Death of Mariss Jansons

On the death of the honorary member and long-time artistic friend of the Berliner Philharmoniker

(Photo: Stephan Rabold)

The Berliner Philharmoniker and their chief conductor Kirill Petrenko mourn the death of Mariss Jansons, honorary member and highly regarded musical companion of the orchestra. “The death of Mariss Jansons is a great loss for us, both artistically and personally," says Alexander Bader, clarinetist and member of the orchestra board. “In him, we lose a musician who opened up many perspectives to us, for example in the works of Shostakovich, which he was particularly fond of. No less rewarding were his warmly glowing interpretations of 19th century music. Mariss Jansons never sought superficial effects, but with inexhaustible curiosity opened up the deeper layers of a score. The result was performances of incredible depth and intensity. We were also united by a special partnership on a personal level. Mariss Jansons was someone of extraordinary warmth and sincerity: qualities that could also be found in his interpretations and which helped determine his position as a conductor.”

As an expression of their esteem, the Berliner Philharmoniker appointed Mariss Jansons an honorary member in February 2018. An award that deeply touched the conductor: “I am very grateful for this great honour, which means more to me than anything else. The concerts with the Philharmoniker have always been something special for me,” he said. The first meeting between Mariss Jansons and the orchestra took place in 1971. The 28-year-old won the second prize at the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition and conducted Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé in the closing concert. The orchestra musicians felt immediately that there was an exceptional talent in front of them.

Music in the blood

Mariss Jansons was born to a family of musicians: the son of conductor Arvīds Jansons and singer Iraida Jansons knew very early on that he wanted to pursue the same profession as his father. At the opera house in Riga, his parents’ workplace, he learned not only the most important operas and ballets, but also the rules of the musician’s profession. As a seven-year-old, he first heard recordings of the Berliner Philharmoniker and was a fan of the orchestra from then on. In 1956, the family moved to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where Arvīds Jansons worked from 1952 as assistant to Evgeny Mravinsky, head of the Leningrad Philharmonic orchestra. While there, Mariss Jansons studied violin, piano and conducting at the conservatory.

A fateful encounter

In 1968, he witnessed the legendary guest performance of the Berliner Philharmoniker in Leningrad, when he first met Herbert von Karajan. He recognised the immense talent of the young conductor and invited him to study in the West. However, Mariss Jansons did not receive an exit permit at this time, and only later did a student exchange enable him to study in Vienna with Hans Swarowsky, and in Salzburg with Herbert von Karajan. In 1971, the year of his competition win, Mravinsky made him his assistant. From Leningrad, Mariss Jansons launched his phenomenal world career. After leading positions with the Oslo Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, he was chief conductor of the Symphonieorchester und Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks from 2003. He also headed the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in the same position from 2004 to March 2015.

Lots of Shostakovich

Mariss Jansons made his “official” debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1976. From 1988, he was a frequent and regular guest of the Philharmoniker, accompanied them on tour and conducted the European concerts and open-air concerts at the Berlin Waldbühne. His programmes were characterised by unusual selections of works, usually containing at least one piece by composers from the North and Eastern European region. His concert programmes focused on German Romanticism and late Romanticism as well as the works of Sibelius and Shostakovich. He had already become familiar with and learned to appreciate the latter’s compositions at first hand as a child through his father, who was a friend of the composer. Mariss Jansons conducted the Philharmoniker for the last time in January 2019, presenting a programme of works by Richard Strauss, Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. In this concert too, the orchestra’s esteem for the conductor was obvious, and he, in turn, expressed his opinion on the standard of the musicians: “It gives me pleasure as a conductor because I can realise everything I want.” Mariss Jansons died in St Petersburg on 1 Dezember.

1971: Mariss Jansons, one of the winners of the Herbert von Karajan International Conducting Competition
(Photo: Reinhard Friedrich)