Art before marketing

Why? Paavo Järvi, the new chief conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich was expecting this question. “Because I am an Olivier Messiaen fan,” he replies nonchalantly. “It’s great music, and it gets played far too rarely. We have now released a small collection of masterpieces on CD.”

Järvi is perfectly aware that the “why” was not, “Why are you playing the music of a French composer who lived from 1908 to 1992?”, but rather, “Why are you beginning your work in Zurich with a tribute to Messiaen?” His explanation is quite matter-of-fact: “What happens when a conductor begins working with a German or Swiss-German orchestra? They start with Mahler, Bruckner or Brahms. But I wanted something different. Something that would make a statement and raise a few eyebrows. Art should always come before marketing.”

Strictly speaking, 2 October 2019 marked the beginning of Järvi’s second year in Zurich, not his first. This is down to Järvi’s agents and the Tonhalle management team, whose creative scheduling enabled the Estonian to work frequently with the Tonhalle Orchestra during the 2018/19 season – and use this initial stint as an opportunity to casually slip in some Messiaen. With the microphones switched on, Tonhalle Maag turned into an impromptu recording studio.

Fifteen minutes here, a quarter of an hour there – Järvi gradually weaved his magic. Sprinklings of Messiaen, combined with a notably energetic take on Beethoven, resulted in some electrifying concert hall evenings.

Amid the soaring strings and horns, the music is otherwise very controlled. The firm influence of the conductor is audible, as is the desire of the musicians to oblige their new maestro. Each register almost eclipses the next. And when these works are played with such passion, it is easy for anyone to appreciate how wonderfully sumptuous and sensual modern music can be. During the symphonic meditation of “Les offrandes oubliées”, the orchestra’s luxuriant yet plaintive chords pull at the listener’s heartstrings. The beseeching strings then whip up a veritable storm. This music oozes positivity, rescue is in sight. Our Estonian friend in smart-casual footwear has come to save the day.

Christian Berzins

Paavo Järvi: “Messiaen”, Tonhalle-Orchester, Zurich Alpha 2019

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