Musical explorer Kristjan Järvi steers his Absolute Ensemble toward the Middle East
Ask Kristjan Järvi what fascinates him about music, and he’ll talk about rhythms and grooves. “I’m very fanatical about rhythms, actually,” Järvi told SN&R in a recent interview. “I think that’s what makes music successful in any respect, whether it’s a Beethoven symphony or a piece by John Adams or Middle Eastern music with Turkish beats. There’s a beat within us, you know. If we [as musicians] get into the groove, it definitely emanates and reacts with the audience.”
When performing with the 18-piece Absolute Ensemble, Järvi has a well-established reputation for getting into the groove. The New York Times described him as “a kinetic stage presence,” and The Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “He’s like a rock star on stage—jumping up and down, swinging his hips to the rhythm, giving cues with grand arm gestures and working the crowd. And, as the audience pointed out … there’s his uncanny resemblance to John Travolta.”
Last year, Järvi and his multidisciplinary ensemble brought Davis a classical take on the music of Frank Zappa with the show Absolute Zappa. But this year, the rhythms the group will create at the Mondavi Center on December 14 are decidedly Middle Eastern, with a tilt toward the Eastern Mediterranean. On this tour, titled Arabian Nights, Dhafer Youssef of Tunisia joins the group to sing and play the oud—a stringed wooden instrument thought to be a precursor of the European lute. Lebanese-born Bassam Saba will play the nay, a kind of bamboo flute. Also featured will be Swiss composer and performer Daniel Schnyder on the saxophone.
Then there’s the Absolute Ensemble itself, which Järvi described thusly: “We have a string section of five, and a wind section of about 10, plus a small brass section and rhythm section.” On occasion, there are electric and electronic instruments as well.
“It’s basically like a big band, rock band and chamber orchestra all in one,” Järvi said. “It’s like the ultimate fusion band, in my opinion.”
And the music? Schnyder’s multi-movement Arabian Nights alternately features lush, romantic violin solos recalling Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and a double-bass solo that reminds one of Eberhard Weber’s jazz recordings for ECM Records. These contrast with punchy, saxophone-driven jazz and big-band sounds, angular patterns of post-Stravinsky modern composition, catchy pop music and spiritually derived Arab music.
Järvi sees nothing new about the idea of combining music from the Western and Arab worlds. “Fascination with the East has been consistent,” he pointed out. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart used “Turkish” percussion effects. Camille Saint-Saëns composed his Egyptian piano concerto on the banks of the Nile. Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky highlighted The Nutcracker with an Arabian dance. And pop icon Sting, whom Järvi admires, has mixed Middle Eastern textures into recent releases.
Järvi is just as interdisciplinary as his influences. Born in Soviet-dominated Estonia in 1973, he grew up listening to classics and pop records from the West, which his father (well-known conductor Neemi Järvi) brought home from abroad. The Järvi family eventually settled in New York. Neemi was conductor of the Detroit Symphony from 1990 to 2005. Older brother Paavo Järvi currently is the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
And young Kristjan Järvi formed the Absolute Ensemble in 1993 at the age of 20. The group has been his special project ever since, even though he’s taken time to serve as assistant conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and currently is the chief conductor of the Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna.
Ironically, Järvi resists calling himself the conductor of the Absolute Ensemble. “My role is more like band leader,” he said. “There are many open sections in Arabian Nights, a lot of room for improvisation. We have the opportunity to show off all of the ensemble and also the soloists, who aren’t really soloists as such, but featured collaborators with the ensemble.”