Mariss Jansons: Slowly does it

He had a heart attack while conducting and hates the hectic life. So why is Mariss Jansons taking over one of the world's top orchestras?
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The Independent Culture

Today, before the Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons conducts his first rehearsal as the new chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Holland's Federal Secretary of Culture will present him with the traditional conductor's baton. He is just the sixth music director in the Dutch orchestra's 110-year history and it's an appointment that no conductor would dream of turning down. Jansons, however, one of the world's most sought-after musicians, has recently made a point of trying to take things a little easier. "I used to be stupid and crazy, taking on everything, but I destroyed my health. When I was younger I wanted to see the world, experience whatever I could, and as I get older, it becomes scarcely easier to say no."

Today, before the Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons conducts his first rehearsal as the new chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Holland's Federal Secretary of Culture will present him with the traditional conductor's baton. He is just the sixth music director in the Dutch orchestra's 110-year history and it's an appointment that no conductor would dream of turning down. Jansons, however, one of the world's most sought-after musicians, has recently made a point of trying to take things a little easier. "I used to be stupid and crazy, taking on everything, but I destroyed my health. When I was younger I wanted to see the world, experience whatever I could, and as I get older, it becomes scarcely easier to say no."

Now 61, he has spent the past couple of years trying to rationalise his work-life balance. Amid government proclamations, commemorative CDs and tearful tributes, he gave his farewell concerts with the Oslo Philharmonic after 23 years and the Pittsburgh Symphony after five. These departures have already been balanced by new challenges. In Munich, where he took up the appointment of chief of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra last year, the welcome was muted in comparison to the razzmatazz in Berlin, where Sir Simon Rattle was being welcomed to Germany's other leading orchestra. But already Jansons' influence is obvious in foreign tours, recordings and a much higher profile for the much admired but not well-travelled BRSO.

So his energy will be concentrated on Amsterdam, where he is contracted for 12 weeks with the orchestra, and Munich which, with a shorter season, is content with 10. "I think I have to divide myself into two equal halves. There must be two Jansons, one dedicated to each orchestra," he quips. Both cities are within easy reach of his base in St Petersburg - "my real home, where my books, my scores and my oldest friends are" - and his house in the elegant lake town of Locarno in Switzerland. But that doesn't mean he won't be travelling. After his open- ing concert in Amsterdam on Saturday - featuring a double bill of Honegger's Third Symphony ( Liturgique), his recording of which won a Grand Prix de Disque, and Strauss's epic Ein Heldenleben - he leads the Concertgebouw at the Lucerne Festival and later in the year on a major tour of Japan. Next June, he brings the orchestra to the Barbican in London (its first UK appearances under his baton) in Stravinsky's Petrushka, which he has chosen to offer his players the chance to shine individually and collectively, the second symphonies of Brahms and Sibelius, and Debussy's Images.

That he won't be logging so many frequent-flyer miles has come as an immense relief to Jansons and perhaps also to those orchestras which work with him immediately after he has made a transatlantic flight. "You know," he confides, "some people just go to sleep on a plane and are just fine when they arrive. For some it takes two or three days, but for me it takes seven or eight days for my body to adjust; the first two weeks are a disaster and it's sometimes nearly a month before I feel right again. I can't do that four or five times a year," he explains.

He has every reason for trying to take things a little easier. In 1996, while conducting La bohème in Oslo, he suffered cardiac arrest. Further attacks in hospital made the future look very bleak indeed, but after being fitted with a defibrillator he returned to the podium. At first he was cautious but soon realised that he wasn't capable of giving anything less than 100 per cent. And he recalls with a wry chuckle how on one subsequent occasion his heart did actually stop mid-symphony and the defibrillator jumped into action. Jansons jumped too, as his heart was shocked into motion again by a swift electric current. The astonished players didn't know what was going on but no one missed a beat.

On top of his Dutch and German commitments he is clear about where he would like to guest conduct. He will limit his work to just a handful of orchestras, he says: the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra (with which he has worked a lot) and Pittsburgh, which he hopes to visit once a year. He is also desperate to spend more time in the opera house. "I was brought up in the opera house. My mother was a singer in Riga and there was not always a babysitter, so I went with her from about the age of three. It was the ballet that I loved first. I knew all the stories and music and I could dance the steps."

But when his conductor father Arvid started taking him to his rehearsals, the young Mariss became hooked on conducting. "I played the piano, then the violin and also the viola, but it was the orchestra that fascinated me. I had my own orchestra made out of matchsticks and buttons on a tray, and when I was ill I would be so happy to lie in bed, rehearsing my musicians. I was so serious about it all that I would have to change my clothes, from top to bottom, before finally conducting my little orchestra in a concert."

But despite his immersion in music scores from a young age, he also scored as a promising footballer. "We had a football coach living in our house and he wanted to take me away to a special football school. But my parents were horrified; their son was going to be a musician." And sure enough, after moving to Leningrad (as St Petersburg then was), where Arvid had taken up an appointment, Jansons went on to study there with the legendary Mravinsky, and in Salzburg with Karajan. Ask him whom he admires and he mentions Furtwängler, Kleiber, Bernstein and Stokowski, variously for their inspirational rehearsal technique, their imagination, and for the magic they conjured in a concert.

But it was from his father that he learnt the things that matter most. Interpretation, I suggest? "Those things," he agrees, "tempi and dynamics, but much more importantly, what it means to be a conductor: musicians' psychology, what happens backstage, how to manage auditions, how to achieve the precision of the sound you imagine in your head. All the essential things that books don't tell you."

He also learnt complete professionalism from his father and when Arvid died suddenly, on one of his frequent visits to the Hallé in Manchester, where he was much loved, Mariss knew exactly what his father would have wished him to do. That evening, he conducted the Oslo Philharmonic with whom he was touring in Middlesbrough.

Like most conductors, he finds the administrative side tiring and a bit tedious. On the other hand, he likes to be involved in the decision-making. Is he a control freak, I ask, recalling that he once had a reputation for adjusting the players' chairs prior to a concert to make sure everything was geared to produce the best possible sound. "No, I am a perfectionist," he replies.

With nearly a thousand recordings illustrating the Concertgebouw's "velvet" strings, "golden" brass tone and the particularly individual timbre of its woodwind, it's an indication of the state of the recording industry that the orchestra has had to create its own recording label. Already a "welcome" CD of Dvorak's Ninth Symphony is in the can to mark Jansons's arrival this week. With his Munich players and EMI he hopes to have completed his cycle of Shostakovich's 15 symphonies to coincide with the centenary of the composer's birth in 2006. "I have a big repertoire, but there are still pieces I want to conduct and I am open to new music but only if the chemistry is right." He mentions his compatriots Peteris Vask and Peteris Plakidis, but you get the impression that he would rather concentrate on romantic or classical repertoire.

"I adore Haydn, though not so many people know that because he's not included in touring programmes where you must really use the whole orchestra." But if the Concertgebouw, or anyone indeed, were to offer him the chance to record Haydn he would be thrilled. He is determined to win back Haydn for non-period instrumentalists, declaring that "No one except God can say how these pieces should be played."

He has a reputation for his congeniality, for respecting the opinions of the players, for enjoying concerts by his colleagues, and for his modesty. He still feels Latvian, despite his Russian passport, and regrets not being able to spend time there. His second wife, Irina, travels with him, sharing the conductor's nomadic existence. His daughter from a previous marriage is a pianist at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg and he cannot conceal his delight that his 12-year-old granddaughter is following in his footsteps, fascinated by opera and already singing in the world's leading houses with the Mariinsky Opera's children's choir. Life could not be better, in fact, especially since it is now so precious.

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