“I didn’t really want to become a conductor,” says Kristjan Jarvi. “I was much more interested in things that had to do with international relations. I liked astronomy. It was not because I didn’t like music, but I thought there was enough in the family. Why go and do the same thing?”
Jarvi, 41, did become a conductor, of course: a well-established one. He still leads the Absolute Ensemble, the group he founded while a student at the Manhattan School of Music, and he is chief conductor of the MDR Symphony Orchestra (the Central German Radio Orchestra) in Leipzig. And on Thursday, he will lead the National Symphony Orchestra in a program of Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” Barber’s violin concerto and Enescu’s first “Romanian Rhapsody.”
Two weeks later, his father will take over.
Neeme Jarvi, 76, is a significant presence in the classical music world, a veteran of considerable reputation who has made more than 400 recordings, and who has led the NSO many times before. But never has he led the orchestra almost right after his son.
It’s something of a truism, in our culture, that living in the shadow of a famous father can be a burden, a hurdle, an impediment to establishing fame on your own. But it can also be an entree into the family business.
Nowhere is this truer in music, where dynasties are not uncommon. Look at Johann Sebastian Bach, whose sons took up composing with a vengeance — in the late 18th century, when someone referred to the famous composer Bach, he meant Carl Philipp Emanuel, not his half-forgotten father. Look at Leopold Mozart, who was a ready musical stage parent for a virtuoso son and daughter. Look, more recently, at the pianist Serkins — Rudolf and Peter; or the Kleibers — Erich and Carlos, the latter one of the legendary figures of the late 20th century until his death in 2004.
And look at the Jarvi clan from Estonia, which for a while had a festival of their own. In addition to Neeme and Kristjan, there’s Kristjan’s brother, Paavo, for 10 years the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, now Christoph Eschenbach’s successor as head of the Orchestre de Paris, and the designated chief conductor of the NHK Symphony Orchestra in Japan. There’s also a sister, Maarika, who is a flutist, and various descendants of Neeme’s brother Vallo, a conductor himself, who passed away in 1994. A Jarvi summer festival in Estonia assembled 16 musician members of the family.
“I’d love to say that Paavo wasn’t available to make the middle week,” quipped Nigel Boon, the NSO’s director of artistic planning. “But it was pure chance. Neeme has a bit of a relationship with the orchestra; he’s been here a number of times. Kristjan came once [before]. As it happened, they were available two weeks apart.”
In the States, where creative life is often romanticized as a solitary struggle, the famous parent may cast a longer shadow than he or she does in Europe, where the tradition of trades and guilds established a social template for keeping professions in the family and passing knowledge down from parent to child. The idea that musical talent is to some degree hereditary offers further reason for the prevalence of musical clans. From the composer Louis Andriessen to the conductor Vladimir Jurowski, there are plenty of cases of second- and third-generation musicians who have attained major success in their fields — or sibling pairs, such as the NSO’s former principal conductor, Ivan Fischer, and his brother, Adam.
What’s notable about the Jarvi family is that, rather than taking the patriarch as a template against which to measure themselves, each son appears to have followed his own musical road.
“The interesting thing about all three of us,” says Kristjan, speaking of his father and brother, “is our paths don’t converge at all, they complement each other. They are generationally different, aesthetically quite different, and conceptually quite different.” According to Kristjan, Paavo, 10 years older, whom he calls “a role model,” is “much more traditional than I am, just in terms of his approach; he’s truly a maestro in the sense of the Old World understanding of what that is.”
Neeme Jarvi, too, is a traditionalist, in the sense of building a career by leading an orchestra — notably Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony, which he headed for 22 years. But he also has a wider embrace of repertoire than many classically trained artists. Growing up in the Soviet Union, Kristjan says, “led to his increased interest in American popular culture. Jazz was so incredible. He did the Soviet premiere of ‘Porgy and Bess.’ ”
Kristjan, by contrast, has been the wilder younger son, the one who embraces all genres of music, and who started out with the idea: “Wouldn’t it be great if all of this convention was kind of done away with and we could start all over again?”
“The instruments and notes we play are just tools in communications,” he says. “What we’re bringing across is an emotion. People lose sight of the fact that music is only a tool. At the end of the day, nobody really cares if it’s classical music or pop music — there is no genre unless it affects you.”
Yet his relatively unconventional, partly self-taught, technically freewheeling approach has brought him, at this juncture of his career, to a place that looks not dissimilar to a traditional conductor’s post: the music directorship of the MDR orchestra, the leadership of the Baltic Youth Orchestra, which he founded, and guest appearances with orchestras such as the NSO.
The secret to success in a classical career, as well as success with a famous father, may be that finding a new path doesn’t mean overturning tradition, but learning to make it your own while embracing the things about it that you love. Kristjan seems to have been inspired by his father rather than dwarfed by him. “He is one of the reasons why I have the confidence to do what I did and not really care what other people thought,” he says.
“But in terms of our style,” he adds, “there’s definitely some similarities, just technically, [and] physically. He’s bigger, I’m a little bit smaller, but we move the same way I think. I think his sense of groove and timing and that stuff is just amazing. . . . You can see that this guy is like a sorcerer. . . . He does very little and achieves so much.
“I think one thing that is similar with the two of us,” he continues, is that “we both share a certain abandon, in the joy of music-making. Music for both of us isn’t a cerebral thing, it’s like a spiritual physical thing . . . to bring people really into a world that they can achieve nowhere else, and that happens only at that moment.”
Kristjan Jarvi will lead the National Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 31, Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 at the Kennedy Center, in a program including the Barber Violin Concerto with Jennifer Koh. Neeme Jarvi will conduct Nov. 14-16, with Alice Sara Ott in the second Liszt concerto and excerpts from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.”