Magazine January 27, 2020, Issue

Mahatma Jansons

Mariss Jansons rehearses the Vienna Philharmonic in its New Year’s concert, 2011. (Dieter Nagl / AFP via Getty Images)

Years ago, the pianist Jerome Rose taught me an expression: “You play who you are.” It immediately struck me as true. In subsequent years, I have seen it — heard it — confirmed, over and over. You play who you are; sing who you are; conduct who you are.

Of course, we can take this concept too far. You are supposed to play (or sing or conduct) who the composer is, not who you are. You are supposed to slip into his skin and represent him. Moreover, the music may be prayerful, devilish, amusing, or something else — and that is the attitude you must adopt. Still, something of you often manages to come through. You indeed play who you are.

Through Mariss Jansons, the great conductor, came nobility, humanity — a large-heartedness. He was extraordinary to encounter, whether in the concert hall or in person. This is my testimony and that of countless others.

I first interviewed him in 2008, before an audience at the Salzburg Festival. I said, “You picked a helluva time and place to be born, didn’t you?” He smiled. He was born in Riga on January 14, 1943. His mother was in hiding, having been smuggled out of the ghetto. Her father and brother had already been killed by the Nazis.

Did this beginning affect Mariss’s music-making somehow? It’s hard to say. One’s entire life experience goes into one’s art.

His mother, Iraida, was a singer; his father, Arvids, was a conductor. They were big deals in the Riga Opera. They could not afford a babysitter, Mariss told me, so he grew up at the opera, essentially, attending rehearsals and performances. Once, his mother was portraying Carmen, and when Don José cuffed her (temporarily), Mariss piped up, “Don’t touch my mother!” He kept up with this until his father booted him from the theater.

In 2018, I again interviewed Jansons in Salzburg, before an audience. That summer, he was conducting The Queen of Spades, the Tchaikovsky opera. I asked him about his experience with Tchaikovsky. As a child, he said, he saw the Tchaikovsky ballets, over and over. He knew not only the music, he knew all the steps.

I mentioned that Tchaikovsky suffers from a bad reputation, in certain quarters. People like to knock him as a sentimental Romantic. That is true in the West, said Jansons, and it is absurd. Part of the problem, he said, is that Tchaikovsky is performed with insufficient discipline in the West. In Russia, they know better how to do it.

He quoted his father: “You must not put too much honey in the music. Don’t over-sweeten the pot!” He then told me a story about Tchaikovsky — and Stravinsky — which I treasure.

Stravinsky returned to Russia in 1962 for the first time in almost 50 years. Naturally, the musicians gathered around him, and someone asked, “Who are your favorite composers?” Stravinsky said — in this order — “Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Debussy.”

With his father, Jansons studied the violin. In 1956, the family moved from Riga to Leningrad, for Arvids had been appointed assistant conductor to Yevgeny Mravinsky, the great boss of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Mariss duly entered the city’s conservatory, studying the violin and conducting, too.

There have been many, many father-son conducting pairs. A famous example is Erich and Carlos Kleiber — who, sadly, did not enjoy a happy relationship. How were things between Arvids and Mariss? Fine, Mariss told me. If he had any problem, it was this: He had to be much, much better than his fellow students and fellow young conductors, lest anyone think he benefited from favoritism.

While a student, Mariss came to the attention of Herbert von Karajan, the Austrian maestro. He assisted Karajan at the Salzburg Festival. In 1971, Karajan invited him to be his assistant in Berlin. As I recall, the invitation was sent in writing. Jansons did not hear of it until three years later. The Soviet government had concealed the invitation from him. When Karajan found out, Jansons told me, he was “furious.”

Jansons had several teachers, several mentors. He haunted conductors’ rehearsals, gleaning from them what they knew. He once approached Rafael Kubelik and asked him about a tricky spot in the Beethoven Ninth. (Jansons sang this spot for me.) Kubelik told him how to handle it.

Young conductors approached Jansons, too, once he was established. But they tended to press demo CDs into his hands and ask him about career — how to get a manager and so on. Jansons regarded careerism in music as a troubling trend.

Like his father before him, Jansons became an assistant under Mravinsky in Leningrad. (Mravinsky was boss of that orchestra for a cool 50 years: 1938 to 1988.) He was a brilliant, imperious, terrifying figure, Mravinsky. Jansons told me a story.

One day, a bunch of big musicians were in a room: Gilels, Oistrakh, Richter — people on that level. Jansons was among them. Everyone was talking and laughing and having a good time. Suddenly, the room went silent. Jansons could feel a presence behind him. Mravinsky had entered. Everyone was paralyzed. These top musicians — celebrities, stars — were meek as lambs before the maestro, and a little scared, too.

That was Mravinsky. “He had a hypnotic effect on people,” said Jansons. “I have never seen anything like it, even from Karajan.”

In 1979, Jansons got his first big job — or a biggish one, in Oslo. He stayed there until 2000 (while manning other podiums, too). He put the Oslo Philharmonic on the map, really.

One night in 1996, while conducting a concert performance of La bohème, he suffered a near-fatal heart attack. When he went down, some players later told him, he was still conducting, with his right hand. His father had died of a heart attack while conducting the Hallé Orchestra, in Manchester, England, in 1984. Mariss persevered.

He became music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, staying in that job for eight seasons (1996–2004). Some argued — with reason — that the PSO under Jansons was the best orchestra in America.

In 2018, I raised with him the question of contemporary music, and he revealed something interesting. In Pittsburgh, he had to conduct a new work by an American composer on almost every program. “Otherwise, the critics would kill you.” I said, “But the audiences wouldn’t have minded.” Smiling slyly, he said, “No, critics and audiences are two different things.”

Regardless, I was very pleased by an answer in 2008. I had asked Jansons to give me some contemporary composers who stood out to him. He quickly named some senior composers, including Penderecki, Pärt, and Kancheli. Then he paused to make special mention of a young American he had met in Pittsburgh: Michael Hersch. Unbeknownst to Jansons, Michael was (and is) a friend of mine.

After Pittsburgh, Jansons picked up two big podiums in Europe: the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Munich). I reviewed him many, many times, in concert and opera. I noted the same qualities, repeatedly: intensity, wisdom, beauty, preparedness, fidelity, cultivation, joy, soulfulness, humanity. Sometimes he nodded — sometimes he was off his game, as all musicians and athletes are — but not often.

I am looking at a review from 2004, of Jansons and the Pittsburgh in Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. It is a long and detailed review. At the end, I wrote that I left Carnegie Hall feeling rather sad — because I did not expect to hear the Mahler Seventh played so well again. (I have, once — by the New York Philharmonic under Lorin Maazel.)

One of the best concerts I ever heard — from anyone, anywhere — took place in 2008. In Salzburg, Jansons conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in a program ending with the Brahms Second. I wrote that the concert “stayed with me for days after, which is rare, I can tell you.” Frankly, it stays with me — though more in feeling than detail — even now.

He conducted his Bavarian orchestra in Carnegie Hall on November 8, 2019. I was unable to attend, and am sort of glad. Jansons was almost too weak to finish. He was scheduled to conduct the next night, too, but had to withdraw.

Back in 2008, at the end of our conversation that summer, I asked him a strange question: “Do you still like music, after all these years, and all this work?” He got an almost mystical smile on his face. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I couldn’t live without music, and I couldn’t live without conducting.”

On November 30 — a few weeks after that withdrawal in New York — Jansons died at his home in St. Petersburg, Russia (an apartment in Tolstoy House).

In the final years, I took to calling him “Mahatma Jansons” — not “Maestro Jansons” but “Mahatma,” meaning “Great-Souled One.” He grinned when I mentioned this to the audience in 2018, and the audience cheered. They knew it was right. You were amazed by Jansons as a musician, but you loved him as a human being, too.

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