Järvi took a leading role in the musical life of his homeland. In 1963 he assumed the directorship of the Estonian Radio & Television Orchestra, his first important post. He also founded the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, and for 13 years was the chief conductor of Opera House Estonia in Tallinn. From 1976 to 1980 he was chief conductor and artistic director of the Estonian State Symphony Orchestra, then in its infancy. By the late 1970s his fame had spread throughout the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and he received favorable notices for his appearances in the West. He made history by leading the first performances of Strauss
' Der Rosenkavalier and Gershwin
's Porgy and Bess ever given in the USSR.
Järvi developed a particular interest in unearthing and performing neglected repertory by both little-known and important composers. He was a champion of the Estonian composers Eduard Tubin
and Arvo Pärt
. In 1979 he premiered Pärt
's Credo, a work that represents a turning point in that composer's stylistic evolution. Järvi, recognizing the importance of Credo (which incorporates biblical texts), presented it without first navigating through the usual channels of the Communist Party or the Composers' Union. The resulting controversy and official disfavor induced Järvi to emigrate. He was permitted to leave Estonia in 1980; within a month of his departure, he made his debut performances with the Boston Symphony
, the Philadelphia Orchestra
, and the New York Philharmonic
. He quickly received important appointments: principal guest conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
in England (1981-1983) and the Japan Philharmonic; music director of the Royal Scottish Orchestra (1984-1988) and the Gothenburg (Sweden) Symphony Orchestra
(1982-2004). For Sweden's BIS
label, he recorded a great deal of unfamiliar Scandinavian music, with various orchestras, from the 1980s to the 2000s. Järvi has also recorded for Deutsche Grammophon
. His recording projects include cycles of orchestral music by Sibelius
, and others.
In 1990 he assumed the post of music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra
, remaining there until 2005. With that ensemble he made 30 of some 150 recordings on the Chandos
label. He has also served as principal conductor of the New Jersey Symphony, and accepted music director positions with the Residentie Orchestra of The Hague and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Järvi's concert appearances gradually slowed as he approached his ninth decade, but his recorded legacy has continued to grow at an impressive pace. In late Romantic repertory, especially from France and the Scandinavian countries, he remains one of the world's great specialists, and he has maintained relationships with many of the ensembles he has headed. The year 2016 alone saw no fewer than seven new releases, including the continuation of a symphony cycle devoted to Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg
, recorded with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
. Devoting himself mostly to substantial symphonic works, Järvi nevertheless did not disdain lighter fare; in 2015 he released, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
, the album A Festival of Fucik, devoted to the composer of the familiar circus march Entry of the Gladiators.
Järvi's children have made their mark on the musical world as well: sons Paavo
and Kristjan have gained international reputations as conductors. Daughter Maarika was principal flutist with the RTVE Symphony Orchestra in Madrid. Järvi and his wife, Liilia, live in New York. He has written an Estonian-language memoir, Kunstniku elu (The Maestro's Touch).