Remembering Mariss Jansons

By · Title Image © Peter Meisel · Date 12/5/2019

“So, tell me Gustavo! How is the orchestra? And how is the Schumann? Do they like to work? And how is the discipline? And then, tell me, I want to know…” This was the way our conversation started, the last time I saw Mariss Jansons, at the Musikverein, right after a rehearsal with his Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks.

Having a regular conversation with Mariss was often impossible. He would asks lots of passionate questions. Sometimes it was almost frustrating. I always wanted to talk to him about so many things, to learn from him, but I often felt shy, and in any case, he would always “shoot” first—and then you had little chance to change the direction of the conversation. But I loved seeing him in action: whether rehearsing, conducting a concert, meeting a soloist, or simply talking to someone. He always had peculiar, intelligent questions and comments.

When I was a kid, I watched a concert—at that time in Spain it was rare to see a concert on TV by a foreign orchestra—which my father had recorded. Leningrad Philharmonic, Mariss Jansons, “The Rite of Spring,” the onscreen text read. For some reason, those names, that situation, remained engraved in my memory. I memorized the name of Mariss Jansons. I found his presence, his expression, and his conducting magnetic. I loved looking at him.

10 years later, as a student, I got to work with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The piece was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, with Mariss Jansons conducting. Again, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. His conducting was so elegant, his rehearsing so organized and detailed, his manners so polite when addressing the players. Then the concert came, and I couldn’t believe that he was the same person. He radiated such energy and passion that despite the distance I felt almost afraid. I was afraid of ruining the beauty of the orchestra’s playing and of somehow disappointing this man whom I admired so much (even if he obviously hadn’t noticed me). The emotional content of his presence transmitted a very special energy which I had never experienced before.

Paradoxically, Jansons controlled details in rehearsals to the extreme: when exactly a hornist would breathe; how many centimeters to keep the door open for the off-stage band; which sticks the bass drum player used. In the concert he apparently seemed to forget all those details and convert them into the deepest emotions.

Life brought us even closer when I became a member of the Concertgebouw orchestra under him as chief conductor. Our many rehearsals and concerts together represented some of the best music lessons I ever had. My life was better with him around. He was demanding, but wonderfully uplifting. I am immensely grateful for the time I had with him.

He wasn’t always approachable, at least at first. But once he opened himself to you, you were family. He was a great human being, with an incredible inner world, including insecurities, doubts, and at times fragility—and he was not afraid of showing it, or laughing at himself. All that made him greater; he was genuinely loved. His honesty as musician was unique, and profoundly moving.

Music was his life, his God. He would always say, “What do you want, to have a comfortable life or to be a musician?”

Dearest Mariss, rest in peace. ¶