A conducting dynasty: in conversation with Neeme Järvi and his sons Paavo and Kristjan

James Jolly
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

With Neeme Järvi having just turned 80 and Estonia marking its centenary, James Jolly seizes the chance to meet Neeme and his sons Paavo and Kristjan – their country’s finest conducting exports

Neeme Järvi has been honoured with Gramophone's 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award. This article was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Gramophone.

For many years, there has been one item on Gramophone’s ‘to do’ list: talk conducting with the Järvi family – Neeme and his sons, Paavo and Kristjan; not individually, but all together. For the past few years, diaries – the three maintain pretty hair-raising schedules – have stood in the way. But last summer, the stars were in alignment, the omens were good, and all three were gathered in the same place, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia – a country which, this year, marks its 100th anniversary. Such a milestone is being celebrated in an all-embracing ‘Estonia 100’ initiative which is attracting many visitors to this small but dynamic Baltic nation.

Neeme is now Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (a role he previously held from 1963 to 1979), and he resides in Tallinn. Around the time of our interview, he was working with student orchestras as part of the Järvi Academy, while Paavo had been conducting his recently formed (in 2011) Estonian Festival Orchestra in nearby Pärnu; he was also spending time in Tallinn with his father’s orchestra, of which he’s Artistic Adviser, recording a selection of Arvo Pärt’s music with Viktoria Mullova for Onyx (due out this autumn), as well as giving conducting masterclasses. As for Kristjan, he works regularly in Estonia and happened to be in town for a few days.

The setting for our conversation was rich with nostalgia. We sat down in the studio where the acclaimed young Estonian photographer Kaupo Kikkas works and which happens to be inside the building that, back in Soviet times, was Tallinn’s official ‘House of Composers’ where composers would live and work. It was there – once the red tape had been cut to allow a conductor to move in – that the Järvi family lived and where Paavo was raised. It stirred many memories for Neeme who, with his laconic wit, was provoked to dig deep into the past.

Neeme was on fine form and both Paavo and Kristjan were clearly deeply respectful of their father; he, in turn, was palpably proud of what they have achieved. But the Järvi conducting dynasty actually stretches back further than the current trinity. And that’s where we started our conversation …

Neeme My brother, Vallo – he was 13 years older than me – was very active as a conductor. He was a percussionist first and then a conductor – exactly like me. Everything he did, I did afterwards – my mother was a strong lady and she always said, ‘Vallo has done that. You have to do it too!’ Vallo was a conductor of Theatre Estonia and conducted all the opera and ballet repertoire in the country. He didn’t travel outside Estonia (these were Soviet times) but he was a hard worker and a good conductor – I learned a lot from him. Once I was playing the xylophone for him in Eine Nacht in Venedig by Strauss, and I knew the piece well, so I said, ‘Let me conduct!’ – and so I did. And in the same concert there was the Khachaturian Violin Concerto, which I played on the xylophone with Vallo conducting – so that was my second outing in the same concert! It was such fun …

Paavo … and it was an old-fashioned xylophone, too!

Neeme I’d played it since I was four-years old – it was my first profession. Then I went to the Leningrad Conservatoire. It was about the same time that the Berlin Philharmonic/Karl Böhm Mozart symphony set came out on DG and we listened to it every day. Kristjan was about three and wasn’t really speaking yet. One day he was messing around behind one of the loudspeakers – one of those big old-fashioned ones – and it fell over onto him. He came rushing in, pointing to his head and crying, ‘Mozart!’ That was pretty typical of our family life (and still now, if anyone hurts his head, we point and cry ‘Mozart’!).

James Was there ever a suggestion that Paavo or Kristjan might do something other than conducting?

Paavo Never! I never wanted to be anything else – I think I wanted to be like my father, basically! It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be a conductor but more that I looked at my father and he was having so much joy that I wanted to do it too. It was never a case of, ‘Let’s do something else’.

Kristjan For me, it was about everything except conducting. I used to think, ‘Vallo, Neeme, Paavo … Kristjan. No, three is probably enough!’ Also, I didn’t feel like it would be a business, as it were, that could accommodate so many from the same family doing the same thing. Of course, times were different for each of us. When I got to America I thought, ‘Wow. There are so many things I could do’. And so it’s kind of a miracle that I became a conductor – and that’s all thanks to my piano teacher Nina Svetlanova who actually insisted on the Manhattan School of Music. She said, ‘Just try it for two years and if you don’t like it, then do something else.’ And two years turned into four years, and four years turned into six years. Then things developed – I started having conducting lessons, then I started Absolute Ensemble and went to university in Michigan, and then I got the position as Esa-Pekka Salonen’s assistant in LA and then … [Paavo interjects: ‘There was no way out!’] It was kind of like quick sand.

Neeme The percussionists at the Opera used to drink quite a lot! Once, we were doing Glière’s ballet The Red Poppy – a very popular piece at the time. There’s one section where all four percussionists play and I looked round and no one from my section was there. So I took all the parts myself, playing with my hands, my legs, my feet, with everything I could. Luckily I knew the piece! When it was over, the other percussionists returned and asked me, ‘So where are we?’ ‘It’s already passed,’ was my answer! I also used to play four-hand piano music with my brother – Haydn, Mozart … Everything went wrong, but we didn’t stop! We didn’t care about wrong notes – it was the lines we were after. But thanks to a percussionist’s training, you get a feel for rhythms. And the rhythms are really important in a conductor’s life; to lead things, to catch the pulsation of the piece.

Paavo It’s funny but when we have the students here for the Academy, the weakest thing is the rhythm. I find, in general – and it’s a strange thing – that the rhythm’s lacking. It’s not a question of not being able to count difficult rhythms but the basic sense of rhythmic pulse. They stop the orchestra and say ‘You’re late’ but they’re not feeling the basic pulse themselves.

Kristjan When we’re taking about rhythm, we’re not talking about Morse code; we’re talking about actually how you rhythmically convey a phrase that has an anchor and which leads logically to another phrase. Rock bands have a groove – you can just feel it. With the really good ones you can just feel there is something that’s so in the right place.

Neeme Kristjan’s fanaticism comes from the rhythms. He has the Absolute Ensemble which he created. It’s a fantastic group. If you hear them – and personally I don’t very much like this kind of stuff! – there’s an amazingly tight sense of rhythm. It is such a wonderful thing to hear rhythms that are so tight. It’s so not my world, but it’s very impressive.

James People on the outside often have this idea that the conductor just stands up and performs some kind of magic. Are they imposing, or steering, or are they enabling?

Paavo I think that unless you are actually a conductor yourself, you don’t really, truly, understand what goes on between the players and the conductor. There is some kind of chemistry. The orchestra plays and good music is made, and it has nothing to do with logistics, nothing to do with helping the players through a complicated passage. Sometimes you see someone who appears to be all over the place and when the players look up they don’t seem to understand anything, but somehow, something happens. Then there are people who are all organised and precise and nothing happens! And then there is everything in between. It’s a very tricky thing.

Neeme Rimsky-Korsakov said the conductor’s profession is a murky business. And it is. There aren’t exactly rules. It depends on so much: what kind of personality you are; what kind of leader you are; what kind of strong man you are; what kind of technician you are. But you need talent first – you can be a very good technician but you need talent too. It’s such a strange combination. You can have a strong personality and image but if you don’t look welcoming it doesn’t work. You need an artistic presence and that must be conveyed in your gestures. You need to be helpful to the orchestra though your eyes, your arms, your elbows, your wrists. But if you don’t have any ideas then you can’t be a conductor. You have to inspire.

Kristjan I have to add here that my father hardly ever moves when he conducts.

James Is that not something that comes with age? As conductors reach their prime, they hardly move at all.

Paavo Because they don’t need to. They’ve got all that stuff done.

Neeme If a conductor waves his arms about, the audience thinks he’s working hard but he’s probably just disturbing the musicians!

Kristjan There are different factors. He’s 80 and I’m half his age and that also makes a difference. Not just in terms of knowledge and experience, but in the fact that there’s a certain built-in respect, no matter what. But the most incredible thing to learn from him, and also when I see him teach, is that it is the most subtle, genuine and intuitive form of communication when you can actually assess and feel each other through small gestures and glances. You get such an amazing result – one that is so hard to explain in words. You reach such a level of understanding and honesty that words aren’t needed. That’s the most wonderful thing I see when my father conducts. He doesn’t need to show or prove anything. It’s a miraculous result with hardly any effort. That’s true virtuosity.

Paavo Barenboim said to me the other day, ‘You know, your father is liked by every orchestral musician that I know. Why is it?’ ‘Because he’s very good!’ It was interesting because Barenboim travels around a lot, performing with many different orchestras. Every orchestral musician likes our father – I know this too because whenever I guest-conduct they all come up to me and ask me: ‘How is your father? We’ve not seen each other for a while.’ It’s because it’s organic. He’s real. If you don’t connect with your players, it doesn’t work.

Neeme Conducting is something like an artist’s work, like drawing. You draw a line, you follow the pencil, you go there, you finish beautifully. It is exactly the same thing in music. You’re drawing naked lines, phrases. What’s missing? Ideas! The main thing is, ‘How do I do this?’, not, ‘I already know how to do this because my plan is quite clear, I know how I’m going to make this phrase go there, and so on’. That’s phrasing – where I want to go, from here to here and there to there. And that’s what engages the ideas, how to trace this movement. I reach that place with successful lines. You’re drawing with a stick and the players are following you immediately.

Paavo Yesterday in a masterclass we saw some young people conducting. We had a very good Russian guy and it was so obvious that he just loved it so much – and it totally worked. And then another person conducted and you felt that he wasn’t connected to the music at all. And he’d say, ‘I started pushing here because he writes accelerando at this point.’ ‘Yes, but how do you get to that point? And why?’ [Neeme interjects: ‘Musicianship!’] But that first person simply just did it. Everyone felt his unbelievable love for the music. He forgot he had to look one way or another. He was just willing everyone on.

Neeme It’s such a joy, and people perceive this joy. If you don’t have any ideas, or have just heard the music formulaically or bar by bar, or say that ‘the composer has written it like this’, it’s no good … The composer doesn’t know anything about that. We have to try and find what the composer wanted. Take Glazunov: if you look at the music on the page, it’s all boring, but if you start to conduct it and bring your ideas, it’s not boring at all.

Kristjan It’s not that the composer doesn’t know anything. That’s not what my father is trying to say. The composers do know what they want – but they also change their minds. We work with living composers all the time.

Paavo Take Arvo Pärt, which we’re recording at the moment. Vika Mullova shows up with a metronome and the marking says ‘80’. And I say, ‘No, that’s way too fast’, and we do the whole thing at 40 because it sounds so much better! That happens all the time with Pärt.

Kristjan And on the spot, too. Music happens on the spot, not on the page. If something is convincing, then it works.

James The thing that sets you all apart from so many conductors is your insatiable appetite for repertoire, both old and new. Both Neeme and Paavo in particular have recorded dozens of pieces which have added enormously to the catalogue. What drives your approach to programming, particularly with respect to the rich musical heritage of Estonia?

Paavo When you grow up in a country like this, and with a father like this, there’s a certain sense of a mission, a mission to introduce Estonian composers outside Estonia. Then there is always a system of priorities because if you’re a music director in Germany you have composers that the German orchestras expect their music director to play – so when I was in Frankfurt I did a lot of German composers like Jörg Widmann, Peter Ruzicka and many others. But if you guest-conduct and you don’t feel you have a responsibility to a local orchestra, then, if you are given a choice to do a new piece, I always – as a matter of principle – choose an Estonian piece. So, for example, we were at the BBC Proms recently and we did an Erkki-Sven Tüür work [Flamma]. There are many great German and British composers, but as I am an Estonian it’s my duty to champion Estonian composers because we don’t have so many people to introduce our music. So if I were to go to Cleveland or Chicago and they asked, ‘Would you like to do a John Adams piece or an Erkki-Sven Tüür piece?’, I would do the Tüür because nobody else would do it.

James And you, Kristjan, grew up in the US. Do you see yourself as much an American as an Estonian? How deep do your roots go?

Kristjan When people use the word ‘culture’, that’s basically identity. I identify with the fact that my home is Estonia but that I grew up in America and that country gave me a lot. Of course, the word ‘culture’ means very different things to different people. It can mean opera for one, to another a sports event, but for us Estonians it’s our geography, it’s our agriculture, it’s our architecture, our design, music, dance, literature, and that’s what creates this family of Estonians, since we not so many. Paavo said that when he has a choice to programme something like Erkki-Sven Tüür or Adams, he would programme Tüür … Well, I don’t think there’s an orchestra in Germany that’s played more Estonian music than the MDR Radio Symphony Orchestra [of which Kristjan is Music Director]. But I’ve also tried to have Estonian performers and soloists, not only in the classical genre but incredible folk artists and jazz musicians too. We played Eduard Tubin within a concept called ‘Baltic Folk’ where we had Tubin played by this Estonian folk violinist but also on an electric violin. It took Tubin’s folk music into a completely modern, ‘electro’ setting which isn’t jazz but is totally contemporary – ‘urban folk’ perhaps. And we were also introducing an old Estonian classical symphonist who people might not know through a genre which is very much in vogue these days, complete with a symphony orchestra.

Neeme We’re now in Estonia, a small country with a lot of wonderful composers. But as conductors we need to know the music of the world. We don’t need to know only Mahler and Bruckner or Beethoven. I personally need more. I was, for 24 years, Principal Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Sweden’s national orchestra, and we did so much there. What an interesting story they have: their second Principal Conductor was [the pianist, composer and conductor] Wilhelm Stenhammar, his good friend was Sibelius, Nielsen was a guest conductor there, and they all worked together in Gothenburg. Yet even today, people are still asking me, ‘Where is Gothenburg?’

Paavo But, because of you, they probably know it better!

Neeme It’s important to engage with the culture of your orchestra’s country. So, with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and also the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, we did a lot of Swedish music. We made the first Stenhammar recordings and recorded the orchestral works of Hugo Alfvén, and now I’ve just finished the first complete set of symphonies by Kurt Atterberg, who I think is one of the greatest of all Swedish composers. Completely forgotten! The Dollar Symphony was first conducted by Toscanini, and Beecham also did it – it’s a wonderful piece. It was written as an attempt to finish the Unfinished Symphony by Schubert.

Kristjan Here’s an interesting fact: for all of us, our first conducting positions since leaving Estonia have all been in Sweden.

Neeme Yes, Paavo was Chief Conductor of the Malmö Symphony Orchestra and then Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and Kristjan was Chief Conductor of the NorrlandsOperan. And what is Sweden, to us, all about? Once upon a time everything belonged to Sweden, even Estonia was under Sweden – Norway was, Denmark was, Finland was, and even in the Tsar’s time there was Swedish influence. So when I arrived in Gothenburg we did 19 discs for the BIS record label, including the Sibelius symphonies. Every Swedish musician knows Sibelius is a Swedish composer! Sibelius spoke Swedish at home. Finnish speakers were in the minority. Now of course all the conductors who come from Finland only ever conduct Sibelius, almost nothing else that’s Finnish. There are a lot of wonderful Finnish composers – Uuno Klami, Leevi Madetoja, Erkki Melartin – but the world doesn’t know about them. They need to be more available.

Actually, talking of Sibelius, I have to tell a story. Paavo was conducting the Kullervo Symphony with the Stockholm Philharmonic. The fourth movement, in five, goes very quickly, and suddenly his baton flew out of his hand. A double bass player picked it up – Paavo saw he’d got it and signalled to him to give it back. So the double bass player throws it – Paavo is conducting away in five – and he reaches up and catches it and continues conducting. Where is CNN when you need it? [Paavo: ‘That’s a clip that would have gone viral!’]

James Neeme, you’ve recorded the music of neglected composers from beyond Sweden, too …

Neeme Yes, I then went to Norway and did recordings of Johan Halvorsen and Johan Svendsen – marvellous music! And then to Denmark for Rued Langgaard and of course Carl Nielsen. It is such a wonderful area for music. Then there’s the Hungarian music of Leó Weiner – who is Leó Weiner? My record of the Divertimentos Nos 1-5 and the Serenade has just come out on Chandos [11/17]. And then there’s Romanian music, Bulgarian music, Polish music …

So, my message is, ‘Don’t always play the same music, find the good stuff that people don’t know’. That’s why I really admire what Paavo has done by recording all that great music. He has done mainstream – in Cincinnati he did everything that needed to be done – but he has also created a new approach to Beethoven with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and at a time when it’s already been done hundreds of different ways. And now it’s the symphonies and orchestral works of Brahms … It’s a love story with that orchestra!

I’ve been incredibly lucky with my record companies and we’ve done some great work together – BIS at the start and then Chandos; from Brian Couzens to Ralph Couzens, Chandos is one of the greatest British companies that still survives!

James When you go to guest-conduct an orchestra in its own native music, how does the equation work between what you bring and what they bring?

Paavo It’s interesting that if you go to France and you play French music it’s obvious that there are certain things that they just know. I’ve learned a lot of things from the Orchestre de Paris especially with pieces like La valse. I thought I knew that piece very well, but there were certain little things they did that were kind of amazing. Then again, sometimes they have a kind of tradition that makes no sense at all, but they’ve always done it. And you say, ‘I know you think you know it, but I don’t hear it that way.’ ‘But we’re a French orchestra, we know how it’s played …’ And so, if you have a relationship with an orchestra, you undo that tradition.

James But the Orchestre de Paris is not an old orchestra, it only goes back to the 1970s …

Paavo True, but they believe, for real, that they premiered the Symphonie fantastique with Berlioz conducting because somehow they’ve traced their origins back to the Conservatoire orchestra. It is a little bit of myth-making, but when they play Symphonie fantastique you just feel – in comparison to any other orchestra you may conduct – that something unique is happening.

Neeme They’re taught in the Conservatoire, ‘This is how you do it’. [Kristjan: ‘And they play Beethoven in a very French way too!’]

James How do orchestras retain a personality down the generations? The Cleveland Orchestra, for example, is still recognisable as George Szell’s orchestra all these years later …

Kristjan That’s like the Vienna Philharmonic, but there are very few orchestras in the world like that.

Paavo Well, the Czech Philharmonic still sounds like the Czech Philharmonic!

Kristjan That’s an incredible orchestra – probably one of the best orchestras which has that type of tradition. But mostly it is through a certain cultural identification – a pride.

James Is it a flip side of the easy dissemination of music that orchestras now sound very similar and no longer have the immediately identifiable personalities that they once had?

Paavo It’s because the world is so much more cosmopolitan: in the Berlin Philharmonic you’ve a French flautist, an English oboist and, among the double basses, an Australian and two Finns.

Neeme One problem with orchestras is when the chief conductor changes every four years. It has to start from nowhere each time. Take Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, they lived together for over 25 years – here was a conductor who asked for his wishes every day when he came to his orchestra. He created his style and his repertoire, and it was always great because professionally it was at such a high level. There was a George Szell sound. There was a Mravinsky sound. It comes from working with an orchestra for a long time and making them a highly professional ensemble.

James Szell, Reiner and others were legendary for their dictatorial style. The musicians were terrified of them, yet the results speak for themselves … That couldn’t happen today.

Paavo No, of course not. Well, in North Korea perhaps! [Neeme: ‘You can’t do terror nowadays.’]

Kristjan Governance of conductors is very like governance at the state level. Yes, dictators get amazing results. But at the same time you can empower the people and lead them, not actually govern them but direct them. And that’s how we all work, not by terror. Orchestras are just small nations.

Neeme In Leningrad, I’d listen to Yevgeny Mravinsky, Kurt Sanderling and Arvīds Jansons (Mariss’s father). I remember being in the hall for the first performance of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, and also for the first time that Mravinsky conducted an accompaniment – for David Oistrakh – in the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 1. [Paavo: ‘A “real” conductor didn’t do accompanying back then!’] And there were always six rehearsals for every programme. Then the Krushchev era arrived and we had a visit from the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra came with Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux. And then Ormandy came with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Then Stokowski came to conduct the Leningrad Philharmonic. I went up to him and said, ‘We’re students and we’d really love to come to your rehearsals but they won’t let us. Can you help?’ The director of the orchestra, who was a very strong man, said ‘No!’ They went in and shut the door on us. We waited a few minutes, then the door opened and we were all summoned in. Stokowski had insisted we be allowed to come in and as soon as he said this the director became a weak man and gave in! We entered and Stokowski had reseated the entire orchestra – completely rebuilt it! All the winds were to the right, all the strings to the left, and the double basses were in the middle on risers, facing into the hall – normally the orchestra played on the flat. And Stokowski came in, didn’t say a word but started conducting [Neeme sings the Tristan Prelude]. It was amazing. I remember shaking hands with Stokowski and he wore white gloves which he never took off. You learn a lot from seeing these great conductors. Nowadays, the opportunities that I had simply don’t exist. It was a very special time.

Gramophone Print

  • Print Edition

From £6.87 / month


Gramophone Digital Club

  • Digital Edition
  • Digital Archive
  • Reviews Database
  • Events & Offers

From £9.20 / month


Gramophone Reviews

  • Reviews Database

From £6.87 / month


Gramophone Digital Edition

  • Digital Edition
  • Digital Archive

From £6.87 / month



If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.