Mariss Jansons: And the beat goes on

Mariss Jansons had a heart attack on the podium but has come back to become one of the world's leading conductors. Ivan Fallon watches the maestro in action in Lucerne

Tuesday 18 April 2006 00:00 BST

Mariss Jansons stands motionless, baton clasped in his right hand, head slightly bowed, back to the audience, until the last of the 1,850 avid music-lovers at the Lucerne Easter Festival have become completely still. Finally, the maestro raises his arms, and, quietly at first, the violins of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra creep in to signal the start of a flawless performance of Verdi's Requiem.

Jansons has had a long day, as have the 200 musicians and choir who now respond to the most delicate of his movements. He has driven six hours from Munich with his wife Irina while the musicians and singers travelled in a special train, which broke down on the way.

Irina, as she always does, watches him carefully from her seat three rows back. She is his greatest fan, but she also knows that, following a massive heart attack eight years ago, only about a quarter of his heart functions today. Normal people would have retired to live quiet lives, but the older Jansons gets the harder he pushes himself, setting a pace that would tax to the limit a healthy person half his age. On the rostrum Jansons, as always, appears calm and utterly absorbed, becoming more animated only as the choir gets to the swelling "Dies Irae", the crashing crescendo filling the Lucerne Concert Hall with God's wrath.

Jansons is on the top of his form tonight and so is the orchestra, and the audience is getting a feast: a sublime piece of music, played by one of the best orchestras and choirs in the world, under the baton of one the best conductors (certainly the most sought-after), in a fantastic concert hall in the beautiful lakeside city of Lucerne. What more could they ask for?

Backstage after the concert, Jansons looks waxy and exhausted, but after a shower and change he quickly bounces back. His powers of recovery are remarkable and he is prepared to talk well into the early hours about his music, Russia - which, despite not being a communist himself, he thinks has gone to hell in a handcart since the end of Communism - and the sickness of a modern society that is "only interested in money, money, money". Only when Irina puts her foot down does he reluctantly retire to bed.

Jansons revels in his event-packed weekend in the Swiss city, conducting two concerts and packing in public talks in the morning, as well as the dutiful meetings with sponsors that are part of every conductor's life. But he also wants to talk strategy with the festival's executive and artistic director, Michael Haefliger. Lucerne, unlike Salzburg, does not have an opera house, so at Jansons' suggestion, a receptive Haefliger, who has expanded and transformed the festival since he took command in 1998, agreed to make the Easter festival one of song.

They also discuss the programme for the coming Summer Festival and its "language" theme. Jansons will, of course, be back, this time with Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, where he is also chief conductor. The audience will get, among others, Verdi's Falstaff in a concert version, Kurt Weill's Berlin Requiem, and Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No 3, "Kaddish", with a new text written by a remarkable man called Samuel Pisar, a survivor of the Holocaust, international lawyer and adviser and friend to many of the biggest tycoons. It is scarcely a surprise that Lucerne, with its three music festivals (Spring, Summer and Piano in the autumn), now attracts 100,000 visitors and is increasingly rivalling Salzburg as the fashionable venue on the music calendar.

The Lucerne Festival was started in 1938 by Arturo Toscanini and since then virtually all the greats have conducted there: Karajan, Solti, Kubelik and Tennstedt, as well as Rattle and Muti (who described it as "the best concert hall in the world"). This year alone the conductors will include Barenboim, Gergiev, Masur and Abbado (resident conductor of Lucerne's own Festival Orchestra) - and Jansons, of course.

Jansons is a prodigy, a man born to music who in his formative years studied under the best conductors of the day (Karajan, Swarovsky and Mravinsky to name but three), and in turn has become the role model for many young conductors. He has conducted some of the finest orchestras in all the best venues of the world, from the New York Philharmonic to Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh (where he was music director until 2004) and the Israel Philharmonic. There have been the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, as well as tours to Japan, China and just about every place in the world. In London he was principal guest conductor at the LPO, conducted the LSO at the Barbican, and performed at the Proms (which he will do again in 2007).

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Four years ago, he took over from Lorin Maazel as chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, pronouncing the musicians "unbelievably good" after just an hour conducting them. A year later he was offered the Concertgebouw, another role that on its own would be the crowning glory in any conductor's life. Jansons, although he often looks utterly exhausted by his killing schedule, seems to thrive on it.

Ask him where he considers home to be and he hesitates. "I am a cosmopolitan citizen," he begins. Nominally, home is St Petersburg, where he lived from the age of 13 and where he keeps extensive library and music scores. Irina is Russian and they spend two months of the year there, although not consecutively. Jansons was, in fact, born in Latvia in 1943, at a time when it was occupied by the Germans and would soon be reclaimed by the Russians who marched back in the spring of 1944 to stay for 45 years. And from his twenties onwards he has mostly lived in hotels, planes or shabby conductors' rooms, which all seem to look the same.

Jansons' father Arvid was Riga's best known conductor of his day, who endured the war by giving concerts for both sides. In 1952 he was invited by the Russians to become guest conductor for the Leningrad Philharmonic, and Jansons and his mother followed six years later. Entry into a music school for talented children soon made him forget the more Westernised Riga, and he quickly immersed himself in his art with the best young musicians of the day taught by the best teachers the Soviet Union could produce. "I was in heaven," Jansons says. He learned piano, violin and conducting and largely ignored politics. There was a great deal of what he calls "political correctness" and of everyone having to be careful with their jokes, but there was also a focus on the development of the arts (within limits, of course) and Jansons blossomed.

His big break came when he won the annual conducting competition sponsored by the Karajan Foundation in Berlin. The invitations flowed in and he was allowed to study in Salzburg (under Karajan) and Vienna, but his heart remained in Leningrad where the legendary Russian conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky chose him as his assistant.

The year 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, was a seminal year for all Russian artists, including Jansons. It started a flood of defections in every branch of the arts, but although Jansons had plenty of opportunity he never defected. "I was critical of the regime, but I was also afraid," he says frankly. There were also many things about Communism that he admired - and he loved the Russian people. He would stay loyal to the Leningrad orchestra (he only retired from it a few years ago), but from 1979 on his focus moved to Oslo where, as chief conductor of the Philharmonic, he established his reputation as an international conductor.

When he took over the Oslo Philharmonic it was nothing to write home about, but under Jansons' uncompromising and tough management - he does not suffer fools gladly - it joined the top ranks of orchestras. It was in Oslo in 1997 that Jansons went through the most traumatic episode of his life: he was in the middle of conducting La Bohème when he felt a terrible pain in his chest. He was still waving his baton as he collapsed on the floor and only just survived.

Within a couple of years he was back, busier than ever - and as the years have gone by he has stepped up the pace. He has not conducted opera since, but is about to make a comeback with Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Amsterdam this year.

He has also embarked on a project to create a proper concert hall in Munich - or rather to rebuild an old one. The Bavarian orchestras based in Munich have, surprisingly, never had a decent concert hall and Jansons is determined to give them one. "It's a disaster," he says, but he is beginning to get some momentum as he has taken his case all the way to Chancellor level. "I am the locomotive," he says. "In Oslo too I was the locomotive, and I nearly wrecked the country."

Few doubt that he will get what he asks for.

Lucerne Summer Festival (, 10 August to 17 September. Mariss Jansons conducts the Concertgebouw on 5, 6 & 7 September

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