Mariss Jansons – High Drama on the Podium
by Norman Lebrecht / May 31, 2000
FORTY minutes before a concert, Mariss Jansons mounts the stage and checks the musicians’ seating. The second clarinet’s chair is moved half an inch to the right, the tuba’s turned 15 degrees towards centre. Like a brain surgeon, Jansons needs to be assured that all his instruments are correctly aligned before he can start to operate.
More than any conductor I have known, Jansons is preoccupied with his precision tools. Among friends, he compares the vagaries of orchestras. If he has a spare hour on tour, he drops into another band’s rehearsal – “There is usually something that is interesting for me,” he says. The other day, he ducked an in-car meeting with his orchestral manager, insisting he had to study a score. He spent the half-hour poring over Brahms’s second symphony, a work he has conducted dozens of times. “I always learn something new,” explains Jansons.
Innocence and experience, mechanics and mystique, are as compelling a combination in a conductor as in a lover, which is one reason that musicians in top orchestras find Jansons irresistible. In London and New York, Berlin and Amsterdam, his concerts quiver with excitement and are packed to the rafters. Jansons, however, has side-stepped the top jobs and invested the best of himself in Oslo and Pittsburgh where, as music director, he has created a pair of crack ensembles.
Such is his allure that in Vienna the Musikvereinsaal has launched a unique Jansons subscription series, marketing his regular Vienna Philharmonic concerts together with his annual Pittsburgh and Oslo visits. There is a sense of moment about his every appearance, an intimation of mortality. Four years ago, Jansons almost died on the Oslo podium, felled by a heart attack in the final pages of La Bohème. Pittsburgh’s super-tech surgeons fitted a defibrillator in his chest to give his heart an electric jolt if it fails.
At 57, Jansons knows he is living on borrowed time. His father, Arvid, died on the podium. Each night as he goes out to conduct, his wife Irina whispers, “Don’t worry.”
His face unlined by stress, Jansons mounts the rostrum with boyish pleasure. “The public should see that you enjoy yourself,” he declares. He is happy to be alive, glad to make music, delighted to share it. All his life, he has asked for nothing more.
Born in Latvia in January 1943 to a Jewish mother, in hiding after her father and brother were killed in the Riga ghetto, his earliest memories are of his father conducting opera and ballet at the Riga theatre. “As a very small boy, three years old, I was always observing,” he recalls. “I went to my father’s rehearsals. When I came home, I put my book on the table and started to conduct. I changed my trousers because they were for rehearsal, not for concert. I played at being artistic director, drawing up programmes for subscription seasons. When I was sick, my mother put me to bed. I would say, ‘Give me my orchestra!’ My orchestra was made up of needles and pins and buttons, laid out on a tray. I could sit all day with this orchestra. Subconsciously, I decided to be a conductor when I was three years old.”
In 1946, his father won second prize in a national competition and was chosen by Yevgeny Mravinsky to be his assistant at the Leningrad Philharmonic. By the time the family joined him in 1956, Mariss had memorised the names of every player in both Leningrad orchestras. He entered the conservatory as a conducting student; his father urged him to continue playing violin and every evening he had four hours of private Russian tuition, having spoken Latvian at home. “There was not much time for football,” he remarks. The star of his year, he finished his studies in Vienna, winning second prize in Herbert von Karajan’s Berlin conducting competition.
But his professional outlook had been fully formed before he left the Russian crucible. “The atmosphere was so pressured,” he relates. “Mravinsky demanded such high standards, everybody was afraid to fall below. There was Richter, Gilels, [David] Oistrakh – such quality.” Unalloyed excellence was to be his benchmark, to which his father added a telling motto. “Mariss,” said Arvid Jansons, “remember: better one good concert less than one bad concert more.”
Never a forceful man, his career was slow to spark, and it was 1979 before he was recruited by Oslo, where he has cultivated a rich yet intriguingly briny tone. Against the urgings of agents, he has remained there ever since. The night his father died, working with the Hallé in November 1984, Mariss went out to conduct the Oslo Philharmonic in Middlesbrough, knowing that if he withdrew the whole tour would be cancelled. Such bonds mean more to him than metropolitan glory.
Two months ago in Oslo, he threatened to resign in a long-running row over an acoustic upgrade in a hall that presents Shostakovich one night and the Chippendales the next. “For 10 years I have been fighting with this concert hall,” he fumes, “because the orchestra needs better quality. And for 10 years I cannot get an answer. So I said, from August I will not continue as music director if you do not fix the hall. It depends on them. If they decide to do something, then I stay.” He is waiting for a call. He chose Pittsburgh, one suspects, for much the same reasons – a chance to forge a meaningful relationship away from the blinding limelight. In three years, he has transformed the sound of the orchestra from Lorin Maazel’s steely perfectionism to a glowing string tone, backed by restrained threats of fearsome brass power.
Players who once loathed coming in to work have warmed to Jansons’s ready smiles and spiritual disquisitions. He never shouts; if he cannot get the required precision after several repetitions, he will close his score and call a break. As in every orchestra, there are grumblers who would prefer him to use a baton, give a stricter beat and stop talking about social degradation when all he wants is for them to play a passage louder. But the general mood is mellow and several of the principals can be seen in concert to share his infectious pleasure in the music they make.
His concerts avoid clichés and aim for surprise. On the current European tour – playing in London (at the Barbican) and Birmingham (Symphony Hall) this week – he has paired Stravinsky’s Diaghilev ballets with symphonies by Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms.
‘Imagination is what players expect from a conductor,” Jansons argues. “You must give them what is behind the notes – which is atmosphere, imagination and content. To play the notes is not interesting. But what it means, the cosmic level at which they are detached from problems of playing, that is my job as a conductor.”
He has grown more confident about his health, and disdains those who tell him to slim down his diary. Conducting, he says, is pure joy and good exercise.
The only danger is stress. He keeps an apartment in St Petersburg and another by a Swiss lake, but seldom spends more than three days at home. He is hungry for music, eager to return to opera – a Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District is mooted for Amsterdam in 2003 – and avid as ever to observe the world through the wide eyes that watched his father run the theatre in Riga.
“For me,” says Mariss, “every concert becomes more and more important. I could take it easy. But no, I demand more from myself. It is big pressure. I want to do the best that I can. There is always a possibility for us artists to help solve the problems of society, if we take care and demand quality.”
27 August 1999: Almost as crazy as it was before [interview with Mariss Jansons] 11 October 1997: Back from the dead [interview with Mariss Jansons]