Things happen. Sometimes after an orchestral lineup has been set, a guest conductor falls ill or becomes otherwise unable to fulfill an engagement. So it was in mid-March when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra announced that Christoph von Dohnányi had to withdraw from concerts April 20, 22-23 at Orchestra Hall and a fourth on April 21 as part of the CSO’s new series at Wheaton College. The esteemed maestro had suffered a hairline fracture of the pelvic bone during an accident in his home, an injury that required him to rest at least six weeks or risk further injury.
In the case of some canceled appearances, especially those at the last minute, a younger, little-known conductor will step in and occasionally ignite their careers in the process. In other instances, a veteran colleague of similar stature graciously agrees to help out. That’s what happened with these concerts, when Neeme Järvi, principal conductor of the Estonian National Symphony, agreed to take Dohnányi’s place. The Estonian native, who emigrated to the United States in 1980, said his busy schedule sometimes precludes him from filling in for a situation like this. “In this case,” he said, “I was free and I have a very good relationship with the Chicago Symphony and its management, so why not do it?”
Järvi most recently led the Chicago Symphony in December, when he joined violinist Vadim Gluzman, with whom he frequently collaborates, for a program that included Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major. A recording featuring Järvi and Gluzman in performances of composer’s two violin concertos with the Estonian National Symphony was released last year. “It’s like playing with my brother,” Gluzman said in a Sounds and Stories interview. “I don’t have a brother, but if I did, it would be Neeme. He’s still as much of a hooligan as I can imagine he was when was 20. Just with more wisdom and experience. He sparkles onstage. What can I say?”
In his impressive career, Järvi has been principal conductor of the Gothenberg (Sweden) Symphony, 1982-2004; principal conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, 1984-1988, and music director of the Detroit Symphony, 1990-2005. He began his professional life in 1963-1979 as principal conductor of the Estonian National Symphony (originally the Symphony Orchestra of Estonian Radio), and his career came full circle in 2010-11 when he returned as its artistic leader. “It’s the second term and last one,” he said. “It’s kind of a wonderful thing to go home again, because otherwise I’m a gypsy going around the world everywhere.” The orchestra plans to celebrate the conductor’s 80th birthday with a pair of celebratory concerts on June 6-7. Joining him will be Järvi’s son, Kristjan, also a conductor, and his flutist daughter, Maarika.
Few conductors have made more recordings than Järvi, whose list of releases numbers somewhere close to 500, with more on the way. Because the Estonian National Symphony was originally a radio orchestra, Järvi said, “recording was my everyday job.”
The position gave him familiarity with many of Estonia’s top composers, including Arvo Pärt, a sound engineer at Estonian Radio at the time; Veljo Tormis, who died in January, and Eino Tamberg. Then, as he became affiliated with other orchestras later on, each had a recording contract with assorted labels such as BIS Records and Chandos, so he kept making albums, covering an extraordinarily wide range of works.
His recent recordings have tended to focus on lesser-known composers such as Julius Fučík (1872-1916), whom Järvi described as the John Philip Sousa of Czech music, and Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974).“I’m taking care about focusing on different kinds of composers,” he said, “but not too mainstream, because everybody does mainstream.”
Given the vast amount of repertoire that Järvi has conducted during his long career, it came as little surprise that he agreed to do the program that Dohnányi had planned to lead in Chicago: Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with concertmaster Robert Chen as soloist, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral). Opening the program will be Pärt’s Fratres (Brothers), which the composer originally wrote in 1977 and later refashioned for more than 15 different instrumentations. It will be heard here in a 1992 version for solo violin (Chen), strings and percussion.
The 10-minute piece is written in Pärt’s meditative style of composition that he called “tintinnabuli,” which refers to bell-like resonances. “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played,” the composer wrote in a program note for ECM Records in 1984. “This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements — with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials — with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”
Fratres is just the right length and fits nicely on the program with its better-known counterparts, Järvi said. “And it’s very good,” added the conductor, obviously proud of his homeland, “to play Estonian music.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
TOP: Neeme Järvi, principal conductor of the Estonian National Symphony, will lead the CSO in concerts April 20-23. | Photo: Simon van Boxtel