The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen had planned to take its Beethoven symphony cycle on tour in 2020, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the performances could not take place. In an interview with DW, the star conductor talks about the future of the classical music world after the pandemic and what he’s learned from the experience. 

Paavo Järvi conducting the musicians of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

Paavo Järvi has led the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen since 2004

DW: To mark the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, you wanted to tour once again with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and Beethoven’s symphonies. Concerts in Bremen and Frankfurt were pushed from spring to fall, and now, with the new lockdown, they’ve finally been canceled, just like the concerts planned in Tokyo. That must have been disappointing for you and the orchestra.

Paavo Järvi: Of course we had hopes that the concerts would somehow still be realized. But the music business goes on and doesn’t necessarily focus on Beethoven anymore.

If there is still a performance of the Beethoven cycle, especially with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, which is very well known for this repertoire, we will probably have another opportunity, most likely in Tokyo. My dream would also be to re-imagine the cycle planned in Frankfurt. But right now they have such a backlog of all the projects that didn’t happen, we have to see how each organization decides to go forward. That will probably be decided in the next few months.

Paavo Järvi with his hand held high while conducting

The Estonian conductor has been using his pandemic downtime wisely, as he told DW

I thought it would be easier to catch up on Beethoven concerts in Germany because the Beethoven anniversary year has been officially extended until September 2021 due to cancellations following the coronavirus pandemic. 

I hope so. The truth is that every year is a Beethoven year. Beethoven is always celebrated and always played, there is no shortage of his music. I think in Germany there will be some kind of an emphasis. To me what is more important is to think and rethink playing pieces by Beethoven that are very seldom played, maybe doing a different take on how Beethoven could be celebrated. This might be an interesting idea. But this is pure speculation. At the moment, we don’t really have any idea how to get back into the music industry. It doesn’t look very promising frankly.

Many musicians say they have used the lockdown to play completely different pieces than those they play in concert, or to discover new repertoire. Did you use the time to play the rare Beethoven pieces?

Personally, I used the time to explore new repertoire, to do a lot of things I normally don’t have time to do. When you conduct every week and play a different program every week, there is very little time for that. I have been able to explore some of the music I haven’t actually planned or programmed yet. There are a lot of composers we don’t get around to. 

I looked at a lot of 20th century music, from Witold Lutosławski to Sergei Prokofiev to Krzysztof Penderecki, to Arthur Honegger or Bohuslav Martinu. These are all composers whose names are familiar, but hardly anyone performs them. There is some remarkably good music by these composers — and there are more. I’m currently studying Eduard Tubin’s symphonies, very underrated, wonderful symphonies from Estonia. The musical repertoire is so vast that you need more than a lifetime to come close to exploring even a little bit of it. There’s just not enough time.

Unless the coronavirus is going to keep cutting into the music industry much longer….

Yes, one could say its the positive thing of having time off — but I’m certainly not talking about the hardships musicians go through because of corona. I’ve also been reading and listening to podcasts, and having video conversations with conducting students and young musicians. I did a whole discussion series about different composers, and I was surprised how many people tuned in just to talk about music and discuss composers.

Järvi leading the orchestra in the opulent Bellevue castle.

Just before the Beethoven year, the conductor led his orchestra for a celebratory opening concert

How do you think the pandemic will change the music world? Will there still be big tours after this?

That will be interesting to watch. There’s a lot of speculation and a lot of people trying to figure out what will happen next. Part of that is the idea that orchestras should maybe not tour so much and play more for local audiences. It’s about also being ecologically responsible by not flying too often to various cities in the world.

That’s understandable, but we will continue to seek connections in the world to bring our music to other places. It will not be easy to stop this type of thinking. I think that every orchestra and every soloist will want to travel. We just have to figure out how it can be more ecologically responsible. 

On the other hand, financially, the world and the industry are in such difficulty that many orchestras are probably not going to be able to tour because they simply don’t have money, and the supporters don’t have the money either. I think the structure is obviously going to change for the next few years for lack of funding.

The members of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen standing on a staircase with their instruments

The conductor says he cannot imagine digital concerts taking the place of concerts with audiences after the pandemic.

There were a lot of digital concerts this year. Could that be something we will see in the future? 

Streams are great as a kind of Plan B, if you will. Playing for microphones is not the same as playing in front of an audience. Music needs to be done live for a live audience. 

If you then stream that concert with a live audience to a larger population in the world, fine, it’s okay. But just for the stream it’s going to be financially prohibitive — you have to hire a video team, audio specialists, editors and lighting people. I also don’t think it’s the way to make music. If I see a real concert transmitted through livestream, but if I see something specifically done for stream, with no audience, with everyone sitting far apart and wearing masks, it’s a reminder of an emergency situation where it was the best you could do — we don’t want this to become our reality. 

Will you take anything from this pandemic, which isn’t over yet, for the future?

If I have learned anything during this time, it is to appreciate the audience more and how important it is in a concert situation. To play Beethoven’s Eroica and to not have applause at the end is so anti-climatic. It’s just not the way it’s meant to be.

Paavo Järvi spoke with DW’s Gaby Reucher.

The Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi is known for his attention to detail and in-depth study of composers and their works. Since 2004, he has been principal conductor of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. Working with the world-renowned orchestra, he has presented the complete symphonies of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms cycle, as well as the highly acclaimed Beethoven Project — the subject of an award-winning DW film. 

Adaptation by Sarah Hucal.