Green Room

Sons of Järvi

Paavo and Kristjan follow in their father's footsteps...mostly.

Interview by Melinda Whiting

Paavo Järvi, 38, and Kristjan Järvi, 29, are the sons of Detroit Symphony Music Director Neeme Järvi. Born in Estonia, they emigrated with their family to the United States in 1980, and followed divergent musical paths en route to the same profession. Their loyalties and similarities run deep, despite their divergent musical approaches, and clearly stem from family experience. In the course of a 90-minute conversation in June -- shortly before their father underwent surgery for a ruptured aneurysm in Estonia -- each paid tribute to Neeme Järvi's influence. Respect for their family's musical heritage permeated every point of discussion.

Melinda Whiting: One of you was raised mostly in Estonia and the other, mostly in America. Did this make a significant difference in the way each of you grew up -- musically and otherwise?

Kristjan Järvi: The fundamental base is the same. We come from the same place and the same family and our big influence has always been our father. But as far as my education and friends and society are concerned, it was a different time and a different place than with Paavo. Even though his college years were also here in America, I would say he's more European than me.

Paavo Järvi: They say that something very basic and important is formed in your teens, and all my high school education was in Estonia. When we came here, it took me and my sister much longer to adjust than Kristjan. Kristjan went to school and within a week or two he was...

KJ: ...speaking English.

PJ: Because of his age, he adjusted very quickly. Also, I grew up in Estonia when it was occupied by the Soviets. It was a prison. You couldn't get out; people weren't allowed to leave. And if an artist traveled outside the country for concerts, his family always stayed behind as insurance to make sure he came back. So my father didn't travel as much as he did later, when we came to America. But the system here is entirely different. When my father came here, he was always traveling. So Kristjan ended up seeing much less of our father in those years when he was eight to fifteen or so.

MW: When did each of you know you wanted to conduct? And was it simply because your father did?

PJ: As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a conductor. Back when I was six years old, even. And it was only because my father was one. At that age, of course, you have no idea what conducting really is. You don't know anything about the art of it or the profession of it, other than that when you are at home and you are the son of a conductor, you see the sort of fanaticism that he is approaching his work and his life with. As kids, we went to every opera and orchestra concert and chamber orchestra concert -- he was music director of all of them -- and we were constantly going to rehearsals. I saw Traviata, I don't know, 30 times. Rossini operas, all the standard repertory. A lot of times we went to rehearsals because there was no one to stay with us kids at home.

MW: Good babysitter, the opera.

PJ: Yes. It is also an old European tradition that the son continues in the father's profession; it's an expected thing. It was kind of understood, you know? "When you grow up, you'll also be a conductor." Like family businesses. It used to be the normal way for a business to continue.

MW: "Järvi and Sons, Conductors."

PJ: [Laughs] Well, there's something to it!

KJ: I don't know if my urge to conduct was quite as strong as Paavo's. Piano was my instrument, which I did my thing with -- which was, most of the time, that I didn't practice at all! But it was time to apply for college and I had to get good recommendations. And I asked for one from my teacher at the time -- I was mostly studying with her assistant, but the teacher was Nina Svetlanova at the Manhattan School of Music. She hadn't heard me for a year or so, so she heard me and said, "whoa, are you really sure you want to go off and study something besides music? Why don't you take this audition at the Manhattan School?" So I did. And I got involved with all these people at the Manhattan School who were composers and wanted their music to be performed. They saw that I had a father who was a conductor that they knew about, and a brother who was starting to get a reputation...

PJ: A terrible one!

KJ: So they started to come to me with their music and say, "you want to conduct this?" And I would say, "Yeah, I guess I do, but I don't really know what I'm doing." So I started off my conducting experience with completely new works -- unpublished material by unknown composers doing the weirdest things possible. Students, for whom anything goes. That sparked my interest more than anything else, because what they were doing was out of the ordinary and actually not classical at all in many ways. And so I attempted conducting. Then, one day, I asked Paavo, "what would you feel like if I actually studied conducting?" And Paavo said, "You should." But I actually always felt a little out of place that I should be yet another one. Like, why do we need three? But I pursued it at Manhattan School, and during that time I started the Absolute Ensemble. Then I went to the University of Michigan, and from then on I've been kind of taking my own initiative by studying conducting in my very own special way. [Grins.]

MW: There's a significant difference between the ensembles you work with. Can your different paths as conductors be traced to the environments you've described growing up in?

PJ: It was the classical standard repertoire that motivated me to become a musician. I started on a very traditional path: I wanted to be able to do the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies. My father has a very large repertoire and does lots of different things, but that variety was not in new music, but in neglected music that has been around for a long time but somehow has not been championed. That also was something that I received from him. So the approach to conducting was more traditional in my case.

MW: Kristjan, your path with Absolute Ensemble has been less traditional.

KJ: Basically, I have this workshop to test my ideas and create event-based concerts. As an ensemble we are versatile, and can improvise as well as play music that is notated. We can basically do anything we want to do. And I'm trying to approach the classical music scene from a slightly different angle: from format and a rock perspective. And from something that is rooted in improvised music: that the performance itself, whether it's improvised music or not, should always have the feeling that we just got together and had a great jam session.

MW: I know you guys debate all the time. The shoptalk around your house, when your whole family gets together, must be something to hear.

PJ: We have a similar understanding about some things -- not everything, obviously, but that's a good thing. And growing up in a family where you have a father for a conductor is a tremendous thing, because a lot of the information being passed on is information that it takes other people years and years to discover. Up to this day, I still learn from him and discuss things with him. Recently I did Tubin's Symphony No. 5 in Estonia. My father has done it many times and knew Tubin personally. And we completely disagreed on how to do the last movement! I saw his point; he saw my point. But by telling me his point of view, he taught me something that made it easier for me to make some decisions about the piece. He spoke from experience, from doing it many times.

MW: Kristjan, what kind of questions have you brought to him?

KJ: Everything from what do I say when I start the first rehearsal -- how do I say, "good morning?" -- to very practical things. Take the Sibelius Violin Concerto, for instance. Should I be waiting for the soloist here? Or should I just go? And usually my dad says, "conduct the soloist -- he's just part of the orchestra." [Laughs.]

PJ: A lot of those little elementary things are something that a young conductor just doesn't know. You might also, sometimes, need to hear, "well, he might look like he wants to be followed, but actually he's looking for a very clear beat here and really hopes that you take initiative."

KJ: It just helps to have my father's advice, because you can't replace experience. And if you think you know what you're doing...

PJ: Think again! [They laugh.] Because you don't. As good as you may be, you can always be better. There is always much more there than you currently are able to do. That whole concept of going deeper and deeper into a subject is exactly what we are there to do. Ultimately this is the goal.