Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra

Paavo Järvi is one of a handful of high profile figures flying the flag for Estonian music. IAM interviews the prolific maestro about his youthful Estonian Festival Orchestra and his work with other ensembles

One of Estonia’s most famous conductors, Paavo Järvi is accustomed to life on the road. He is chief conductor of the highly-regarded NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, artistic director of Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (DKAM), and will join Switzerland’s Tonhalle- Orchester Zürich as chief conductor and music director from 2019-20 for a five-year term. His exclusive Estonian Festival Orchestra (EFO), for which he handpicks the musicians himself, was launched seven years ago, and is the resident ensemble of Pärnu Music Festival (also led by Järvi). EFO’s aim, he says, is to break with the restrictions of a traditional orchestra.

IAM: The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (ENSO), led by your father Neeme, is 86 years old, is there really room for two large orchestras in such a small country like Estonia?

Paavo Järvi: Definitely! Those collectives have very different missions. ENSO has a significant role to play in the Estonian world of music as it has led to the creation of a great deal of Estonian music and performs to local audiences nearly every week, whereas EFO comes together only for specific projects. EFO was created for the Pärnu Music Festival and its aim is to inspire young musicians in Estonia and to shape the Estonian image abroad. We have several regularly active orchestras, however, none of them compete with one another on an international level.

IAM: You created the Pärnu Music Festival together with your father Neeme, while your brother Kristjan often joins you. Do the three of you ever get into creative disputes? 

PJ: The more we argue and discuss things, the better! While we have different views and opinions, as we come from different generations, we find it is very beneficial, as from this we generate so many different ideas. There can be no competitiveness between us. Father’s works are so different from Kristjan’s, whereas I sit somewhere in the middle.

Paavo Järvi and EFO © Kaupo Kikkas
Paavo Järvi and EFO © Kaupo Kikkas

IAM: You manage a prolific career with ease: what has been the greatest challenge for you this year?

PJ: Everything is important: I don’t have time for insignificant things. At the same time, all those projects are vastly different. I have been with DKAM as artistic director since 2004. Our relationship is like a strong and long-lasting partnership: we work together in a very thorough fashion and are currently finishing up concerts and recordings of Brahms’ works. DKAM and I plan our future performances at least seven years ahead.

My work in Japan takes me into a completely different world: the NHKSO is undoubtedly the best Asian orchestra, with its European equivalent being something like the Berlin Philharmonic. NHKSO gives weekly performances in Tokyo, all of which are televised so that virtually everyone in Asia can experience a concert. Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, meanwhile, is an old-school orchestra that is very similar in its ethos to Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra or Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. It is representative of the old-school German style, which suits me very well.

The EFO is something entirely different. It has a diverse task: to inspire Estonian musicians, while at the same time bringing international talents to Estonia. We programme highly-renowned soloists such as legendary pianist Radu Lupu, who performed in Estonia last summer at the festival. Working with young musicians is incredibly important. EFO hosts courses for composers, instrumentalists, chamber music ensembles, youth orchestras and children. EFO is like strong coffee, it is not an espresso, but a ristretto instead!

IAM: The Estonian world of music is tiny, everyone knows everyone else and has a personal connection to many in the network. In a way, that is great, but what are the hidden downsides to this?

PJ: In my opinion, this is an entirely positive thing. The fact that everyone knows one another tends to be true for the entire world of music. However, Estonia is indeed exceptional, as there are so few of us. I would say that every family has its own peculiarities, and prejudices are never far off when you know someone a little bit too well, but I like this small and well-connected community. The only difficulty is that everyone has their own ambitions. We get some financing from the government and a few foundations, but not enough to benefit all our potential musicians. We would benefit from more contributions from the business community, something that is more common in Berlin or London.

This article is an extract of a full edition printed in IAM Volume 13 Issue 12. To subscribe to the magazine click here