By Michael Roddy
LONDON (Reuters) - Conductor Kristjan Jarvi sometimes imagines sitting in the audience for a concert and thinking that if he wasn't up on stage, he wouldn't want to be there.
That's when he brings on a saxophonist to play Handel, or a Balkan trio to jam along with his MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, where the Estonian-born Jarvi is music director.
"The more you discover, and the more you create, the more you realize that there are so many infinite possibilities, I mean that really are infinite - there is no such thing as concrete," Jarvi said.
The 42-year-old Jarvi has been breaking down "concrete barriers" between the audience and classical music pretty much since he became a conductor, starting off as an assistant to Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1998.
His father, the Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi, moved his family to the United States when Jarvi was seven. After deciding he wanted to be a musician - inspired in part by the late Leonard Bernstein - Jarvi went at it with gusto.
In addition to his conducting roles, he founded the classical-world-hip-hop-jazz group Absolute Ensemble, which has delved deep into crossover territory. He now hopes to break down more walls through his "Kristjan Jarvi Sound Project" to lure new audiences to classical music.
The "Sound Project" is a bit of a catchall term for a plan to produce recordings of works that excite him - and hopefully listeners - and reproduce that experience at live performances and a series of themed events, such as a Northern Lights Festival and a Spring Fever Festival. The first release, "Balkan Fever", featuring Balkan musicians, was released this month.
Classical music "should become completely integrated into society. In fact if we don't do this it's going to fade away," the energetic Jarvi said over tea in a London hotel where he occasionally launched into song to illustrate a musical point.
Jarvi has earned a reputation as one of the canniest, and most innovative, programmers on the classical scene.
With Absolute Ensemble he has recorded compositions of the late American rock musician Frank Zappa. His 2006 recording of Bernstein's sprawling "Mass" of 1971 is often deemed the main rival to Bernstein's own.
More recently he has toured Europe with the American minimalist Steve Reich and produced a recording of Reich's milestone "Desert Music" oratorio of 1983 that almost makes the piece, set to haunting lines by poet William Carolos Williams that presage a nuclear apocalypse, sound like a whole new work.
Jarvi worked closely with the late, great jazz keyboardist Joe Zawinul, co-founder of "Weather Report", who also performed with Absolute Ensemble. Jarvi holds up a performance by Zawinul playing Brahms's "Haydn Variations" with the Cologne Symphony as an example of what he wants to do with classical music.
"The thing grooves like you couldn't believe," Jarvi said, by way of explaining his decision to recruit saxophonist Daniel Schnyder, from Absolute Ensemble, to play Handel, even though the instrument hadn't been invented in the 18th century. Jarvi calls it "Handel Reloaded".
"The thing is it is one of those instruments that lends itself to the type of improvisation like a violin would do in Handel's time," Jarvi said.
"Baroque music, and up to the days of early classical, was very much improvised. Now where does that exist today? It exists in the world of pop, jazz and rock."
With Bach embraced by rock and jazz performers, Jarvi thought the comparatively neglected Handel should have a whirl.
Once you get beyond the Frenchness and Germanness of the composer's famous "Water Music", Jarvi said, the dance rhythms, with the right musicians playing them, contain "certain sound effects ... reminiscent of some kind of reggae".
"It's some of the best music that exists so how do you take some of the best music that exists and bring it to the world again? You have to reload it."
But what about the musical purists, who might object to saxophones playing Handel?
"If one could definitely say that Handel was a purist himself I would say right on, but I really have a hard time thinking that," Jarvi said.
"Even Bach would basically say, 'Hey, listen, what instruments do we have?' And then he adapted stuff. Stuff like we do to Handel he did to Vivaldi - and then he called it his own concerto."
(Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Andrew Heavens)