Mariss Jansons |1943-2019 | A Tribute

Mariss Jansons is dead. I sit here writing this blog post and still cannot believe that a conductor who had a major musical influence on my life is now gone. He had been ill for some time, and my daughter, who happened to attend his last Carnegie Hall concert with the Bavarian Radio Symphony (and loved it), told me that he looked ill. (He canceled his appearance for November 9th and flew back home, where he passed away on November 30th.)
I cannot say I am surprised, what with his health issues ever since his first heart attack on the stage of the Oslo Konserthus in April of 1996. Eight minutes before the end of a concert performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme”, he slumped over and had to be carried off stage. Lucky for us and the music world, he survived for another twenty-three years and gave us many more great concerts.
I had the honor of serving as principal timpanist of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra from 1983 until 1998 (1999 officially). These fifteen years were, as I noted in a Facebook post a golden age, both for the orchestra and for me personally. I served a ten week trial period with the orchestra from late November 1982 until March of 1983, and this was when I first met Mariss. He had scheduled many appearances during this period – I played Brahms Second, Tchaikovsky Sixth (an unforgettable experience), plus several family concerts, and several TV recordings including one of Grieg’s Symphony in C minor, as well as the Norwegian Dances for the gramophone record, as vinyl was called in Norway at the time.
Wow, I thought, the man is a whirlwind! Such energy, such passion, and this applied to everything he did! His rehearsals were exacting and he was in every sense of the word an orchestra-builder. When I first worked with him, he did not speak English, but his German was excellent and he made his point clear enough! At his fortieth birthday party in January 1983, he offered me a piece of cake! In German of course, but with the open-hearted smile that was so characteristic.
I was pleased to get news of my appointment in July of 1983, and took up my duties in September of that year. One of my memories is of a rehearsal of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade – in the final movement, Sinbad’s ship breaks up on a rock, and Mariss wanted the breaking up to be more musically graphic than what is written, and as his English was not yet up to the task, he came over to the timps, seized the sticks from my hands and demonstrated to me what he wanted. “Schiffen kaput!!” he said. I was in a state of shock, as no conductor had ever done (or since then) that to me. (I wisely kept silent and as I had the time to think over the incident, realized it was out of enthusiasm and love for the music that he acted. A man of action indeed!) Needless to say, I immediately grasped what he was after, and was able to give him what I wanted.
I have so many memories of this musician. In a sense, Mariss, the Oslo Philharmonic and I grew together musically in this period. First off, there were the recordings – starting with the Tchaikovsky symphony cycle for Chandos, which really opened my eyes and ears to the fine art of recording (as well as gorging myself on these wonderful symphonies). His recording of the Forth, Fifth and Six remain in my opinion, unsurpassed in terms of energy, pacing, and sheer musicality. The Fourth, recorded in November 1984 was the second in the cycle to be recorded, and in my mind is still the gold standard for this work. There have been many fine recordings before and since and there will undoubtedly be more to come. However, for sheer energy and drama, this is my favorite.
In addition to these recordings, plus a fine recording of Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, there were the EMI recordings – which were recorded between 1987 and 1996. Music of Dvorak, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Honegger, Mussorgsky, Saint-Saens, just to name a few.
And the concerts and touring! My first outing with Tchaikovsky Six under Mariss’ baton came in December of 1982 during a pair of performances that were, for me, akin to life-changing events. Never had I took part in performances of such intensity and passion, yet controlled passion. He never let things get away from him. In his own words, “You must not put sugar on the honey”. After these performances, I couldn’t sleep, as I was so keyed up! Mahler Two we did as part of the orchestra’s 70th birthday, and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder in 1994 as part of the 75th anniversary. Both were monumental occasions, long to be remembered and cherished.
Of the numerous tours that we undertook between 1984 and 1997, three stand out in memory. March 1992- we played in the Musikkverein in Vienna. Program: Shostakovich: 6th Symphony – Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps. What a night! What a place! What a program! We really played up a storm that night, and the audience reaction was overwhelming. We had an orchestra party that night at Matyas Kellar and everyone, Mariss included was feeling very, very good!
Another high point – Salzburg 1993 (and again, BBC Proms 1993), Program: Stravinsky: Firebird Suite – R. Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie. Reaction to both concerts was overwhelming. We had a huge ovation in Salzburg, and I could tell that Mariss was pleased.We played the Salzburg concert at 11 am on a Sunday morning, and did not expect to see the packed house that we did.
Then there were the three US tours, the three trips to Japan, to Hong Kong and the Far East. The last tour I undertook with Mariss and the orchestra was a two week festival tour – the first week was in Athens, followed by a week’s residency at the Musikkverein in Vienna. (The Athens week was a prepping for Vienna.) Programs included Strauss’ Heldenleben, Dvorak 8th, Bruckner 7, Mahler 2 and Verdi Requiem, amongst other things. All this in the space of week. Mariss always went in for big programs! And I loved him for it.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that he left an enormous musical impression on me, and to this day, when I play Tchaikovsky or Strauss or Dvorak, for instance, I always think of him. Rest in peace, Mariss, and Godspeed. Thanks for the memories.