Mariss Jansons, conductor of top classical ensembles including the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, died at his home in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Nov. 30 after a long battle with a heart condition. He was 76. Jansons’ death was confirmed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO), where he was chief conductor. Jansons had canceled concerts this summer for health reasons, the DPA news agency reported.
Born in German-occupied Riga in 1943 in what is now independent Latvia’s capital as the son of a conductor father and an opera singer mother, Jansons grew up in the Soviet Union and studied at the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Conservatory. A Soviet-era exchange program brought him to Austria in 1969, where he studied with famed conductor Herbert von Karajan. Jansons’ work was also influenced by the legendary Soviet conductor Evgeny Mravinsky, who brought him in as his assistant at the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1972.
He was chief conductor in Pittsburgh from 1997 to 2004, regularly appeared at the Salzburg Festival, and in 2006, 2012 and 2016 conducted the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert broadcast around the world. He left the Pittsburgh orchestra to become principal conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw, a post he held until 2015. Jansons is credited with raising the reputation of the Oslo Philharmonic through recordings and international tours during a 23-year tenure as music director.
Jansons’ musical focus was large-scale orchestral works by 19th-century central and eastern European composers including Mahler, Dvorak, Bartok, Brahms and Shostakovich. He was known for close attention to detail in rehearsal and made extensive pre-concert sound checks, listening from different points in the hall while one of the musicians wielded the baton and even adjusting the position of players’ chairs to get the sound he wanted.
“The notes are just signs,” he was quoted as saying in a 2012 interview in the Guardian. “You have to go beyond them and see what your fantasy tells you. But how do you express that through sound? If you think of the technical aspects of conducting as being on the ground floor of a big building, then 20 floors up you are beginning to get the sound you want.” Jansons, who said in the Guardian interview that he held both Russian and Latvian passports, collapsed on stage during a concert performance of Puccini’s opera La Boheme in Oslo in 1996 after suffering a heart attack and was subsequently fitted with a defibrillator.
Jansons visited Taiwan five times, which included concerts with the Oslo Philharmonic in 1996, the Royal Concertgebouw in 2006, and the BRSO in 2007, 2014, and 2016. Among these remarkable performances, Jansons conducted Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in 2014 with pianist Krystian Zimerman as the soloist and Richard Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie in 2016: a great musical feast for the Taiwanese audience. In November last year, Jansons was scheduled to tour with the BRSO again and visit Taiwan for the sixth time, but he was replaced by Zubin Mehta due to health concerns.
Jansons’ health had been deteriorating in recent years, but he made a brief comeback in October, after a long recovery, by touring with the Bavarians. His final appearance on stage was a truly heart-wrenching performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall on Nov. 8, which featured Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony — both works being among the two composers’ last creative output and which, regrettably, became his swan songs. Upon hearing of the loss, the BRSO posted a nine-minute video clip, in black and white, of Jansons conducting the orchestra in the concluding part of the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, in memory of a maestro who was both their mentor and friend.
(AP, with additional reporting by staff writer)
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