Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the November 17,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From Estonia to Sweden and Now the NJ Symphony
As a conductor Neeme Jarvi makes musicians melt. As an administrator
he makes budgets balance.
In March, 2003, during the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s 2 1/2-year
long search for a new conductor, Jarvi conducted a memorable Young
Artists Audition concert. As the performance unfolded, the orchestra’s
instrumentalists identified Jarvi as the ideal candidate to succeed
Music Director Emeritus Zdenek Macal. Jarvi was one of more than two
dozen contenders for Macal’s post.
Talking about the encounter, concertmaster Eric Wyrick praised Jarvi’s
"chemistry" with the orchestra in a Star Ledger story. Timpanist Randy
Hicks lauded his heartfelt music making. Principal flutist Bart
Feller, who was on the 12-member search committee, cited Jarvi’s
wholehearted approval in all sections of the orchestra. Principal
bassoonist Robert Wagner told the New York Times about a Jarvi
"He’s the finest conductor I’ve ever played with," principal cellist
Jonathon Spitz told U.S. 1. Asked by a tactful interviewer if he
really wanted to see that remark attributed to him in print, he
thought it over and decided to go public with the assessment (U.S. 1,
January 7, 2004). "What makes him outstanding," Spitz said, "is his
complete technical control and his comfort in the gestures he makes to
the orchestra. Innately, he’s remarkably rhythmic and musical. He’s a
conductor who doesn’t need to say very much in rehearsal because he
shows what he wants so well with his body."
Matching Jarvi’s electric effect on musicians is the fiscal magic he
has worked on Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, where he has
been principal conductor since 1982, and at the Detroit Symphony
Orchestra, which he has led since 1989. Facing Jarvi’s departure at
the end of the current season, both bodies are financially robust
because of his efforts. At Gothenburg he found the funding to grow the
orchestra from 80 to 116 members and to increase its recording
contracts and international tours. His industrial partner was Swedish
automaker Volvo. In Detroit Jarvi oversaw the growth of the
orchestra’s endowment from barely noticeable to $125 million. His
industrial partner was General Motors.
In New Jersey, where we have chemical and pharmaceutical industries,
but no automakers, Jarvi faces fiscal challenges again. The
accumulated debt of the NJSO, which has an annual operating budget of
close to $15 million, was more than $5 million at the beginning of the
2004-’05 season. In addition the orchestra has a debt of $18 million
for the collection of 30 17th and 18th century string instruments
purchased from Herbert and Evelyn Axelrod.
In a telephone interview from Berlin, Germany, where he conducted the
Deutsche Symphony Orchestra, Jarvi talks primarily about the
practical, financial underpinnings of orchestral existence. The
Estonian-born conductor expresses himself vividly in English, though
it is clear from an occasionally non-standard turn of phrase that
English is not his native language. "Fundraising is an important
issue," he says. "Every American orchestra has to do it; in Europe the
government pays. Orchestras here are not supported by the government.
What they get is just peanuts. We have to make our own money
"I have no gift for fundraising," Jarvi continues, with surprising
modesty, "but I know its needed. You have to be careful talking about
money. You don’t always succeed. You have to be friends. You don’t ask
directly. I try to be close to families and donors, to speak about
culture and explain why we need culture and music. Whether people are
more or less wealthy we have to talk the same way to all of them. We
have to bring them to the concert hall. We need to make people
"The symphony orchestra is far away from real life. People don’t need
to support what goes well, like rock music. We need to get youngsters
to concert halls. It’s important for parents to take their children.
The history of music and art is part of education. It’s not just
funds. It’s education."
Still, music trumps even education for Jarvi. His tone of voice
softens when he talks about Johannes Brahms "Deutsches Requiem," which
he conducts in a batch of performances that begin at Trenton’s War
Memorial Friday, November 19, at 8 p.m. and continue at the New Jersey
Performing Arts Center in Newark Saturday, November 20 at 8 p.m. and
Sunday, November 21 at 3 p.m. Soloists are Kelley Nassief, soprano;
and Garry Magee, baritone. Joseph Flummerfelt’s Westminster Symphonic
Choir participates. The concert choir of Rider University’s
Westminster Choir College, the Symphonic Choir performed the Brahms
"Requiem" earlier in the month with the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra
as part of Lincoln Center’s nine-part month-long Brahms festival.
The "Requiem" is one of the half dozen programs Jarvi leads as
principal conductor and music director designate of the NJSO during
the 2004-’05 season. Awarded the post in November, 2003, Jarvi’s
three-year contract as music director begins with the 2005-’06 season,
when he leaves the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
"Brahms’ ‘Requiem’ is my favorite," Jarvi says. "It’s such a wonderful
undertaking. I think that every time I do it. He wrote it for his
mother’s death. It’s so full of tenderness and beauty. Every bar is
wonderful. It’s one of the greatest pieces of music ever."
Decrying the absence of an organ for the performance of the piece,
Jarvi situates himself at the intersection where music meets money.
"Builders of concert halls leave organs out," he says. "Every concert
hall should have an organ. It’s a serious lack. Brahms needs a good
organ. Actually, an organ costs very little money. If you have $50
million to build a concert hall, you could have $51 million and
include an organ."
Born in 1937, in Tallinn, Estonia, Neeme Jarvi singles out his parents
as the source of his musical interests. "My parents were not
professionals," he says, "but they pushed me after my brother, who was
13 years older and was the first professional musician in my family.
My mother was very pushy and I’m grateful. My father, who is now 90,
took me to concerts."
"I started with xylophone," Jarvi says. "At that time it was a concert
instrument. At four I played on Estonian radio. It was not children’s
pieces." Age 17 at the time, Neeme’s brother Vallo, an opera conductor
who died in 1994, accompanied his younger sibling on piano.
Jarvi studied percussion instruments and choral conducting in Tallinn
when Estonia was a Soviet satellite. He studied conducting at the St.
Petersburg Conservatory before the Soviet Union dissolved and came to
lead the Radio Estonia Symphony Orchestra and the Estonian Theater
Ensemble. Immigrating to the United States in 1980 with his wife and
three children, he lived in Rumson and Shrewsbury, New Jersey, and
commuted to New York City to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera.
Beginning in the early 1980s Jarvi started amassing a discography
unrivalled in size. His more than 350 recordings tend toward
orchestral works from Russia, Scandinavia, and the Baltics. He has
recorded the complete symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich;
Stenhammar and Alfven; Gade and Nielsen; Arvo Part; Brahms and Dvorak;
as well as complete operas. Americans Samuel Barber, George Chadwick,
Duke Ellington, and Charles Ives are represented. Less prominent are
Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.
"I’m concentrating on the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra now," Jarvi
says. As director of the NJSO Jarvi will conduct for 10 of the 18
weeks in the orchestra’s season. He expects to continue his
commitments as first principal guest conductor of the Japan
Philharmonic Orchestra and at the Stockholm Opera House.
Jarvi would like to increase the size of the NJSO to 115 or 120
members. The motive is musical; the problem is financial. "The New
Jersey orchestra is the size of a full size orchestra," Jarvi says.
"With 115 or 120 I won’t need to ask for extra players for Mahler or
Shostakovich or other big pieces. The main power in an orchestra comes
from strings, not percussion or winds. The string section must be half
the orchestra or even 60 percent. Then you can feel the real sound of
a real orchestra."
Jarvi is sanguine about the quality of American musicians. His
enthusiasm is unbridled. "If there’s one place in an American
orchestra, there are 200 applicants," he says. "America has the best
orchestras in the world, better than Europe. Ten times better. Not
twice. Ten times better."
"The most difficult thing is programming," Jarvi says. "We have to be
happy ourselves (in the orchestra). We have to make the audience
happy; that’s why we’re existing. We have to make the hall full. And
we have to play at the highest possible level.
"Contemporary music is a problem," Jarvi says. "American orchestras
are very dependent on the box office. If it’s only contemporary music,
you have an empty hall. You have to be enterprising, but if you’re too
enterprising, you can’t make a living. Management says, ‘This doesn’t
sell.’ In America an orchestra is business. You have to sell your
product. But it’s still art."
"That’s where a festival comes in," Jarvi says. "You can go in
different directions and program something fresh." The NJSO has been
offering three weeks of festival each January since 1998. Thanks to
Jarvi, the 2005 festival will consist of Nordic music. "It’s wonderful
music, not much performed in the United States." he says. "There are
recognizable national styles of folk music that can be put into
Music is a main topic of conversation in the Jarvi family. Neeme’s
three children are all active, professional musicians. Paavo, born in
1961 and trained as a percussionist, is music director of the
Cincinnati Symphony; he has an international conducting career, and
seems to be following his father’s lead by recording extensively.
Maarika, born in 1964, is a solo flutist. Kristjan, born in 1972, is a
pianist and conductor of New York’s contemporary group Absolute
Ensemble, as well as traditional groups in Sweden and Austria.
Father Neeme says that he keeps track of his brood on the Internet.
"Google Jarvi," he advises. I do, and find a stimulating interview
with son Paavo on City Paper, a website devoted to Baltic affairs.
Paavo talks about being a good conductor, and encapsulates not only
his own experience, but also his father’s. "Conducting’s not hocus
pocus," he says. "Still, there is something – with the chemistry, with
being able to create atmosphere, with being able to persuade musicians
to see things your way. You are part actor, part musician, part
teacher, part disciplinarian. You can teach technique, but you can’t
teach somebody to be a conductor per se."
Trenton’s War Memorial, Friday, November 19, at 8 p.m. Tickets: $24 to
$82. Call 800-255-3476.
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