Conductor Kristjan Jarvi on Giving 'Gangnam Style' a Classical Spin

Kristjan Jarvi - P 2014
Franck Ferville

Kristjan Jarvi - P 2014

The musician speaks about crossing Psy with Sarasate in collaboration with Hollywood Bowl Hall-of-Famer Sarah Chang

With over 2.11 billion views on YouTube, "Gangnam Style" has inspired countless parodies and remixes, but Grammy-nominated conductor Kristjan Jarvi is showcasing the hit song in a way that's never been heard before: programmed to Pablo de Sarasate's late 19th-century classical staple "Zigeunerweisen" (you may recognize it from the cartoon-inspired chase scene in Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle).

Jarvi has been reputed for fusing Duke Ellington with Richard Strauss and founded the Absolute Ensemble in 1993 to tackle everything from Renaissance music to rock. For his latest take on K-pop, he managed to convince Korean-American violin virtuoso and Hollywood Bowl Hall-of-Famer Sarah Chang to come on board.

Jarvi and the Absolute Ensemble arrived in South Korea this week to showcase his latest music experimentations at Seoul's Sejong Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday and Friday. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the conductor to learn how Psy fits into his "cross-culture" ideals and how he got Chang to change her mind about crossover music.

Why "Gangnam Style"? The program also includes "Janggu Go-Go," featuring the Korean drum "janggu," and a newly arranged version of the local folk song "Arirang."

What we do for all Absolute Ensemble projects is take the basis of a given material. So for our performance we allude to things Korean, from traditional music and folk and all the way up to K-pop. We drum the "janggu" and bring a swing version of "Arirang." Korea has this incredible vastness of material you can build your house on. As for "Gangnam Style," who hasn't heard it? "Gangnam Style" broke the threshold for K-pop to become world pop, and shows how influential Korea has become in mainstream culture. Our homage is to marry it to "Zigeunerweisen" and have double the fun.

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Could you explain your work with Absolute Ensemble?

Basically when I was studying at the Manhattan School of Music in the early 1990s, I wanted to do things that weren't done before like incorporating street music into what we consider sacred and holy, traditional classical repertories. Music is universal and I wanted to play good music, not just one genre of music. So basically my band is three in one: part big band, part chamber orchestra and part rock band. All the members including myself can not only read music but also improvise, arrange and compose.

Crossovers can be dangerous, however, and must be done very delicately.

You can make it extremely cheesy, and I actually hate the term "crossover." It has been given bad name by a lot of cheap products out there. I prefer the term "cross-culture." If you think about it, Bach and Vivaldi, Bernstein and even Frank Zappa, it's all crossover music. The difference is that their crossovers are achieved in a highly sophisticated way.Look at someone like Beethoven and [his Ninth Symphony "Chorale"]; the first three movements are serious and then he introduces a song everyone can sing in a pub. 

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Sarah Chang is well-known for having reservations about crossover music. I heard she initially turned down your offer.

Yes. If I didn't know her well we wouldn't be doing this. She wouldn't sign up for doing something that could have a negative connotation. I feel like this [crossover style] is something I do not only with the Absolute Ensemble but also with the London Symphony and other projects. I recently started a series with the record label Naive Paris, called "The Kristjan Jarvi Sound Project." The second record, "Parallel Tones," comes out in a couple of weeks and features [a crossover of] Duke Ellington and Richard Strauss.

Your father, Neeme Jarvi, and brother, Paavo Jarvi, are both maestro conductors. How have they influenced you?

First of all they're my best friends, not just my father and brother. Both my father and brother, who is 10 years older, take care of me. But they're also from different generations. With the creation of groups like Absolute I'm already the American boy, as opposed to my [Estonian-born] father, who's very much from the Soviet Union era, and Paavo, who is more European. So we're all quite different, both generationally and culturally. 

My father and brother are more traditional [...] What I'm doing, I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel; I just see the world in a slightly different way. It's all about the combinations, like how a chef takes different combinations [of ingredients] to create different cuisines.