Where is home for Paavo Järvi? The life of an international conductor consists of airports and hotel-hopping and Järvi’s passport is more well-travelled than most. He has just opened his second season as Chief Conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra helping to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Suntory Hall, so he spends more time in Tokyo than anywhere else. “In Japan, you never go anywhere for a day!” he chortles. He is also Artistic Director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. This season sees extensive tours with both orchestras, so his suitcase will be put to good use, but he still considers his native Estonia his home base, returning each summer for the Pärnu Festival he founded in 2010 with his father, the distinguished conductor, Neeme Järvi. We met for lunch in Notting Hill during a brief London stopover.

When it comes to the NHK, Järvi is a man on a mission. “It's an amazing orchestra,” he explains. “A lot of people in Europe and America don't realise how good the NHK is and my goal is to make this orchestra less of a secret. Europe especially has built-in prejudices towards everybody else who is making European music but is not European. Meanwhile, if the Berlin Philharmonic is looking for a concertmaster, they take a Japanese guy! There is this funny discrepancy that there's this common line that the Japanese don't really understand Western music and yet they take a concertmaster who is Japanese, which means they understand Western music very well.

“I had a discussion recently with Daniel Barenboim, whose Bruckner cycle I heard in Tokyo, about this whole issue of Asia becoming a destination. Japan has always been a destination, ever since Herbert von Karajan. I looked into the history of the NHK. There is no doubt what the centre of classical music is for them: everything Germanic. It's about Furtwängler, it's about Karajan, it's about the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic. It's about conductors like Horst Stein, Wolfgang Sawallisch. That's the top. So they want a good German Kapellmeister who conducts Bruckner and Brahms. Then there's a respect for French music, because it's Paris and it's all kind of sexy. I've been there with the Orchestre de Paris twice – but it's already one step down below anything German. Then another step below comes Russian and then English and all the others... which doesn't mean they don't respect it or love it, but the main thing is the German ideal. The plaza before Suntory Hall is called Herbert von Karajan Platz. That says it all, pretty much.

“When I hear the strings play, it's an ideal sound for Richard Strauss, for Bruckner, surprisingly also for Mahler. Everything is rounded, it's not sharp, no jagged edges. There is a richness and a total understanding of the sostenuto which in today's world is a kind of a dying art, because there are now so many stylistic options with different playing styles.”

We’ll get chance to hear the NHK in Europe next February and March when the orchestra embarks on a tour. In exchange, Järvi is taking his Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie to the Far East this autumn. Touring brings a different set of challenges, “Fatigue and the logistics of travelling from one city to another mean you have to be in alert physical and mental shape. Another thing is that some orchestras like the Kammerphilharmonie are basically touring orchestras. They’ll do two concerts in their home town of Bremen, where they have a huge following and a waiting list for subscriptions, but their basic mindset is touring. An orchestra that isn’t used to touring, like the NHK, has to get used to a routine of hotel, rehearsal, concert, hotel, next venue…”

Two titanic symphonies are in the NHK luggage when Järvi brings the orchestra to Europe: Mahler 6 and Shostakovich 10. “They’re very good at Mahler. This is only my second year, but we’ve already done 8,3,2 and 1. Shostakovich shows off the orchestra in a diffferent light. I want to show the orchestra as a major force.”

Järvi takes the order of the inner movements of Mahler 6 “unfashionably Scherzo-Andante, which makes more sense as it is more shocking. You come out of this first movement and are then confronted with the same march rhythm which is relentless, a kind of structural innovation. I used to do it the other way round, just like I have changed my mind about the hammer blows. I now only do two. I think that as I get older I try to look at the decisions I have made before with a little bit of distance and ask ‘Why did Mahler want to change it back?’ There are many arguments. One can say Mahler was superstitious and he didn’t want to predict the third blow and all this, but I also think that maybe we are too eager in trying to read into somebody’s mind, whose mind you can never get into. I have this feeling that we are so in awe of this greatness that we want to solve some kind of puzzle and mystery…”

Reflecting on audiences in Japan, Järvi acknowledges that they are attentive. “Levels of enthusiasm vary. Touring orchestras have a different type of audience. Subscription audiences tend to be more low-key, a little older, polite applause. What I like is that underneath this layer of respect there is actually total commitment, an emotional connection to what they hear. You can always tell if they really like something – standing ovations are very rare, but if they really like something they will applaud high above their heads: this is their standing ovation! Whereas in the US, it’s a kind of standing evacuation because they want to leave quickly!”

It helps that the NHK plays in such a wonderful venue. “If you ask a musician who has been to Suntory Hall to name their top three halls, Suntory will be somewhere in their top three. It's a great hall, which reminds me a bit of the Berlin Philharmonie sound. It is not as overwhelmingly beautiful a sound as the Vienna Musikverein, but at the same time it has clarity and warmth. A great hall will make you sound better. Acoustics are a very psychological thing – we react to what we hear – and if an orchestra goes in and plays three notes and it sounds good, they not only sound better but they play better. This is exactly what happened to the Orchestre de Paris when we moved to the Philharmonie. That orchestra has a wonderful sound, but in the Philharmonie, they sound sensational.”

He describes his proudest moment in Paris as getting the orchestra to play in a more unified fashion, listening to one another better. “The overall level of playing went up within my six years and that’s something I’m very proud of. Repertoire-wise, the major thing that I’m proudest of is being the first French orchestra to record a complete Sibelius cycle... the orchestra had never recorded any Sibelius at all! They totally loved that music and played it in a wonderfully emotional way. There are many schools of thought about Sibelius playing; some think it has to be very austere, like the landscape, which I think is nonsense. When the Orchestre de Paris gets inspired by something, they show it. In concerts, when they are inspired it is like a flame burning!”

Last year saw the 150th anniversaries of both Sibelius and Nielsen – another of Järvi’s favourite composers. Yet Nielsen is still not championed as much as Järvi thinks he deserves. “There are not enough conductors who play Nielsen. Orchestras would do it if the music directors and guest conductors wanted to perform him. I had a very interesting conversation about this with Barenboim out in Tokyo. Much to my surprise (because he only conducts the Violin Concerto) he said he loves Nielsen. ‘Then why don’t you conduct Nielsen?’ I asked him. ‘Well,’ he replied, ‘when I was younger I never got round to playing Nielsen because of other priorities, and now it’s such a new world that I only do limited things,’ which I totally respect. But he came to my NHK concert when I did Nielsen 5 and came back to me afterwards and said, ‘Nielsen is a fantastic composer, I always liked his music , but I don’t conduct it, and I want my orchestra to play all the symphonies.’ So he’s invited me to do the complete cycle with the Berlin Staatskapelle. This is a great example of how a music director is not only doing things for himself, but things that he thinks are important for the orchestra.”

Järvi is in the midst of a Nielsen cycle with the Philharmonia, in which he juxtaposes the symphonies and concertos with Haydn, “Another love of mine. This repertoire is somehow considered as lacking sex appeal. I don’t understand this. I think a Haydn symphony done with wit and charm is wonderful.”

During our conversation, Järvi grows animated discussing ballet. He started out conducting ballet in Oslo and he conducts a programme at La Scala next spring. “Arguably, some of the most original and best music in the 20th century was composed for ballet, from The Rite of Spring to Petrushka to Romeo and Juliet to La Valse. By doing these scores with dancers, you have an entirely different view of them. When I conduct Petrushka now, I can ‘see’ the action in front of me because I’d conducted it 20 times in the original Nijinsky/Fokine choreography, so I know what is happening. If you saw Boulez conducting Petrushka, you could tell that he had never seen it because it was not danceable and it had no character! Just the notes. It was not connected to anything visual. Seeing a work like Balanchine’s Apollon musagète will change your life. You cannot conduct it the same way once you’ve seen it. You cannot get this out of your head. It is so gorgeous and has this sort of nobility and somehow he totally makes you understand the music.”

Järvi returns to Estonia each summer for his Pärnu Festival, created partly so he could spend more time at home, where he still takes advice from his father, Neeme, on musical matters. “His musical appetite is endless and I love that… this is the source that never dries up.

Pärnu is what we call the summer capital because it’s next to the sea. It’s the place David Oistrakh and Shostakovich would go every summer. I wanted to create a place where we could all come together with our children and parents. What could bring us all together but a music-related thing? We have a new concert hall, acoustically very good, and we have a big conducting academy – we get 300 applicants every year from which we take eight people. We do chamber music, individual masterclasses, conducting masterclasses, the youth orchestra and the festival orchestra, performing a wide variety of music. A nice mix,” he adds, with a twinkle in his eye. “Not just Grieg!”

That twinkle typifies an affable nature and a personality that enjoys a little wicked fun. Järvi’s Twitter account is a must on Eurovision Song Contest evenings. “I had a night off,” he divulges,  “which is rare, and I was in Paris, watching the live stream on my computer. I impulsively tweeted something because a lot of it is very cheesy and, musically, very low quality – so it was just for fun. It certainly wasn’t planned and I didn’t think anyone would notice… then I heard later that a lot of people were having fun reading my tweets!”

But there is a responsibility too in managing social media when one is in the public eye. “One of the most difficult balances to find is this responsibility before the orchestra or organisation that you represent, yet somehow maintaining – I wouldn’t say neutral, but a distance from everyday political events. On the other hand, as a citizen of the world, as a decent person, you can’t be neutral or quiet about certain things that matter to you or are somehow screaming to be addressed.” A citizen of the world. Certain Prime Ministers may disparage the sentiment, but if anyone is a citizen of the world, it’s Järvi.


Article sponsored by NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo