Mariss Jansons 1943-2019

Sun Dec 01, 2019 at 6:01 pm

Mariss Jansons, the Latvian-born conductor revered as one of the greatest musicians of his generation, died in St. Petersburg on Saturday at the age of 76. He succumbed to the same heart condition that troubled him for decades; he wore a defibrillator ever since he suffered a heart attack at the end of a performance in 1996.

Born in Riga in 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Latvia, Jansons began his musical training at an early age, studying the violin with his father. After winning the second prize at the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition in 1971, Jansons went on to a legendary career leading some of Europe’s most celebrated orchestras.

Beginning with the Oslo Philharmonic in 1979, Jansons’s music directorships were not merely a series of coveted postings; he managed to raise the profile and reputation of every orchestra he led. The tenure for which he will likely be best remembered was his eleven-year term at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of the Netherlands–continuing and even bolstering the Concertgebouw;s reputation as one of the three or four greatest symphonic ensembles in the world.

In the United States, Jansons made his mark as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, a post he held for seven years. He joined a long series of great conductors in Pittsburgh, a line that includes Fritz Reiner, André Previn, Lorin Maazel, and, most recently, Manfred Honeck. Concertgoers can still find a bronze bust of a younger-looking Jansons in the upstairs corridors at Heinz Hall.

In what turned out to be his final concert, a Carnegie Hall performance with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra last month Jansons was visibly frail: barely able to lift his arms above his waist, he ultimately withdrew from the following night’s performance.

A happier and more lasting memory from his New York tours came in 2014, also with his Bavarians. On that occasion, he brought a fascinating program that paired Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 with works by György Ligeti and Alban Berg. The event was a bravura performance, and an example of what made Jansons a transcendent musician: he was more than capable of giving a splendid rendition of a concert warhorse, but just as comfortable guiding his audiences through illuminating interpretations of more challenging repertoire.

Jansons is survived by his wife, Irina, and his daughter from his first marriage, Ilona; and, of course, by the many thousands of musicians and listeners whose musical lives were richer for having known his work.

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