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Famed Conductor Mariss Jansons Has Died, Age 76

Monday, December 2, 2019 - 1:52pm
The late conductor Mariss Jansons at his final concert with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in 2015.

One of classical music's most beloved conductors has died: Latvian-born Mariss Jansons, who was age 76 at his death on Saturday in St. Petersburg.

Jansons had long suffered from a heart condition, which first became known when he collapsed on the podium while conducting in Norway more than 20 years ago.

His death was initially reported by local media, and was followed by statements from several of the orchestras with whom he was closely associated, including Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw, the Bavarian Radio Symphony and Chorus in Germany and the Pittsburgh Symphony.

Jansons had a fascinating and often tragic personal story. His father, Arvids Jansons, was a notable conductor. His mother, Iraida, was an opera singer and Jewish; her father and brothers were killed by the Nazis. She gave birth to Mariss on January 14, 1943, in secret in the Jewish ghetto in Riga, which was under German occupation during World War II. In later years, after Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union and incorporated into the USSR, Jansons' sister was deported to Siberia during Stalin's regime.

At age 13, Jansons moved with his family from Riga to Leningrad, after his father was hired by Yevgeny Mravinsky as a conductor at the Leningrad Philharmonic, the orchestra now known as the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Young Mariss — who barely spoke any Russian at that point — found the move traumatic, and threw himself into music; he studied violin, viola and piano before focusing on conducting. One of his mentors was Herbert von Karajan, whom he first met during a master class in 1968. Karajan invited Jansons to Berlin to study with him, but the Soviet authorities refused to grant the burgeoning young artist permission to leave the USSR. Soon, however, Jansons was sent abroad to study in Vienna; from there, Jansons called Karajan, who promptly invited the burgeoning young conductor to come work for him at the Salzburg Festival.

By 1972, Mravinsky had hired the younger Jansons as an associate conductor in Leningrad; Jansons eventually became a regular conductor of that orchestra. And Jansons broke out of the Soviet sphere into a truly global career: In 1979, he became music director of the Oslo Philharmonic in Norway; in 1992, he became principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra; and in 1997, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, where he remained until 2004.

Throughout his performing life, Jansons was hailed not just for his incisive and evocative performances of sweeping orchestral works by Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Strauss, among other composers, but also for his warm-heartedness towards his colleagues, and particularly among the orchestral musicians whom he led.

In November 2017, however, he created a furor when he told the Telegraph that female conductors were "not my cup of tea," prefacing his comment with an observation that "I understand the world has changed, and there is now no profession that can be confined to this or that gender. It's a question of what one is used to." Weeks later, he issued a public apology, saying in a statement: "I come from a generation in which the conducting profession was almost exclusively reserved to men. Even today, many more men than women pursue conducting professionally. But it was undiplomatic, unnecessary and counterproductive for me to point out that I'm not yet accustomed to seeing women on the conducting platform. Every one of my female colleagues and every young woman wishing to become a conductor can be assured of my support, for we all work in pursuit of a common goal: to excite people for the art form we love so dearly – music."

For more than 20 years before his death, Jansons had been frail due to a heart condition; in 1996, he had a heart attack and collapsed on the podium while conducting in Oslo, and suffered another heart attack a few weeks later. (In a stunning parallel, his father Arvids had died on the podium while performing with the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England, in 1984.)

Rather than retiring, however, Jansons did his utmost to keep up a strenuous, globe-circling schedule — and the orchestras who adored working with him did their part not just to accommodate his cancellations and changes, but to give him even more prominence.

In 2003, he was named chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with whom he won a Grammy in 2005 for their recording of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13. The following year, he became chief conductor of Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; it became one of the most rewarding collaborations of his career.

He remained with the Concertgebouw until 2015. When he announced that he was leaving the orchestra, one of the players told the Guardian: "We will all remember him for his detail, passion and immense musicality and knowledge. There is nothing in every score he conducts that he hasn't read, researched, discussed, thought about and worried about. ... It was a complete and utter privilege to have worked with him and it is even more of a privilege to call him a friend."

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