In Pittsburgh, says Robert Moir, the symphony’s senior vice president of artistic planning, Jansons “had a passion, an ardor for sugar like nothing I’d ever seen. Gideon [Toeplitz, the orchestra’s late managing director] would bring him bricks of halvah . . . Mariss’s eyes would open wide when he saw it.” Now, Moir says, “he doesn’t touch it. It’s unbelievable.”
Jansons doesn’t eat dinner after concerts anymore, either, and focuses on staying fit. As a result, Moir says, “even though he’s had a long history of illnesses and heart problems, at 70 years old he looks [amazing].”
The other most important thing in life, of course, is the music. Jansons has a fierce allegiance to both of his musical homes: the Concertgebouw, steeped in tradition and rich beauty; the Bavarian Radio, a streamlined precision instrument.
“The Concertgebouw is a very delicate, very transparent orchestra with a very beautiful sound and very good feeling of musical styles,” Jansons says, observing that it has a particular flair for French music. The Bavarian Radio, by contrast, is a “very spontaneous, very lively orchestra, very full of emotions, and such dark, German, full sounds.”
Jansons’s job in Munich has an extra component of questing; since he arrived there in 2003, he’s been trying to get a new concert hall built in the city. No luck yet. In January, Jansons was announced as the winner of the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of music; he’s pledged to put the $270,000 in prize money toward the construction of a new hall. “If the concert hall will not come,” he says, “of course, there are plenty of other things to support.”
If there’s been any criticism of Jansons over the years, it’s that his repertory isn’t very broad. He’s been best known for late romantic and 20th-century music; his Shostakovich cycle, recorded with several different orchestras and completed in 2005, is a benchmark and a cornerstone of any record collection. And certainly the current Concertgebouw tour isn’t calculated to change perceptions: It consists of works that are traditionally associated with the orchestra, such as the Mahler symphonies.
Tuesday’s Kennedy Center concert includes Mahler’s First Symphony, a familiar part of Jansons’s repertoire; he toured it a number of times with the Pittsburgh Symphony. But Moir observes that unusual works are appearing more and more on Jansons’s programs — such as a performance of Varese’s “Ameriques” in Lucerne, Switzerland, not long ago. “He’s in a different phase of his life now,” Moir says. “He’s experimenting.”
And the real point of the exercise is less what he plays than how he plays it. The real drama of Jansons’s life lies here, in the never-ending pursuit of excellence. “Nothing was ever good enough,” Moir says of Jansons’s performances in Pittsburgh. “It was a constant quest for that impossible, elusive perfection.”
He adds, “No matter how blazingly outstanding the performance was — and they all were; I don’t remember a bad concert in the time he was here — I don’t remember him being satisfied.”
How does Jansons think he’s evolved? He can answer only specifically, talking about the Mahler First. “I myself feel I am more deep in going inside the atmosphere and mood,” he says, “so that I make more dramatic, more expressive what is behind the notes. Especially, I think, in the third movement and finale, I think I put these dramatic and expressive moments almost to their border.”
Hyperbole? From some people, it might be. But Mariss Jansons really is that good — as Washington’s audiences will have another chance, on Tuesday, to hear for themselves.
will lead the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto, with Leonidas Kavakos, and Mahler’s First Symphony at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Visit Web site for tickets.