Neeme Järvi – the Godfather

Neeme Järvi has spent his entire career promoting Estonian orchestras, composers and culture. As the country celebrates its 100th birthday, he tells Andrew Anderson how such a small nation has produced so much wonderful music, and shares some of the lessons he’s learned from a lifetime on the podium

Music journalists are somewhat prone to hyperbole, but when I say Neeme Järvi is a living legend it is no exaggeration. At the age of 24 he was already music director of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (ENSO), where he premiered his friend Arvo Pärt’s first major orchestral work Credo in 1968. During the 60s and 70s he turned ENSO into an in-demand international ensemble, while still finding time to win first prize at the International Conductors Competition at the National Academy of St Cecilia in Rome in 1971.

Since then, he’s gone on to hold posts with top orchestras including Detroit Symphony, Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; become an acclaimed guest conductor for ensembles like Chicago Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw; and continued to promote Estonian composers like Pärt, Eduard Tubin and Rudolf Tobias.

As if that were not enough, he also found the time to raise a family of successful musicians. His sons Paavo and Kristjan are among the first rank of international conductors working today, while his daughter Maarika Järvi is a sought after flautist.

First, I ask Järvi how a small country like Estonia – with a population of just 1.3m – manages to make such a major impact in music. “It comes from centuries of influences,” he asserts. “700 years ago we were tied to Germany. Then we spent 300 years with Sweden. Then 200 years with Russian tsars, and another 50 under Soviet occupation. All of these different relations and occupations have become part of our musical culture.

“Further, many of our great composers had to live abroad. Take for example our Tubin or the Russian Rachmaninov. Even though they lived away from home they tried to explore ideas of their own nation in their music. Rachmaninov in America made great Russian music. Tubin in Sweden made great Estonian music.”

Järvi’s own family are also a major reason for Estonia’s pre-eminence. Paavo is one of the most respected conductors working today, with stints at ensembles including Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris and NHK Symphony Orchestra. He also established the Estonian Festival Orchestra, which has quickly drawn favourable comparisons to Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Meanwhile Kristjan has built a reputation for uncovering new composers and working on boundary pushing interdisciplinary projects.

“My son Paavo has made a wonderful festival orchestra. It’s a very tough thing to achieve, and it is just unbelievable how great it is. Whenever I participate in concerts or see him in rehearsals I am always amazed at what he can create.

“Kristjan is the same kind of person – a creator. He comes from a different angle, but the work he does with groups like Rundfunkchor, his explorations of world music and jazz, are very important.

“I am a creator too, but my time is gone, so I’m very happy my sons can carry on my work in their own way.”

Neeme Järvi at Laulupidu festival

Neeme Järvi at Laulupidu festival

How did Järvi manage to raise such a musical family? He muses for a few seconds before answering: “It’s in our DNA. My daughter Maarika is a very good flute player. My brother was the first conductor in my family and I learned from him. His family are all musicians.”

However, Järvi adds that natural talent alone is not enough. “You have to be fanatical about music, but you also have to be professional. I see some people who are clearly fanatical about music, but they have not learned the professional side and so their music is not so good.

“I always instilled in my children that you must learn the basics. For a conductor, that means knowing about many styles: classical music, world music, jazz. You can’t just know one famous piece by a composer: you must know all their works. And you must have the correct technique, whether you are a musician or a conductor.

“Conducting is a special thing,” he continues. “If you’re conducting Wagner you must know not only his music but also his philosophy, his conflict with Brahms, his relationships. If you’re conducting Scandinavian music you can’t just know about Sibelius, you must also know Carl Nielsen, Johan Halvorsen, Edvard Grieg and Kurt Atterberg. I have been fanatical about these composers and my children are too.”

Today, Järvi is music director of ENSO, a position he has held for the last seven years. Whereas in the ’60s his job was to promote the orchestra nationally and internationally, now it is to pass on the knowledge and skills he has picked up from a lifetime on the podium.

“To be a good conductor you have to learn these things over a long time: the traditions, the techniques, the interpretations. There is a lot of homework. Some people think a conductor just comes along and counts the bars, but that is not the case.”

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