Happy Birthday, Maestro Neeme Järvi!

07. June 2020.

Sixty-four years ago, on the 13th of May 1956, was the first time Neeme Järvi took the podium in Estonia Concert Hall to conduct the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, at the time named as Estonian Radio Symphony Orchestra. He had been familiar with them from before, when he often listened to the rehearsals, conducted by his older brother, or as a percussionist in the orchestra.

In his chief conductor years (from 1963 – 1979 as well as since 2010 until today) the collaboration with Estonian National Symphony Orchestra has been especially fruitful. On the occasion of Maestro’s 80th Birthday the orchestra gifted him the title of Honorary Chief Conductor for life. This gesture marks the timeless strong bond and love, which Maestro and the orchestra share for one another, a connection that has survived being apart now, and in the past for many years.

The current uncertain time brings unusual solutions – as Estonian National Symphony Orchestra’s 93rd season finish also marks the end of Maestro’s tenure as a Chief Conductor, a festive celebration has been postponed to the beginning of the 94th season in early October 2020.

Dear Maestro, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra wishes you a Happy Birthday and we are all very much looking forward to seeing you again!

Here are a few memories from current and past members of the orchestra, trying to unlock the secret code, the treasure box of being a conductor – the magic key that Maestro carries within…

Percussion, Member of the orchestra 1951-2005, Section Principal 1964-2005

Neeme Järvi and I go back to 1949, when we studied percussion together and he was already a wonderful xylophonist. Despite of being younger, he was already ahead of me in playing the xylophone. I used to visit him in Nõmme – he had a great darts game, which we used to play and we listened to a lot of records together. We would often go and hear the symphony orchestra rehearsals, as Neeme’s brother Vallo was conducting. We had our own imaginary “podium” and we would both conduct along from the hall. In the 1950’s we would play alongside each other in the percussion section.

Neeme became the Chief Conductor of Estonian National Symphony Orchestra in 1963, but he had conducted us already before. I remember, whenever we had a rehearsal break, everyone wanted to desperately chat with him. Neeme was cheeky and came to me, pretending we would study the score together – that’s how we got to do all our chats.

Double Bass, Member of the orchestra from 1974, Section Principal 1979-2000

My first memories of Neeme Järvi go back to the time I studied in Tartu Music School in 1961-1965. Young Neeme Järvi often came to perform in Tartu with a chamber version of the symphony orchestra. The Audience enjoyed watching this young gentleman – slender, dark haired, as he back then appeared – he could make the musicians play so eagerly. At his concerts audiences lost themselves in music.

In the 1970’s Neeme conducted outside of Estonia, including the USSR and elsewhere. From those times I remember a week, when Neeme was supposed to arrive, but didn’t make it to the Monday rehearsal and the orchestra was sent home. We waited for him every day, but his plane didn’t arrive and the precious rehearsal time was vanishing. He finally arrived half an hour before the concert, and said: “You have all played these pieces before – here I will do like this, here like this..”. This concert went better than the numerous ones before, which we had rehearsed for lots. Everyone was immensely focused for the concert.

Neeme’s departure in 1979 was a shock for all of us. I was on my way to the concert and outside the hall people came to ask if I had a spare ticket to offer – there were masses of people. These were his last two concerts before leaving – season opening and International Music Day concert – hall was packed and there were big crowds around the hall. I have never seen anything like it before or after.

Bassoon, Member of the Orchestra 1972-2016, Section Principal 1979-2004

In the 1970’s the orchestra consisted mostly of older members and the level of the orchestra was very different from what it is today. Neeme was already Neeme – young, energetic, open to experiments and rather creative – with him it was possible to play well, despite of the uneven level amongst the players. He was already using his fingers and shoulders to conduct. Young Neeme held his arms high, so one could see the fingertips well, although from later times I remember the wind players couldn’t see them so well from the back.

1st of October 1979 was an interesting and a rather peculiar evening. This was Neeme’s last performance before his departure. Members of the orchestra didn’t really know what was going on. Only after the concert we found out that Bernstein’s “West Side Story” that we had been rehearsing was banned right before the concert and even the music had been collected (by the authorities) for “safety”. Neeme had foreseen this and brought his extra scores along with all the parts. We played it as an encore in full. I remember there was a lot of excitement backstage. Tikhon Khrennikov (General Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers) was the soloist that night, playing his own piano concerto; we also performed Tubin’s 10th Symphony.

Violin, Member of the Orchestra 1966-1967 and 1970-2017

Neeme is 100% musician. However, there is a big difference between a musician and a musician. There are the ones who make music and the ones who feel music and I think Neeme is the one who has music living inside of him.

He absolutely controls the orchestra. His gestures are very accurate and conducting technique very economical, he often only uses his fingers – it is as if he has the music on his fingertips…and in his heart. One has to pay attention, as he might not conduct things in the same way in the concert as in rehearsals.

Clarinet, Member of the Orchestra 1967-2012, Section Principal 1977-2012

It was a great pleasure to be in the ‘same boat’ with Neeme Järvi, sharing the flying magic rug, where years full of enthusiasm, joy, discoveries, and unexpected moments just flew by. For me personally he is one and only in many ways.

Violin, ERSO Concert Master since 2001

Neeme Järvi is often reminiscing in the rehearsals the history of our orchestra – the past members, the people who are the founders of the professional instrument learning in Estonia. These interesting facts and stories are like legends in their own right, which add quite a lot of colour to the rehearsal process; they create an emotional and inspiring atmosphere and are of course interesting and educative.

I have performed numerous pieces under the baton of Neeme Järvi, as soloists as well as leading the orchestra and all collaborations have been mutually enjoyable and inspiring. He trusts the players. As a soloist, I might play things in a different way on one day to another and he is always open and curious, asking “Well, how shall we do it today?” He can offer great guidance to younger players.

As a teacher I can see how instrument studies are full of habits. We need to keep sharp senses and open mind to really get to the essence of the piece and figure out how to approach it. Neeme Järvi has said that there is no point of repeating others, one must find and discover for oneself, which coming from him sounds like a challenge. Talking about Neeme Järvi one might say there is no routine, it is almost prohibited!

Member of The Orchestra 1990-1991, Section Principal since 2005

Extraordinary musicality, trust towards the players, courage to risk by breaking the traditions, minimalist, but accurate technique, ability to differentiate important from less important – one could carry on with the list, but these are the essential keywords in my opinion.

Double Bass, Member of the Orchestra 1981-1990, Section Principal since 2000

When I re-joined the orchestra in 2000 I must have been the only member, who had not played with Neeme Järvi. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony Final movement was in the programme. I had prepared very well and was quite sure in myself – after all, it was the first meeting with Maestro. I then experienced in reality, how he just has a totally different approach to pieces than anyone else. He has a rare ability to keep his musicians away from their comfort zone. He doesn’t follow the rules, but his vision and interpretation is always incredibly strong. He conducts music like music conducts him.

One of the very special memories is the performance right before leaving in 1979. As a university student I was amongst the audience that evening and with the March by Elgar there was a lot of angst in the air, everyone was holding their breath.

Trumpet, Member of the Orchestra 1990-1996, Section Principal 1993-1996 and since 2000

Above all, understanding the nature of music and the joy of music making. He breaks the routine and maintains the fresh approach and everything is logical. All this shows his immense experience, abilities and total control. He always has a very clear vision … however, rehearsals and concerts can be very different.

Under his baton, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra has performed in many prestigious concert halls. His courage to go with his own vision against long standing traditions is impressive. Latest brilliant memories include performing Bruckner in Linz Bruckner Festival. One might have liked it or not, but one could not remain neutral.

Another memorable project was recording Mahler with Thomas Hampson – the whole process, which was also recorded on a DVD – brought out the real greatness of Neeme Järvi. Many world-class soloists have found their way to perform with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra specifically thanks to Neeme Järvi.

Clarinet, Member of the Orchestra since 2014, Section Principal since 2019

It is easy to empathize with his emotions as he shows without filter what he feels in the course of music. And I think he does the same for us vice versa, he is adapting very well what we play without loosing his sharp mind. I think this ability is quite rare in his generation as conductor’s roll has been focused on having authority for a long time in history.

Violin, ERSO Concert Master since 2015

I remember I was quite nervous when I had to go on stage with Neeme Järvi for the first time, to perform Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in Pärnu Music Festival. All the anxiety was replaced with joyful excitement, when the door to the stage opened and Maestro asked: “So, shall we go and make some beautiful music?!” In that moment I realised I shouldn’t worry and just go and play beautiful music as well as I can. And so I will every day.

The key to Neeme Järvi phenomenon is the ability to enthuse. In the rehearsal process it is always very sweet to see how conducting different works spark joy and enthusiasm in his eyes, as if he would always discover something brand new in the score. Being on stage with him is a lively and spontaneous experience; he has a sense for creating extraordinary musical moments and has a great gift discovering them.

In this way some beautiful moments last for long and even longer. In rehearsals he would often say: “Isn’t this just beautiful!” The audiences will likely feel enthusiasm this powerful as well.

Neeme Järvi can make musicians cross their own borders: to play even quieter than possible, even faster than possible and to find colours in music that are often even a surprise to the players themselves.

Harp, Section Principal since 2019

I am very happy that I got to play with him a few concerts during the present 2019/2020 season as his last year as a Principal Conductor. He is a legend and not only in Estonia: when I was asked where I work and I said that our Principal Conductor is Neeme Järvi everyone knows him and agrees that he is an amazing conductor with a huge life and musical experience. He lives the moment and respect the personality and gives space to each player.

Flute, Member of the Orchestra since 1991, Section Principal since 2005

If one could de-code the artistry of a conductor we would have many phenomenal conductors in the world. The more I live, see and hear, the more I understand that one cannot learn how to become a conductor, one must be born to be a conductor. It is possible to gather a great deal of knowledge about conducting and go and try it out on hundred musicians. It will soon become clear if one is just good at waving one’s arms around or does one actually also have some music in their head to create invisible reins in their hand, which take in the musicians as well as the audience. Anything beyond that depends on the artistic pain threshold – you either bare what you just listened to or not. This is a rather personal matter and perhaps this is where the code lies in – choose the musical way you believe in, but do not forget, that you must also make audience, critics and musicians to believe! Good conductor does everything well, phenomenal one can also make everything upside down and he won’t care about those, who said it wasn’t right.

Edited by Maarja Kasema
Translated by Maarit Kangron in June 2020, London