Paavo Järvi is 38, and he's continuing his second year as the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO). He's European, young and handsome, but that's not enough for the task at hand.
Järvi's job isn't just getting the best performances out of his talented orchestra. He has to awaken Music Hall's sleeping giant, the CSO, an arts behemoth that claims plenty of untapped potential.
To do his job, he has to overcome decades of lackluster marketing, an elitist spirit and an unfriendly atmosphere. (I can't remember the last time one of Music Hall's Original Daughters-of-the-Revolution ushers even muttered the word "Welcome" to me as she passed out a CSO program). Basically, he has a lot of preconceptions to overturn.
There's nothing more burdensome than being labeled the great hope for an organization struggling to boost its attendance, especially young patrons. But Järvi appears to take it all in stride.
"I must say that I am very comfortable on that stage," Järvi says, speaking recently at Music Hall. "I do not feel that the hall is too big, even though everybody talks about the hall as too big. While it might be quite a challenge to fill in a medium city like Cincinnati the largest concert hall in America, it doesn't, at least for musicians, in terms of acoustics, feel too big
"The only thing that we are constantly thinking about, and I am constantly thinking about, is how to attract more people to hear this orchestra. And I'm not only talking about box office. I'm not only taking about filling the seats for the sake of filling them.
"I'm so proud of what's going on here. Maybe biased, obviously, but I really think there are good things happening here, and I wish the there were more people who would see this. I know that there is a lot going on but, at the same time, to experience what we're doing here could enrich people. I think they will come back if they get that first injection."
Järvi's face is everywhere these days -- on brochures, billboards and calendars. It's the type of blitzkrieg marketing the CSO should be doing. If you have a new face, you better hype it before the luster wears off.
I know a number of women who go to the performances simply to see Järvi. That's good news for the CSO.
Järvi says the challenges are being met. The CSO is enjoying good reviews and solid sales for its Telarc CDs. Its reputation is steadily growing nationally and internationally. Outreach programs with University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music continue to attract younger audiences. More importantly, he wants to reach out to the entire community.
"Here I am as hands-on as I will ever be anywhere," Järvi says. "If you see my schedule, you see that I am involved in everything. I just came from a chamber concert rehearsal because I'm encouraging the orchestra to play chamber music.
"This is my musical home, and it is the only place where I will be involved in issues where ordinarily I wouldn't be. We don't exist on our own. We are part of a community, and if that community doesn't relate to us and we don't relate to that community, then we're not members of it.
"I step outside this concert hall, and it is depressing to me just to see what's happening across the street. The most beautiful part of Cincinnati is a ghetto, and we have to do something to change that. ... I do feel it is our responsibility to take an active part and make the world a better place, especially around us."
The CSO played before a sparse crowd on Oct. 25. It was a rainy Friday morning, and the audience was decidedly gray, often the case at CSO performances. The small crowd raises an important question: What good is an exceptional symphony if you don't get sizable crowds to come hear them play? How much can Järvi do to re-energize the CSO?
The answer is he needs to do everything -- and a bit more.