Paavo Jarvi and his shining orchestra on the Seine


(c) Mark Lyons

Paavo Jarvi became music director of the Orchestre de Paris in September. 

Review: Orchestre de Paris, Paavo Jarvi conducting;
Elisabeth Leonskaya, piano, at the Salle Pleyel, Paris

Each time I’ve heard the Orchestre de Paris on its home turf in recent years, I’ve wondered why this fine ensemble typically does not come up in conversations about the world’s great orchestras.

In any case, whether because it doesn’t visit the United States very often or its recordings are unfamiliar to us, American critics seem to undervalue the Orchestre de Paris. I find it hard to believe any connoisseur could have come away from the concert I heard Nov. 4 at the Salle Pleyel unconvinced that this orchestra ranks in the top class.

For that matter, I might say the same about the Estonian-born conductor Paavo Jarvi, who at age 48 has just begun his new directorship of the Orchestre de Paris. Jarvi steps down as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at the end of this season.

In an electrifying performance of Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D major, the rapport between conductor and orchestra was so thorough-going that one might have surmised they had been a musical family for several years rather than a few weeks.

While Jarvi’s conducting style tends toward open, exuberant gestures, he works with a clear purpose that these musicians obviously understand down to the last nuance. This was a fairly brisk Sibelius Second, but animated rather than frenetic and – notably in the brasses — brilliant rather than merely clamorous.

In Sibelius’ plethora of grandly sweeping tunes, Jarvi allowed the Paris strings to glisten and to sing; and shine they did, from opulent cellos and violas up through gossamer textures spun by a superb choir of violins. The Orchestre de Paris also boasts a prize group of wind players who made impeccably poised chamber music in passages that sometimes get lost in the storm and stress of the mighty Second Symphony.

Just as Jarvi’s penchant for sudden accelerations injected the performance with hair-raising bursts of energy, his masterfully contoured peroration in the finale – a sound that grew ever more majestic and seemed to tap every possible resonance of the Pleyel’s splendid acoustic – was pure, unrelenting excitement.

The balance of the program offered Elisabeth Leonskaya’s lyrical, romantically old-school Russian account of the Grieg Piano Concerto and the premiere of Arvo Pärt’s “Silhouette: Homage to Gustave Eiffel” for strings and percussion, a short piece of winsome lyricism commissioned to welcome Jarvi to Paris. Pärt was on hand to acknowledge the applause.

It seems likely Jarvi – whose predecessors at the Orchestre de Paris include Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim — will be present at the Pleyel for many an ovation to come.

As for the orchestra coming to a U.S. concert hall near you, that doesn’t appear to be in the offing near term. While Jarvi is quoted in an Orchestre de Paris publication espousing the value of tours and citing extensive plans to take the orchestra to cities around Europe in the coming year, the U.S. is not on that agenda.

But the new maestro already has begun recording with the orchestra. Their CD of works by Bizet – the youthful Symphony in C, the Jeux d’Enfants” and a second symphony called “Roma” – is available at

Jarvi’s extensive discography includes some excellent Telarc CDs with Cincinnati, where he has been music director since 2001. Notable are Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” and Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony on one disc and Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique.”

You can also listen to the Orchestre de Paris’s vault of concerts dating back to 1982, without charge, here.


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Lawrence B. Johnson
Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.