy with what transpired.  His conducting and his speech patterns were exuberant.

It was in December of 1987 that we sat down for this conversation.  Originally from Estonia, Järvi had learned English very well, but his thoughts
— quite naturally — often had European-style syntax.  He did think his English was insufficient, and asked a couple of times if I understood what he was saying.  I had no trouble with this.  His skill at communication was as clear to me as it is to the players seated around him on the stage.  That being said, I have straightened out much of it so that his purely verbal thoughts come across smoothly.  However, I have left the occasional grammatical oddity just to give an idea of the flavor of his vocalization.  After we were finished with the formal interview, he said that there were not enough words to express what he wanted to say.  This, of course, is why he is a musician, to use a less-limiting form for his expression.

Here is that conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    When you go to a rehearsal, how much research have you already done, and how much is left to look for in the score while you’re there conducting the orchestra?

Neeme Järvi:    This piece has already been recorded by me maybe two years ago, and I heard my record this morning.  It’s quite nice, really, done by Scottish Orchestra.  Of course, I have to start again to look at the score.

BD:    You start with a clean score each time?

NJ:    No, no.  It’s my score from when I recorded it, but still there’s a lot of need to look it over again because the phrasing is very complicated.  Basically I look at phrasings
how to build up the music in every moment and not to learn the particular instrumentation, because that I know.  The basic thing in my music is how to make the shape in the music.

BD:    Do your ideas of shape change?

NJ:    Absolutely, every time!  That’s why I am looking over this.  It’s very old-fashioned, my ideas that I did five years ago.  I like to do it absolutely new; new and fresh.

BD:    Do you want to disown a recording you made long ago?

jarviNJ:    That I can’t do at all.  I re-record it again, sometimes, maybe.  [Both laugh]  Six years I have to wait, then I can record it at another firm!

BD:    Are the recordings that you make perhaps too perfect?  Do they set up an impossible standard for the live concerts?

NJ:    It seems to me the only thing that’s disturbing in the recording procedure is noise.  Actually the recording procedure and sessions must be like a concert performance.  It must be exciting and full of energy with beautiful shape.  The record listener must understand they are in a concert, not just something where we could clean up all the notes and make it bar by bar.  That is uninteresting; it’s not actually interpretation.  Here in Chicago it is in performance, actually, that’s what we will do.  With Chandos Records, especially, it is very comfortable because they heed the performer.  They ask to just make one run-through; after that we’ll have a little rest and then go the second time through.  If something happened that was not okay in the first take and was okay in the second take, then we can manage to put together this moment.

BD:    So you’ll do a whole movement without stopping?

NJ:    Yes, yes, no stopping, yes.

BD:    Do you ever do a whole piece without stopping?

NJ:    Yeah, but with some record companies, before we’re starting we’re already stopped!  [Both laugh]  They say, “No, no, there was noise already,” and that destroys all the mood and destroys all this nice feeling.  Then we go once more, and after two bars we stop again; there was train or there was some kind of noise again.  That’s an uninteresting way to record.

BD:    So you would rather record in long takes?

NJ:    Yes, long takes, long takes, of course.  Nowadays, with the digital and all these cutting systems, there’s a lot of possibilities to make this.  You can cut off these noises, but basically if the performance is good, that’s the main thing.

BD:    Okay, what makes a performance good?

NJ:    It must be good orchestra, must be good conductor and must be good ideas.  It becomes good when good performance comes in.

BD:    Two of the three you can’t change.  You’re stuck with an orchestra and they are struck with you, so we’re left with just the ideas.

NJ:    If a recording has been made, then it’s already prepared.  It’s also been performed.  All these are things which I try to make possible.  Before we are recording, we are performing the work many times, and the orchestra is very familiar with the piece.  Then I can change my mind sometimes.  That’s very easy to move an orchestra in different ways when they know a piece.  But sometimes you have to just start a new piece at the recording session.  You have a three hour record session, another three hours and then another three hours
twelve hoursand you have to make ready to record a piece which the orchestra doesn’t know.  That’s especially what the English orchestra is doing.  A lot of orchestras are doing it that way, and that’s difficult.  We have done the Prokofiev series with the Scottish National Orchestra, quite a lot of music without concert performances.  That’s quite difficult because the orchestra doesn’t know it.  On the other side, it’s interesting for the orchestra to have a fresh repertoire, and they are very busy reading all those notes.  They’re very concentrated, and they’re doing very, very well.  The British Orchestra is a very quick orchestra, actually.

BD:    How are the orchestras different from Sweden to Britain?

NJ:    I am in contact with both of these.  I have quite a similar style of working, but it is a little bit slower in Sweden.  They have a different type, a more German type of rehearsals and recording sessions.  They have just four or four-and-a-half hours per day.  With the British orchestra, they are doing in one day nine hours — three sessions, sometimes.  They’re working hard.

BD:    That’s a lot of work!

NJ:    A lot of work.  And they’re in really good shape because all the same people are playing all the time.  They are warmed up all the time
they are not coming the next morning, and it takes the first hour to warm up the orchestra, and then you start to do something.  Very, very comfortable in Britain with that session.  They are very quick.

BD:    Five or ten minutes and they’re ready to go?

NJ:    Yes, immediately.  Only a sound check and that’s it.

BD:    When you conduct a piece in Sweden or in Great Britain or here in Chicago, do you try to get the same sound out of all these different orchestras?

NJ:    Yeah.  Of course, your own orchestra, when you are not guest conductor, you know the weak places and the places which you need to give more attention.  When guest conducting, you don’t know very much about the orchestra, and you must try in the first hour to feel what’s going on.  And with new repertoire especially, which the orchestra never played
like we did now in Chicago, both programs it’s absolutely first performances with Chicago Symphony — I try to play as much as possible through the piece because they must be familiar with the music, and there is not very much time to stop for little details.  But I try also to do some, when it absolutely doesn’t work; then I have to do some passages slowly, but basically to play many times until they know all of it.  Then I try to fix everything with my hands.

BD:    But are you striving to get the same sound out of each of these ensembles?

NJ:    Yes I try, because basically the thing in the sound quality is a string orchestra sound, which is very rich here in Chicago.  You feel it immediately there, that they want it very much, and it comes.  Fantastic sound!  And again, if the piece is familiar, you have to show where the expressivity is wanted more and where you have to make your nuance disappear.  In your own orchestra, there are things which are needed because not every orchestra has such good quality players.  They’re not so high quality standard.  You have to work with this and that takes a little time.  But the result can be very high, actually.  The string sound of the Gothenburg Orchestra is a good sound, really a good sound, and we try to perfect them also, and then have quite a world standard; also in Scotland because it’s the string sound that makes the orchestra good.  Individual brass sound is also needed, of course; it depends if you have a soft brass, or how they play the forte, for example.  Sometimes it’s very accented and too loud playing, like many orchestras do.  If you’re conducting loud there’s some kind of limit, but some orchestras have a sound tradition.  It’s also about what you have to work with in your own orchestra — not to blow too much when you’re excited very much.  When it’s all brass sound, you forget about strings.  [Both laugh]  But strings make the real forte.  It’s expression in the strings, and you need quite a soft, nice, brass sound.  But it depends on repertoire, of course
— classical repertoire, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, othersit is a very big difference in what you need.

BD:    Is any one orchestra ready to cope with these various different styles?

NJ:    Yes, it’s possible.  If you feel its technical development, it doesn’t very much disturb technical things.  If there are very good players, then it’s possible to develop very high sound quality.  But of course it depends where you are conducting.  With some orchestras you can’t do very much.  Some are quite limited, very middle class and you are asked to forget about making sound just to make the right notes!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve been talking about balances between the sections.  Standing on the podium, are you in the best place to hear those balances?

jarviNJ:    It’s very difficult.  The conductor’s place is not always the best place.  And you never know what’s in the hall at the same time.  We played five concerts at the Hong Kong Festival, and in a conductor’s place there’s not enough expression, not enough forte from orchestra.  But in the hall, it always sounds like full forte.  Your feeling is different from what it really sounds like in the audience.  You don’t know that is going out there.

BD:    So do you get off the podium and go in the hall to listen during a rehearsal?

NJ:    Yes, but it’s an empty hall.  There’s a change when audience is in and that’s absolutely different.  The audience is not happy when it’s all loud; all piano comes in forte, and fortissimo come four forte.  It’s always loud passages and these things happen very often.  We are lucky with this Gothenburg Orchestra when I conducted; their excellent hall, excellent acoustic.  We feel very well, and we’re a little bit too comfortable.

BD:    Too comfortable???

NJ:    Yeah, too comfortable because the sounds and everything is fine.  With a bad hall, the orchestra doesn’t hear the sound at all.  You have to trust and take all your expressions; you’re organized to sound differently.  It all depends on the hall, of course.  It’s like if you played a bad violin or a good violin.  It’s the acoustics that are different in a bad hall and good hall.  It’s a great big, big, big difference.  They’re lucky here in Chicago; it’s a very good hall.  You feel very well the orchestra from the conductor’s podium.  What I heard of Chicago on the radio transmission, it seems to me a little bit dry — not this kind of acoustic.  You feel that the sound went somewhere.  It’s quite close to the microphones, but I don’t know if it’s the microphone settings or acoustics.  But on the recordings, it’s very good; they are special recordings.  But recordings you can help a little bit with all this tiny acoustical manipulation.

BD:    Is this manipulation right for the recordings, and does it change your attitude toward the orchestra in performance?

NJ:    Yeah.  It’s so beautiful to perform, but when you go to the record studio, it’s so dry.  Then it has to be done.  Something has to be done to make that the standard at least.  Performance is a different thing.  You feel exactly how good it is, how bad it is.  But you need also acoustics around it.  Not that it must be like the big church acoustics, but why do the British orchestras sound very well?  Because it’s done in a big church.  It’s a very natural acoustic, even too much, sometimes.  And if it’s too big, you have to reduce that church size some way.  It’s also a technical thing.  Anyway, it’s interesting.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are the audiences different from Europe to America, or from Eastern Europe to Western Europe?

NJ:    I like very much the audience which is established already.  For example, I came to Scottish Orchestra four years ago and we played to an empty hall.  At the Edinburgh Festival or Usher Hall, we had half audience.  Because there happened every day something, there are people that come to a concert.  But you make them happy once, twice, third time, four times and they come to concerts.  They talk and their friends listen.  “It’s good, this conductor, or this orchestra, and they’re doing good things.”  Now I have a full house.  Same thing happened in Gothenburg which always happened in the very beginnings.  Whatever the program is, the basic thing is quality.  Which kind of quality you give for them.  And audience comes to any program.

BD:    Are they coming for the conductor, or for the orchestra, or for the repertoire?

NJ:    Quality.  Orchestra playing quality.  I don’t think it’s right, but the Beethoven Five sells; the Beethoven Two doesn’t sell.  People don’t come to the concert when you play some unusual piece.  There must be very good soloist or very good name, big name, or something like that.  London has a lot of things that are good for the five good orchestras playing every day, but if you look through that repertoire, it’s quite narrow, very narrow
— all classical and basic classical repertoire.

BD:    But you are trying to expand this repertoire!

NJ:    Absolutely, absolutely.  We try, but it must be really exciting.  Now, you remember, we are describing, too, Scotland.  It’s so beautiful piece!  Why people just like that, you have to explain, in the concert.  It is a beautiful music, and they like very much.  Now, whatever the piece is, they come to—they must trust me.  I must do the performances which they like, and they come again, or whatever there is piece--by Scandinavian composer, for example.  I played this, symphonies by Svendsen and Gade and...

BD:    Stenhammar?

NJ:    Stenhammar Number One was never played in Sweden.  My director said Number Two was available, but where is Number One?  He didn’t like very much that symphony.  He says, “Forget about that.”  I said, “But why?  Let’s try.”  And we played it, and we were excited, as was everyone in the audience.  Now the Stockholm Orchestra is starting to play this symphony.  Next year.  They have a subscription series and they are doing Stenhammar Number One.

BD:    From the vast literature of all the symphonies that have been written, how do you decide which ones you are going to bring to the public, and how do you sort through them?

jarviNJ:    You have to research your scores and music and tapes and whatever the possibility is to have an idea which kind of music.  For instance, in Tubin’s case, you don’t know very much.  You know that it’s a
good composer.  You should trust him; must be everything good.  Number Four I did the first time, Number Five I did and I did Number Six.  It must be all good, and it was.

BD:    Is this not a terrible pressure on the composer, that everything must be good?

NJ:    Maybe not must be good, but you must appreciate it.  To my mind first, and after the performance, the audience also says it’s good music.  And in the Tubin case, absolutely.  Of course, if you’re talking Symphony Number One, which was written early, maybe it’s not very much.  It was not ready, maybe, but you feel it’s by a great master.  Number Two is a fantastic piece!  After Two, Three is also a good piece.  Number Four is a nice, beautiful, lyrical symphony.  Number Five is a fantastic piece that you can compare any great symphonies by Shostakovich or Prokofiev.

BD:    So it’s always going up, then?

NJ:    It’s going up, yes.  He’s changing, some way, in his style, but you feel it’s Tubin’s music.  It’s so interesting, it’s so exciting, you want to do the next one!  It’s not because you are just doing the whole set of symphonies by this composer, but you do them because it’s interesting.  I finished the complete Dvořák cycle of nine symphonies and eleven tone poems with the Scottish Orchestra.

BD:    In concerts or recordings?

NJ:    Yes, both.  I did not do One, Two, or Three at concerts, but there’s a lot things which were not recorded before.  I think it’s interesting to do the Number One, for example, which was written for a competition which he didn’t win!  And you see exactly why he did not win.  But it’s interesting, the history.  You see that kind of beautiful second movement which there is.  There are some great, great moments, and as you see, a great composer comes from this.  After the Symphony Number One there comes Number Two which is also not very exciting, but in which the second movement again is fantastic.  This shows especially in the slow movements in Dvořák and always this dancing third, the Czech dance.  Three and Four are exciting symphonies, and Five is a masterpiece!  And all his tone poems!  People don’t play them at all!  You see Noonday Witch on the program sometimes, or Othello, but Heroic Lied or Biblical Songs you don’t see very much.

BD:    Should we see them on the programs?

NJ:    Yeah, we should!  We should because they are great music.  Great music!  Anyway, for me it’s excitement, and I like to share it with someone — with my audience, with my orchestras.  Why should I not do that?  Why have I to be on a very narrow repertoire?  I can play all this repertoire.  I can play Bruckner and Mahler, Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert
— which I do — but I like to be all excited with other works, so I have bring my audience also Sibelius and Nielsen and Svendsen, and a lot of Russian composers which are not known.  I did all Glazunov’s symphonies, for example, and a lot of music by Rimsky-Korsakov.  It’s all exciting things.  What’s wrong with this?

BD:    Is it more exciting when you know you’re doing a masterpiece?

NJ:    Yes, then you feel it.  You feel it’s really a masterpiece, and there is also big master behind it.  But maybe it’s not his best work; perhaps he was not real symphonist, like for example Rimsky-Korsakov.  He was an opera composer, and wrote some exciting things, like Scheherazade, which is well-known, but he wrote also nine operas which nobody knows.

BD:    I know May Night, and that’s about it.

NJ:    Yes, May Night, but also Sadko and Kitezh, and all his other music people don’t know.  But anyway, to introduce that music from this is a start, and there are masterpieces.  It is not because they are not masterpieces conductors are not conducting them, but because they don’t know them and they don’t care about it very much.  They like to conduct, basically, repertoire which they know, and to come to the orchestra ready, which is important.  But still, it’s very narrow.

BD:    What is it about a masterpiece that makes it a masterpiece?

NJ:    [Thinks a moment]  It’s become some kind of tradition.  Think of the famous names
Beethoven, Brahms, before that Haydn, Mozart — that’s the line from where comes a masterpiece.  That piece must be a masterpiece because that’s Haydn, because that’s Mozart, because that’s Beethoven, that’s Brahms.  But a masterpiece comes when you must be convinced that’s a masterpiece, and I make sure that’s a masterpiece.  If you play a very boring performance of the Glazunov Number Six or Number Seven, people will be saying it’s not a masterpiece.  You must convince them that’s a masterpiece, and there’s a lot of masterpieces which people don’t know.  It’s my idea that we should not to be with only this great stuff of repertoire, which basically everyone conducts.  You know them exactly and you love them, this Brahms Symphony Number Four; you love all Brahms’ music.  Of course you want to explore very much, but you’re doing it anyway.  But that’s a masterpiece.  I had to discover the meaning of other composers which are around that did not write a masterpiece.  It’s second rate music or third rate music, but don’t tell that to anyone.  Try to convince people that’s not.  Every conductor says that Glazunov’s music is second rate music or third rate music, but I don’t think so.  This kind of ballet music, like Raymonda or the Seasons... or Le Sacre du Printemps or a tone poem like La Mer — only a great composer can create these things.

BD:    Can you take a piece of music which is not a masterpiece and make it sound better, make it sound like a masterpiece?

NJ:    We have to try to help the composer because basically, nothing is written here — only the notes.  It’s only notes and words like poco ritardando, andante, allegro moderato, accented, something, something, ritenuto, meno mosso — it doesn’t say very much.  Are we making music?  I have to help composers.  I can’t make the notes on the page.  It’s only some certain line of notes written down, but you have to interpret them, and that interpretation is the main thing which we have to do.  If we can’t do that, we can’t say it’s a masterpiece.  We have to make sure that’s a masterpiece, and demonstrate it.  When I listen sometimes to recordings
whatever the pieceyes, they play notes, but they’re not performance!  Beautiful playing of notes!  Some great conductors and great orchestras just playing notes!  Beautiful playing notes, but it’s not performance.  The conductors must help very much to make the performance and enjoy that performance.  It’s not it’s just playing.  I don’t know why that’s happened.  I try.  Of course it’s a very personal thing.  You think it’s interesting or maybe you think it’s not interesting, but still, phrasing and music making exist.  If you’re a talented person, you try explain what the phrase says.  There’s no written crescendo in Haydn symphonies, or Bach pieces, but you try still to make that — like Sir Thomas Beecham did.  He did real music making in Haydn symphonies!  And you were excited from this, because he had own view of these things.  Another guy says, “But it’s not a classical performance because there is a lot of romantic reading.”  What’s wrong with Bruno Walter playing Mozart symphonies?  It’s all a romantic reading, but it’s beautiful!  I enjoy them.  Conductors help a lot to make composers known and unknown.

BD:    Is this the advice you have for younger conductors coming along?

NJ:    Of course.  Young conductors definitely must have manual technique; that’s the first thing.  If you don’t have that, you can’t explain; you don’t make music.  You may be a very talented person but you can make nothing.  You must learn technique.  Technique is the first thing in music for everyone — for a violin player, for instrumentalists, for conductors.  It’s a profession which a lot of people think it’s not necessary to learn.
It’s very important to learn and to study what is a conductor is.  The basic thing is conductor’s technique.  You can’t explain that, actually.  There are great conductors and great conducting schools and very good professors which one can study.  In our days, it’s much less than it was before.

BD:    Are we losing a tradition?

NJ:    We are losing a tradition because there is a lot of people who just try to wave with hands, and try to come thinking they are conducting.  It’s not conducting.  They think it’s a very easy job to come to the Chicago Symphony, and wave just one-two-three-four and orchestra plays.  It’s still exciting because they play very well.  You are a nice person; you have a big name and you can do that, but it’s not real conducting.  You cannot explain how you need a conductor’s technique.  A young person, especially, must know all philosophies around, and be aware of what the young people are doing now.  I know a lot of young people who are learning.  There is a lot of talking about the piece they are conducting, but not real talk about technique, conducting technical things.  That’s wrong.  They need to learn the form of this piece, and learn that there’s a forte here and make sure I hear it’s forte here.  I see how to make this phrase here, but I do not know how to explain that.  I came to Leningrad and studied.  The pedagogue gave me half an opera, and I came one half hour twice a week.  It was two ladies sitting at a piano and a conductor just conducting — but I was young and it was very tough just trying to conduct and explain.  It took time
one year, two yearsto make myself free!  It is too tense here for the young people.  You must conduct, you have to work.  You have to make exercise, a lot of exercise, every day!  You have your score, you try to look; you like to put in every cue and try to make as much as possible.  But then your pedagogue says some good things during these lessons.  Remember, it takes some years and eventually you will feel very comfortable.  You’re free and you have legato.  You can easily explain what you want.

BD:    So you need to get beyond the technique?

NJ:    That’s what a conductor needs to do, very much, nowadays.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What advice do you have for young composers coming along?

NJ:    That’s difficult to say.  In our days, they try to find new ways of musical language, to say something new.  It’s very difficult.  The time goes ahead and everything’s done.  Nowadays, a composer comes very easy to find C major, and find where are the E’s and where are the G’s, and not very much else to combine these things.  It’s minimalism, yes?

with partBD:    Yes, minimalism.

NJ:    Minimalistic style.  I did a lot of contemporary music in my younger age in Estonia when I knew Arvo Pärt.  [Photo of Järvi and Pärt at right]  He now lives in Berlin.  His style was very contemporary, and it was very new at that time.  Nobody liked his music.  It was so contemporary, using the twelve tone system but something new also.  Plus all this cluster system.  Now he’s so simple.  Very simple.

BD:    Too simple?

NJ:    Yes.  He just enjoys the C major and the scale, and how to put D in the C major and this orchestration.  Everyone has tried to find his own way to be good composer, an interesting composer, but we have quite a poor situation nowadays.  Looking at composers, you can’t find very much.  If we go little back to Stravinsky or Prokofiev, to Britten or to Shostakovich, they can do great things and great composers existed.  We can’t say in our days someone comes with this kind of big name.

BD:    Why?

NJ:    I don’t know.  Time is different.  It’s not only in composing; all art and everything goes that way.  Architecture all looks very simple.  If you look back maybe this time will not give so much expression and so many ideas.  Who knows?

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

NJ:    [Thinks a bit]  I don’t see a lot of composers sending to me a lot of scores to my both orchestras.  I look at them and I am not excited very much.  I can’t select a good piece, but everyone works hard.  It takes time.  Maybe something comes out.  I’m still interested in composers nowadays.  Schnittke is interesting and Arvo Pärt in some ways is interesting.  I’m still going back to Lutosławski and these people.

BD:    Also Penderecki?

NJ:    Penderecki, yeah.  [See my Interview with Krzystof Penderecki.]  But it’s not this music that we’re expecting from the young conductors nowadays.  It’s all past, I think.  It’s the people who are now sixty and seventy years of age.  I don’t know.  That’s why I still keep my eyes on this old-fashioned music like Prokofiev and Shostakovich.  [Both laugh]  Then I go to Scandinavia to find out something unusual.  It’s a need, I think; it’s important.

BD:    Have you done any music by American composers?

NJ:    I am just now selecting a lot of tapes and scores, and I do very carefully look at American music because I think America does not play often their classics.  I must say I don’t know how to call classics, but composers like Howard Hanson or Piston, or go back to Chadwick and Mrs. Beach, a lot of composers who we don’t hear in concert programs at all.  [Note: Jarvi would play and record quite a bit of American music once he became Music Director of the Detroit Symphony in 1990.]

BD:    They should be done?

NJ:    Should be!  It’s interesting.  Why not go to Howard Hanson Symphony Number One, the Nordic Symphony, or Number Three, which is a very Sibelian symphony, where you feel Sibelius.  We play Tubin’s symphonies now, and the critics say it’s quite the same qualities in Tubin’s music and Howard Hanson with the Sibelius quality.  We play now the Tubin music; let’s play Howard Hanson’s symphonies also.  I would like to do that.  It’s a very high, good composer.  And there’s a beautiful Gaelic Symphony by Mrs. Beach.  It’s a nice symphony.  Who knows, in America, the existence of this music?

BD:    I don’t know the symphony.  I know her piano music, but I don’t know her symphonic work.

NJ:    Yes, beautiful symphony, excellent music!  Or, play Walter Piston’s symphonies.  The beautiful Symphony Number Four, or Number Two, and the rhythmic things there.  And Paul Creston is not played very often.  What I know, basically from America music, it comes Gershwin, it goes to Copland, and then goes to Bernstein.  And that goes to Bernstein back to Copland, and then it goes to Gershwin again.

BD:    And that’s it.

NJ:    Now the big time is Gershwin again, and everyone’s playing Gershwin.  Michael Tilson Thomas is playing Gershwin.  It is Gershwin time now, but there are a lot of composers between them who need very much to be introduced to the musical world; not only America, to all of the world.  A lot of good composers.  I would like very much to be busy with what I play.  I’m so alone with all this repertoire, and no time.  I have Scandinavian and Russian music and Estonian music.  But American now, I’d like very much to start to do them.

BD:    I’m glad you’re including us now.

NJ:    Absolutely, absolutely!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is music art, or is music entertainment? 

NJ:    The great music is art and entertainment, also.

BD:    Where’s the balance

jarviNJ:    [Thinks for a moment]  It’s difficult to say.  You mean is it show business or something?  Entertainment, it’s a show, yes?  That’s a performer’s problem.  If you look at performers, there are show and entertainment performers who make it entertainment, and others who are doing art.  Sometimes they are doing it together.  It’s a very happy marriage where that’s happened.  I look at the conductor’s business, or is that a show business?  Depends on who is looking.  Conductors want very much to show the performer how he is looking, how he is making his performance.  It must be outside, something extraordinary, beautiful.  Maybe he is a good-looking man.  He is making nice gestures for the audience.

BD:    [Laughs]

NJ:    He is looking very much to make nice gestures also for orchestra people because it works if you’re doing this.  Everyone is a human being and we all like a show, but you must exactly know how much to do so you overdo it.  Then it becomes entertainment and you forget about Beethoven and Brahms and the serious performance of these pieces.  You must be very concentrated in these things and somewhat inside to feel it’s all in my hands when I perform that piece.  People must understand that it must be very much without show. 

BD:    How much of the conductor
s business is from the heart, and how much is from your head?

NJ:    Oh, it is equally, I think, heart and head; they work together.  Heart is all your feelings, and brains are for your things which you impose to your ideas to make that good performance possible.

BD:    Do you still conduct opera?

NJ:    Yes, yes, I’m conducting opera, but much less.  Otherwise I can’t do all my projects and be ready with the symphony music!  [Laughs]  I like very much to do a lot of symphony music now.  At the Metropolitan Opera I have done Onegin and Samson and Delilah.  At the Stockholm Opera, I did Salome and Rosenkavalier.  When I was in Estonia, I was a chief conductor in an opera house for thirty years.  I did all the opera repertoire, basically German and Italian repertoire, and some Estonian pieces.  I did also Porgy and Bess.

BD:    Really?  In Estonia???

NJ:    Yes, in Estonian language, yes.  We had a very good baritone, Georg Otts, a very famous man in Estonia.  It was difficult to get material, but we had nice friends in Finland who could get material from Finnish Opera, and then we did it.  I have done a lot of things, but now I’m getting older and I think when I go to an opera house, it will be for something like Wagner.

BD:    Have you done some Wagner.

NJ:    Some, but it’s impossible for me to do a complete set of Wagner in your lifetime; but we’ll try.

BD:    Which Wagner operas have you done?

NJ:    I have done Lohengrin and Flying Dutchman.  I learned all those things in Leningrad, because my pedagogue was a very Wagnerian and Brucknerian...

BD:    Mravinksy?

NJ:    No, not Mravinsky, but Rabinovitch.  Mravinsky was there also, but he was more of a symphony conductor than my pedagogue was.  You know that Leningrad, my studying was also very German type of conducting.  My pedagogue was a student of Nicholai Malko.  And at that time in young Soviet Russia, they had a lot of conductors from Germany.  Bruno Walter conducted very often there, and Klemperer, and Fritz Stiedry was Chief Conductor of Leningrad Philharmonic before Mravinsky.  And Knappertsbusch came often to conduct symphony concerts.  He was a young man, an exciting young conductor, so he went over concerts and studied all these styles.  And there was a lot of opera music also
Richard Strauss operas.  That is why I’m very familiar with Richard Strauss, because he was liked very much, and I also liked his music.  I did an all Richard Strauss cycle with Scottish Orchestra.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you like being engaged two or three or four years in advance?

NJ:    I am, but I don’t like that.

BD:    Why?

jarviNJ:    Because when I have been booked already and something else, more interesting comes, and you can’t fix it!  [Both laugh]  That’s the thing, especially when you have two orchestras, and you have duties to serve these two orchestras.  Then you have a very limited time to go to other places, other orchestras.  It is interesting to me to go to Chicago, to Berlin Philharmonic, to different orchestras.  It made me sad to have to say for Berlin Philharmonic, “No, I can’t come.  I can’t come.”  Better to have free time, a little bit.  That is why I now just give up my orchestra, Scottish National Orchestra, and I am a little bit having free time and have more engagements here in America.  I like very much America to live with my family together, which is also important.  I have three children, and I don’t see them very much.

BD:    Are you coming back to Chicago?

NJ:    Definitely.  I’ll definitely come back.  I like Chicago.  Chicago Symphony is a fantastic orchestra, and we have a very good relationship.  And I think it’s collaboration, and we need to do some interesting programs again if we find the time to arrange things.

BD:    Is conducting fun?

NJ:    Conducting is great fun!  It’s my life, and it is exciting.  It makes very boring life when you’re not conducting.  And you’re not only conducting, but looking at scores to prepare music and to look at new repertoire and everything.  But the final result, if you are doing concerts and rehearsals, that’s really exciting to me.  Different kinds of orchestras and people, and different attitudes and managements — it’s interesting, very interesting.  Fun.  It’s my life!

BD:    Is music really the universal language?

NJ:    It is.  It must be.  It definitely is.  And I like very much the people in America, how much they come to concerts and like symphonic music.  They come to listen the evenings.  They’re maybe working all the day. I went the other day to Lulu [at Lyric Opera of Chicago] and the man who was sitting next to me just slept all evening.  But he came!  [Both laugh]

BD:    He came, but he missed it!

NJ:    He came, but he missed!  But he participated; he comes!  But he was happy on the other hand!  He just was absolutely excited!  Anyway, American people come to the concerts, and they come to support the music, support the arts.  They give much money, which is a big need to the orchestras, to make orchestra members and musicians’ life normal.  That’s the style I like very much, the support of art and to find out they come to the concert and they are excited.  And our duty is to give him good results, good performances. 

BD:    That is your duty, but what is the purpose of music?

NJ:    That’s the purpose, to make yourself happy, people happy, and to introduce the composer who is maybe not well enough known; to make wider the repertoire and educate the audience.  [Thinks a moment] 
Music is this kind of international language, which everyone needs.

BD:    It’s a hard question.

NJ:    It’s a hard question, yes.  Why music?  Why not some other type of art?

BD:    We need food; we need air...

NJ:    Yes, yes.

BD:    Do we need music?

NJ:    I think we need it.  After all this that you just said, music was the next one.  If you look at regular people who are working in offices, they are all involved some way.  Youngsters are involved somewhere in music, of course, but which kind of music?  It’s big problem for youngsters especially.  They don’t know that very much, because a youngster’s life is different.  They need, maybe, this kind of noise, and this kind of rock music.  In older times there was nice jazz music, and now it is just noise.  They’re happy with this!  Maybe I’m getting old and maybe I don’t understand this, but I don’t agree that’s really the right way.  Twenty years from now, when they’re grown up, these people are not coming to the symphony concert very often.

BD:    Should we try to get them to come to the symphony?

NJ:    Definitely.  We have to, some way.

BD:    How?

NJ:    It’s different in different countries.  I was the other day in Stockholm, and a lot of young people came to the concert.  But you have to do all your programs with the idea to bring them in the hall and make them excited.  After this rock music nowadays, it’s very difficult to bring youngsters to the symphony concert, but everyone is some way involved in their music; they’re playing it in their cars.  They say every day, “What today am I going to do
listen to the radio, or listen to cassettes?”  No matter, it’s music.  There is a connection with the music!  They need that music.  One has a classical station and the other has rock, but it’s music, anyway.  They need the music.  People need music.

BD:    Is rock, music?

NJ:    For me, not!  [Both laugh]  I’m sorry, but I think it is not.  It would make our life richer to have good music.  And youngsters, young people, after twenty years, which type of music are they going to love?  I don’t know, but definitely not that music which they love now.  It comes and goes very soon.

BD:    Is this what makes a masterpiece, that it doesn’t come and go, it comes and stays?

NJ:    Absolutely!  Absolutely, yes, yes.  Yeah, yeah.  Sometimes you have a masterpiece which comes and goes, and the other masterpiece comes and never goes.  Maybe that’s the difference with one masterpiece to another, but it’s your taste.  You cannot do the same pieces every day, but all conductors basically do just a few selected things.

BD:    You need a balance.

NJ:    Balance, yes.  It’s always getting more exciting and more exciting, and you’re mad over this!  Doing different things makes me excited more and more, and I’m very happy with it, actually. 

Born: June 7, 1937 - Tallinn, Estonia

The Estonian conductor, Neeme Järvi, was brought up within the USSR's system for developing musical talent, Järvi studied percussion and conducting at the Tallinn Music School. He made his debut as a conductor at the age of eighteen. From 1955 to 1960 he pursued further studies at the Leningrad Conservatory, where his principal teachers were Nikolaï Rabinovich and Yevgeny Mravinsky.

jarviFrom the early 1960's, Neeme Järvi took a leading role in the musical life of his homeland. He was the co-founder of the Estonian Radio Chamber Orchestra in Tallinn and its artistic director. In 1963 he assumed the directorship of the Estonian Radio & Television Orchestra, his first important post. He also founded the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. He was also asked to become the principal conductor and artistic director of the State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (renamed Estonian National Opera Theater after restored independence of Estonia), and held this post for 13 years. From 1976 to 1980 he was chief conductor and artistic director of the Estonian State Symphony Orchestra, then in its infancy. By the late 1970's his fame had spread throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and he received favorable notices for his appearances in the West. He made history by leading the first performances of Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess ever given in the USSR. In 1979, he conducted Tchaikovski's Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

While with the ESSO Neeme Järvi developed a particular interest in unearthing and performing neglected repertory by both little-known and important composers. He was a particular champion of the Estonian composers Eduard Tubin and Arvo Pärt. In 1979 he premiered Pärt's Credo, a work that represents a turning point in that composer's stylistic evolution. Järvi, recognizing the importance of Credo (which incorporates biblical texts), presented it without first navigating through the usual channels of the Communist Party or the Composers' Union.The resulting controversy and official disfavor induced Järvi to emigrate.

Neeme Järvi was permitted to leave Estonia, and in January 1980, he and his family emigrated to the USA. Two major agencies, International Concert Management and Columbia Artists, had offered him contracts and he decided to go with Columbia Artists. Within a month of his departure, he made his debut performances with the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He quickly received important appointments: principal guest conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England (1981-1983), music director of the Royal Scottish Orchestra (1984-1988), music director of the Gothenburg (Sweden) Symphony Orchestra (from 1982), and principal guest conductor of the Japan Philharmonic. In recognition of his service to the Scottish orchestra, Aberdeen University bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate. In 1990, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra honors Neeme Järvi by naming him Conductor Laureate for Life. Since 1990, he has been the musical director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he is the first principal guest conductor of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. Since 2000, he has held international master classes in the summer resort town of Pärnu, Estonia.

Neeme Järvi is among the most recorded conductors in the world. Since 1983, 357 CDs have been produced under his baton. During the last ten and a half years, he has given 1119 concerts in 125 cities, conducting 72 different orchestras. With the Detroit Symphony Orchestra he has made thirty of some 100 recordings on the Chandos label. Järvi has also recorded for BIS, Deutsche Gramophon, and Orfeo; his various recording projects include cycles of orchestral music by Sibelius, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Tubin, Brahms, Schumann, Shostakovich, and others.

Neeme Järvi's children have made their mark on the musical world as well: son Paavo Järvi is gaining an international reputation as a conductor and holds posts as principal guest conductor of the Stockholm Philharmonic and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Kristjan is the founder and conductor of the Absolut Ensemble of New York City; and daughter Maarika is principal flutist with the RTVE Symphony Orchestra in Madrid. Järvi announced his decision to step down from his Detroit post in 2005. He has also served as principal conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on December 14, 1987.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1997, and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2009 and posted on this website early in 2010.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.