• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Kristjan Järvi: “Águas da Amazônia is one of those pieces that will hit you like a truck.” Photo/Getty Images

Baton from the Baltic: An interview with visiting NZSO conductor Kristjan Järvi

Kristjan Järvi talks to Elizabeth Kerr about his rich conducting heritage and the works he's bringing to the New Zealand Festival.

Kristjan Järvi is the youngest member of a conducting dynasty: his father, maestro Neeme Järvi, is one of the most respected conductors working today, his uncle, Vallo, was a conductor and older brother Paavo also makes his living on the podium. Estonian-born, Järvi grew up in New York and his musical activities stretch well beyond the classical interests of his family. He’s the founder of the classical-hip-hop-jazz group Absolute Ensemble, director of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic and runs his own company, Sunbeam Productions, leading its in-house band Nordic Pulse.

Järvi will conduct the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in two concerts during the opening weekend of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts. The first is Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the centrepiece of a reflective opening-night programme called “Chosen and Beloved”, which commemorates the victims of the Christchurch massacre in March 2019.

With a family like yours, was becoming a conductor inevitable?

The truth is, I didn’t want to become a conductor; I got sucked into it like quicksand. If I was going to be anything in music, I should have become a hip-hop producer. That’s the music I like. I have nothing against classical music, but the institution itself is its own worst enemy. We have an outdated factory model. Nobody has to be educated to love classical music. You can walk in off the street and say, “Oh my God, why haven’t I discovered this before?”

What did you learn from your father about conducting?

My father told me once that in conducting you create the environment where everybody does everything for you, everybody gives 1000%. Of course, there are technical means, how you lift your hands, that a lot of people don’t pay attention to at all – they think a monkey can conduct. You learn to be intuitively in touch with your body, mentally alert but not overthinking. There’s an aspect that needs some letting go. People say, “Be disciplined”, but in what? In letting go.

My father now moves very little when conducting – he’s opposite to me, people think I’m dancing. He’s distilled it all into very small movements. If it looks as if he’s doing nothing, then he’s even more brilliant than you can understand. And telepathic – there’s nothing closer to telepathy than conducting.

Sunbeam Productions is set up to be, perhaps, a contradiction for a conductor?

Yes, you’re right, and that’s another model – though, in conducting, I’m criticised for not being authoritarian enough. I want to be the leader who inspires rather than threatens. I’m confident mankind is collectively much smarter than we are individually and so we have to encourage people with the environment we create rather than a hierarchical top-down model.

“Sunbeam” is a beam of light. You can’t force an epiphany on anybody, but we are makers of concepts that connect people, creating conceptual productions and environments. For me, the most important thing about Sunbeam Productions is to create a culturally based economy; what you’re actually trading is kindness and understanding.

Let’s talk about the programmes you’ll conduct in Wellington. Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs has enormous popular appeal. Why do you think that is?

It appeals to your intuition and innate intelligence rather than your intellect. This piece is universal. You can just bow your head and say, ‘Yes, that is me.’ The story in the piece is a story that I can relate to. Everyone’s story is different, but it’s still theirs.

Your other programme has music from two generations of experimental minimalists, Philip Glass and Max Richter. Richter’s Infra was a response to the 7/7 London bombings. How does this dreamy, peaceful music relate to that day of pain and terror?

It’s a reflection of the world we live in, what it is and what it could be. It’s not a narrative of that day; it’s a hopeful anguish. This is the same as the Górecki – same place, different time. Empathy and compassion should rule, not from the feeling of sorrow but from the feeling of “How great is this?” Composers are just arrangers of the world we live in.

Why did you programme Philip Glass’ work Águas da Amazônia in this concert?

It’s one of those pieces that will hit you like a truck. This is “the best piece Philip Glass didn’t write”; it was arranged by a small Brazilian world-music group for dance, compiled from other Glass works. Charles Coleman arranged it for orchestra and members of my Absolute Ensemble. Thinking about the title, “Waters of the Amazon”, today we have fires and rainforest being cut down; we’re cutting our own arteries, and who is the culprit? It’s this fictive economy we’re living in that undercuts our real strength, which is working together. I programmed this piece because it says it all.

You’ve recently returned to live in Estonia. What does being Estonian mean to you?

It’s a different feeling when you can speak your own language in the street, when it’s not a secret language you speak at home. For me, the Estonian language is the whole mentality, a sharing of a very particular place in northern Europe surrounded by islands and forests and lakes. For us, as a small nationality, to have our own country is fantastic – why there, and why these people, for thousands of years? – and why, having been overrun by everybody, are they still there? The language is the reason. It’s culture, a way of life, a family. For me, Estonia is my family.

New Zealand Festival of the Arts: “Chosen and Beloved”, Górecki’s Symphony No 3, NZSO, Rasha Rizk (soprano), conducted by Kristjan Järvi, curated by Lemi Ponifasio, February 21; Glass/Richter/Järvi NZSO with members of Absolute Ensemble, conductor Kristjan Järvi, February 23.

This article was first published in the February 22, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and sign up to our weekly newsletter.