The Estonian conductor, Neeme Järvi, was brought up within the USSR's system for developing musical talent, Järvi studied percussion and conducting at the Tallinn Music School. He made his debut as a conductor at the age of 18. From 1955 to 1960 he pursued further studies at the Leningrad Conservatory, where his principal teachers were Nikolaï Rabinovich and Yevgeny Mravinsky.
From the early 1960's, Neeme Järvi took a leading role in the musical life of his homeland. He was the co-founder of the Estonian Radio Chamber Orchestra in Tallinn and its artistic director. In 1963 he assumed the directorship of the Estonian Radio & Television Orchestra, his first important post. He also founded the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. He was also asked to become the principal conductor and artistic director of the State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (renamed Estonian National Opera Theater after restored independence of Estonia), and held this post for 13 years. From 1976 to 1980 he was chief conductor and artistic director of the Estonian State Symphony Orchestra, then in its infancy. By the late 1970's 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. In 1979, he conducted Tchaikovski's Eugene Onegin at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
While with the ESSO Neeme Järvi developed a particular interest in unearthing and performing neglected repertory by both little-known and important composers. He was a particular 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.
Neeme Järvi was permitted to leave Estonia, and in January 1980, he and his family emigrated to the USA. Two major agencies, International Concert Management and Columbia Artists, had offered him contracts and he decided to go with Columbia Artists. Within a month of his departure, he made his debut performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He quickly received important appointments: principal guest conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England (1981-1983), music director of the Royal Scottish Orchestra (1984-1988), music director of the Gothenburg (Sweden) Symphony Orchestra (from 1982), and principal guest conductor of the Japan Philharmonic. In recognition of his service to the Scottish orchestra, Aberdeen University bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate. In 1990, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra honors Neeme Järvi by naming him Conductor Laureate for Life. Since 1990, he has been the Musical Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he is the first principal guest conductor of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra. Since 2000, he has held international master classes in the summer resort town of Pärnu, Estonia.
Neeme Järvi is among the most recorded conductors in the world. Since 1983, 357 CDís have been produced under his baton. During the last ten and a half years, he has given 1119 concerts in 125 cities, conducting 72 different orchestras. With the Detroit Symphony Orchestra he has made thirty of some 100 recordings on the Chandos label. Järvi has also recorded for BIS, Deutsche Gramophon, and Orfeo; his various recording projects include cycles of orchestral music by Sibelius, Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Tubin, Johannes Brahms, Schumann, and others.
Neeme Järvi's children have made their mark on the musical world as well: son Paavo Järvi is gaining an international reputation as a conductor and holds posts as principal guest conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Kristjan is the founder and conductor of the Absolut Ensemble of New York City; and daughter Maarika is principal flutist with the RTVE Symphony Orchestra in Madrid. Järvi announced his decision to step down from his Detroit post in 2005. He has also served as principal conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.