Kristjan Järvi on the Divine Geometry of Baroque music and minimalism

Ahead of his performance with the LSO on Thursday 29 November, we talked to conductor Kristjan Järvi about what Bach, Handel, Radiohead and minimalism all have in common – as well as his philosophy for childlike musical discovery.

Known for his adventurous programming and willingness to experiment, Kristjan Järvi is a conductor on a mission to think outside the box when it comes to classical music. We started by asking him him about the concept for Thursday's concert at the Barbican.

Thursday 29 November
Charles Coleman Drenched (UK premiere)
Charles Coleman Bach Inspired (UK premiere)
Philip Glass Piano Concerto No 3 (UK premiere)
Kristjan Järvi Too hot to Handel (UK premiere)
Steve Reich Music for ensemble and orchestra (UK premiere, LSO co-commission)

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Can you tell us what unites the music you'll be playing on Thursday?

I think that there’s a certain thread that connects the music in this concert. It’s all very geometrical. Geometrical in the sense of everything from the Fibonacci sequence to the concept of Pi to the resonance of nuclear particles.

The whole concept of the concert is called ‘Divine Geometry’. It centres around two boys from the same neighbourhood in Germany (Handel & Bach) and two boys from the same neighbourhood in New York (Reich and Glass). It’s the story of how two Baroque masters, Bach and Handel are reincarnated in the 20th & 21st century as Steve Reich and Phillip Glass.

There are so many similarities. Baroque music has a motoric beat, a defined chordal structure, and symmetry in its internal overtone structure. In those ways, it’s very similar to the music written by Reich and Glass, who do it in their own unique languages just like Bach and Handel.

There’s also a sense of connectivity to their surroundings. Bach and Handel were writing with the natural surroundings that existed 300 years ago, before electricity and the rush of modern life. That is why this type of music resonated so well back then in the baroque era, as well as now. They were resonating their surroundings in the same way the Reich and Glass resonate with the 21st century.

Reich and Glass are both 81 years old and still the hippest thing around! They really are the modern day classics, they’re musical dynamos. Although they’re separated from Bach and Handel by several hundred years (and an ocean), they are able to tap into the same innate intelligence as Bach and Handel. It’s almost like there’s a human intuition which makes us act and react to the geometry of the universe in this same way. It’s as if it’s natural to us.

That’s why we’re also doing Bach transcriptions in this concert with the help of Charles Coleman. His works that are part Bach, part Coleman – then you have Philip Glass’s Piano Concerto No 3 and then you have the piece that’s part Handel, part me. The last piece is Steve Reich’s new Music for Ensemble and Orchestra. The whole concert is a juxtaposition of old and new, and I think it’s a perfect marriage.

MGL0490 500pxWhere did the concept of Too Hot To Handel come from?

Well, it’s too hot to Handel because it’s inspired by Handel you know? Specifically his various Concerti Grossi. Initially, I wanted to orchestrate a suite of them, then as it went on it became a piece of its own. It developed these composed sections which are inter-wound with the orchestration of Handel. So it’s kind of a Handel journey.

What will it sound like?

It sounds like what happens when electronica and Baroque music meet. Most of the Concerti Grossi were composed just strings – but we’ll have a whole orchestra playing it with electronic instruments as well. There’ll be electric bass and electric piano. It’ll be like Radiohead that segues itself into Handel. Yes, it’s partly orchestration, but it’s more than that. The simple arrangement has turned into a piece because there’s the original music to bind it together.

Wow, Radiohead? Can you tell us more?

Well it depends which Radiohead you’re talking about. Kid A sounds different to OK Computer you know? I’d say it’s closer to Kid A. It’s more of a sparse, minimal electronica type of vibe. And there are transitions that have this medieval, almost renaissance feel.

But it’s a synthesis of all of that. That’s what’s great about these modern groups – they’re not afraid to combine music that they like and that sounds good.

I think a lot of music styles are created this way. Look, I don’t want to go in a totally different direction here but the only reason Bryan Adams started singing was because there was no singer in his band, and the other guy was like ‘Bryan, can you sing?’ You know what I mean? And now he’s one of the most well-known rock stars from that era.

Not everything happens in a thought out and calculated way. Sometimes it’s about taking a chance, being curious and saying ‘what the hell!’ Life is made a little bit too complicated already. If we can simplify what we can, be it our thoughts or actions, we get to the stuff we actually want to do.

For me, concepts are my thing. Having something like Divine Geometry actually explains a lot about who I am as a person. It tells you what my thought process is and how that reflects in my actions.  I try to connect with my surroundings and everyone around me. In order to do that you have to have a lot of trust. Not everyone can deal with it.

Which concerti grossi have you used?

Well, I could name them for you but I think it kind of defeats the purpose of the piece. It’s probably only interesting from a musicologist’s point of view! What I hope is that people don’t see it as an old piece at all. I hope they’ll see it as a new piece by Handel, just written in the 21st century. In fact, I’ve done a lot of that, I have done versions of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty where I condensed the three-hour ballets into 75-minute dramatic symphonies. The music is clearly Tchaikovsky but it’s bound together through these small bridges, which are much more 21st century and modern.

So in that sense, I don’t want people to think that it’s a collection of concerti grossi which Kristjan has orchestrated. I would say it’s from both opuses of concerti grossi. I think you should set up a competition and give a prize to anyone who can name what I’ve used!

So have you worked with Charles Coleman before?

I met Charles when we were both studying at the Manhattan School of Music. Although he’s an old friend of mine, I haven’t actually performed much of his music, in fact my brother performed more! So I’m just trying it out you know!

What is it about Baroque music that fascinates you?

Well, Baroque is ba-rock, you know? If you played Baroque music to someone who doesn’t know classical music, and if you play that to them in a gutsy, committed way that rocks out, I think they would fall in love with it immediately. They’d think, ‘This is the most modern, hippest music around!’ – and that’s my experience.

It’s actually really progressive, Handel in particular. People wouldn’t say Telemann was hip, but he is! It just doesn’t sound sexy to say I’m going to listen to some Telemann. But if you include it in a concept like in this concert, Divine Geometry, then people can understand how the old and new relate. They’ll understand the bridge between Baroque and minimalism, and get a footing on what connects them. Even if you don’t care about Reich, Glass or Baroque music, there’s a correspondence that you can hear in the music. Reich’s piece is really a modern concerto grosso. We’re premiering modern concerti grossi.

ADA81171 500pxMost of our audience will know you as a conductor, could you tell us about Järvi the composer? What projects are you working on?

Well I just wrote a piece called New York Songs for Piano and Orchestra and one called Critical Mass as well as several orchestral pieces. On the Nordic Pulse tour I’ve just finished with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic – we were celebrating countries which have 100 year birthdays. And in the context of that we’re playing a piece of mine called Aurora, which is very fitting. But also we have music from lots of countries, including a work called Anew and a reworking of Sibelius’ Tempest.

I like to do these things. There’s a lot of great music out there and I’m influenced by all of it. I really believe that if everybody could be free enough to create and have the curiosity to try things out then we’d live in a different world. We should all strive to find that childlike quality within us and actually try to retain it instead of being too serious.

And I don’t just mean in classical music, but generally speaking. We shouldn’t be afraid to throw creative ideas into the mix. Someone might think, ‘hey that’s a completely fantastic and genius idea and even though it’s crazy it works!’ In that sense, people like Handel are the most valuable and fantastic individuals. He was just so clever, witty, and fun, and somehow so decedent you know? I get a kick out of how genius he is! And that’s where his genius comes from – it’s about not losing the child that you were. It’s about taking that child on a journey through your life, and not trying to hide or bury them.

Are there any challenges that go along with playing your own works?

Well there’s no problem with interpretation because I know exactly what I want! And there’s the advantage that the players can question the content directly because the composer’s right there. But in terms of trying to convey a certain spirit or feeling, then you are 100% exposed. You really are taking all your clothes off in front of everyone, and unless you’re comfortable with doing that, you shouldn’t really do it!

What are you going to do next?

Well I recently did this Tchaikovsky Sleeping Beauty arrangement and it was performed in July and I would love to go on to do The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky is one of my heroes, although I despised studying him at school! I thought it was the most cheesy, boring music ever. I couldn’t listen to it. He’s probably one of my favourite composers now!

Everyone knows the famous dances, but there’s an enormous amount of material in the dances that nobody knows. Much more than the symphonies and the operas or anything like that. Unless you’re a ballet buff you wouldn’t actually know any of it. I’d like to bring it to a much wider audience.

I was also thinking that I’d continue on the Handel thing and do Handel with Care and don’t touch this Handel. It could be a whole series of its own!

If you could influence the audience, what would be the one thing you’d want them to hold in their mind as they listen to this piece and this concert?

Well that it’s a journey. What I’d like for them to do is start by closing their eyes and gradually wake up in a new dimension of reality! But it should be their reality, maybe somewhere they having gone before, but where they are the main actor.

So I guess it’s kind of an escape?

I think so. Look I mean, my whole message is one of empowerment, so there’s no doctrine here. It’s more about what the listener can imagine rather than what I can imagine for the listener!


You can hear Kristjan Järvi conduct the LSO at the Barbican Hall on Thursday 29 November.
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