The rehearsal has ended an hour early. The entire orchestra disappears for lunch, and Neeme Järvi, seated in the conductor’s dressing room, explains why he likes leaving things to chance instead of going through every detail of the score. “You are the artist,” he says, referring to the conductor’s function, “and it depends how you draw the lines. If the conductor has the right technique, he can shape the sound by gesture, not by talking, so that the musicians feel the music and enjoy the relationship, and see it is a beautiful thing. They don’t need the conductor to beat the bars. The musicians know my style – it’s very flexible.”
Flexible indeed: over the past 30 years Järvi (pronounced Yervi) has carved a reputation for the spontaneity of his performances, often changing his interpretation from one concert to the next and frequently “going with the moment”. Some orchestras hate it. They want more precise directions in rehearsal, fewer surprises in concert. Others love the creativity and freedom of expression implied in Järvi’s intuitive style – a style forged in his native Estonia in the 1950s, honed during a rigorous training in communist Leningrad in the 1960s and, since the 1980s, practised non-stop with a string of music directorships on both sides of the Atlantic.
Although based in Manhattan since 1987, when he acquired American citizenship, Järvi is now increasingly to be found back in Europe. His latest ensemble is the Geneva-based Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Orchestra of French-speaking Switzerland – OSR), with which he will tour Germany, Scandinavia, the US and Japan over the next year, and which he brings to London this month. Their UK programme includes two Järvi favourites – Tchaikovsky, whose music gave him his first successes in the west, and his Estonian compatriot Arvo Pärt.
At 75, Järvi may be visibly tiring – he suffers from a heart complaint – but retirement and relaxation are not in his vocabulary. He remains a “man of 100 projects”, with more recordings to his name than any living conductor – all fuelled by his desire to ferret out little-known repertoire to which he can add his sparkle.
You might wonder whether the world really wants to hear music by such forgotten 19th-century composers as Hugo Alfvén, Johan Halvorsen and Daniel Auber, but Järvi has a knack of making them sound better on CD than they look on paper, believing them to be forgotten jewels. “Who needs Järvi doing Beethoven with a Swiss orchestra?” he asks rhetorically. “We already have one Järvi doing classical stuff” – a reference to what is known in musical circles as “the Järvi dynasty”. His sons Paavo and Kristjan are also internationally renowned conductors, the former having made a series of well-received Beethoven recordings.
Järvi’s easy-going charm has gone down well in Geneva. It makes a refreshing contrast to his hard-working predecessor, Marek Janowski, whose Germanic discipline left nothing to chance. Janowski’s rehearsals were invariably long and rigorous. Unlike some of Järvi’s performances, the results were always precise, but they lacked the Estonian’s flair.
His arrival last year came at an opportune moment for the OSR. Janowski had left before his contract ran out, and the orchestra found itself leaderless at a time of management flux. Järvi was available. It was a marriage of convenience. Thanks to his renown, the OSR now has an impressive tour schedule and a roster of soloists in tune with his quasi-improvisatory approach – most recently violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann, both of whom gave mesmerising performances during last month’s Mozart festival.
But Järvi is unlikely to stay beyond 2015, when his contract ends. Recording has always been his first love, and he has more CD projects with other orchestras than in Geneva. Day-to-day administration, of the sort required of a modern music director, is not his forte. He works best as a conductor who breezes in, excites an orchestra, gets quick results and moves on.
The OSR also needs to move on. Despite its international reputation, developed over a period of 50 years (1918-67) by Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, its recent history does not suggest an ensemble at the cutting edge of 21st-century orchestral life. Its audience profile is ageing, its whole style of presentation slightly old-fashioned. The likelihood is that it will appoint a younger, media-friendly conductor to capitalise on its centenary celebrations in 2018. With that in mind it has assembled a new management team led by Henk Swinnen, a dynamic Belgian musician with ambitions to sharpen the orchestra’s identity and raise Geneva’s profile as a cultural centre.
In that context, Järvi looks decidedly old-school. Seated beside a pile of Massenet orchestral scores that represent his next recording project, he says too many conductors content themselves with playing the same narrow repertoire. “There is so much good music that we don’t hear.” And so, rather than grace Geneva with his Debussy or Ravel, which have been part of the orchestra’s DNA since Ansermet’s time, he has recorded Chabrier and Joachim Raff, a long-forgotten 19th-century German-Swiss composer.
He doesn’t even believe in the OSR’s tradition as a French-sounding ensemble (reedy woodwinds, gossamer strings), questioning whether such a sound still exists – a view that may astonish some of the orchestra’s supporters. “There is no French sound any more, even in France. There are many nationalities in this orchestra. The kind of sound you produce depends on the piece you are playing, the way the conductor shapes the timbre, the chemistry that develops from this relationship.”
Is Järvi a “first-rate conductor of second-rate music”, a jibe often tilted at the legendary Sir Thomas Beecham? Like Beecham, he follows his enthusiasms. He is a first-rate Sibelius interpreter, as his recordings testify. His Tchaikovsky has an effortless sense of style. He can boast an extensive operatic repertoire, having served 13 years as opera chief in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. His Prokofiev, Grieg and Richard Strauss are among the best in the CD catalogue.
We should be happy that, at an age when most conductors like to repeat familiar favourites, Järvi still wants to explore the unfamiliar. He talks of an obscure oratorio by Estonian composer Rudolf Tobias that he wants to bring to the BBC Proms, of the merits of Strauss’s rarely played ballet scores, of his plans to conduct Eugene Onegin in Geneva’s opera house. “I’m getting older,” he acknowledges, with a twinkle in the eye, “but I’m still full of fantastic music.”
Neeme Järvi and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande tour the UK May 21-24. Their new recordings of Chabrier and Raff are on Chandos. www.osr.ch