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Sleepless in Amsterdam (And Munich)
Concertgebouw's Tireless, Two-Fisted Conductor

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

Mariss Jansons may be the best conductor in the world. This is hyperbole, certainly, in an age that includes such real and putative lions as Lorin Maazel, Simon Rattle, James Levine, Yuri Temirkanov, Gustavo Dudamel and others, but it is hyperbole with a foundation in demonstrable fact.

Fact: a track record at orchestra-building, notably in 22 years spent turning the Oslo Philharmonic from a relatively unknown body into an internationally competitive ensemble. Fact: powerful recordings such as his complete Shostakovich symphony cycle, preserving performances that tend to be at once forceful and straightforward, penetrating to the music's heart. Fact: that he is now chief conductor of two of Europe's leading orchestras, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich and Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, with whom he will play Strauss and Mahler at the Kennedy Center this afternoon.

Music directors -- the approximate American equivalent of a "chief conductor" -- are always being sought, wooed, announced and bidden festive farewell. The position is much discussed, and little understood. A music director is supposed to shape an orchestra's sound, giving it a distinctive stamp not only through rehearsals, but through weeding out lesser players and bringing in better ones. A music director also serves as an orchestra's public face, which means involvement in community events and fundraising.

Yet the jet-setting life of a major conductor is not conducive to a committed relationship with a single institution. Where a music director used to live with his orchestra through all or most of a season, today he is in residence for a matter of weeks. Latvian-born Jansons calls St. Petersburg home, but spends little time there, or anywhere else: He is with the Concertgebouw for 12 weeks a season, with the Bavarian Radio for 10. In Pittsburgh, where he was music director from 1997 to 2004, he spent eight. (For comparison: Leonard Slatkin conducts nine weeks a year at the National Symphony Orchestra, with an additional three weeks of other duties; Marin Alsop, in Baltimore, 14.)

"I think the stamp and quality comes not from quantity, but really from the chemistry between conductor and orchestra," Jansons said in charmingly choppy English, reached in Amsterdam shortly before leaving for the Concertgebouw's American tour. "You can work 25 weeks and doesn't come anything," he said, or for a short time and achieve considerable results. "Everything depends on the quality of the work."

Still, conductors usually try to avoid calling attention to the fact that in terms of actual face time, their relationship to "their" orchestra is limited. The norm for conductors who lead two or more organizations is to keep a balance between Europe and North America, orchestra and opera. There is Franz Welser-Most in Cleveland and, as of 2010, the Vienna State Opera; Kent Nagano at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the Bavarian State Opera; Daniel Barenboim, until 2006, in Chicago and the Staatsoper in Berlin. All-American James Levine is music director of both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. But no one comes to mind who has two comparable orchestras, as Jansons does, on the same continent.

"Somehow I divided myself in two Jansons, left side and right side," the conductor said. "You must treat [the orchestras] equally, like two sons. You must be very objective [and] completely avoid your personal interest. If I do some program in Munich, I can't say, 'I just did this one week ago; I cannot do in Amsterdam.' You must forget what is your personal wish. You must be dedicated to both. Otherwise you will get trouble with both orchestras."

He would have gotten plenty of trouble from his orchestra in Munich had the players heard him, when asked about the differences between his two "sons," refer to them as the "Munich Philharmonic" -- an entirely separate organization from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

All the traveling cannot but take a toll. The 65-year-old conductor's voice was gravelly from tiredness -- although the gravel departed when a question particularly caught his interest. Jansons's health has been a particular focus since he suffered a near-fatal heart attack on the podium in Oslo in 1996, conducting a concert version of Puccini's "La Boh¿me." Doctors in Pittsburgh provided him with a defibrillator and strict instructions to cut back on his activities -- instructions to which he gives lip service while retaining a peripatetic lifestyle that would fell many younger people.

Yet he is certainly deeply involved with both orchestras. The Bavarian Radio, he said, "is such a German orchestra; an excellent orchestra with a deep, very deep sound, extremely spontaneous." While the Bavarian Radio was a postwar establishment, the Concertgebouw was founded in 1888, and Jansons is only the sixth chief conductor in its history; he identified its traits as beauty and stylistic versatility.

"It is among the very few orchestras these days that can play French music; this music needs a special sound," he said. "Of course the Concertgebouw has a fantastic hall. A hall always helps to create a wonderful sound." This last point could be a slogan in Munich, where he is actively involved in an ongoing crusade to get the Bavarian Radio orchestra a hall of its own.

Jansons is a hit in both cities. In Amsterdam, after the particularity (even fussiness) of his predecessor, Riccardo Chailly, he is viewed as a return to the warm musicmaking of a previous chief conductor, Bernard Haitink, according to the Dutch critic and writer Paul Korenhof. "The old sound came back very quickly," Korenhof said in a recent e-mail exchange.

Since the Concertgebouw does occasional duty as the orchestra for De Nederlandse Opera, it also brought Jansons back to opera for the first time since his heart attack; he led a stunning run of performances of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" in 2006 (subsequently released on DVD). "It may have been the greatest success the Netherlands Opera had in the past 10 years or longer," Korenhof said.

Criticisms of Jansons usually focus on his relatively limited repertory: heavy on the 19th and early 20th centuries, light on contemporary music. Gideon Toeplitz, the former managing director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra who was responsible for bringing Jansons to the United States in 1997, pointed out that Jansons and Pittsburgh toured in 2000 with Mahler's Fifth, which is also the centerpiece of today's Washington program. (Jansons might counter that he and the Concertgebouw, which has a profound Mahler tradition cultivated during the 50-year tenure of Willem Mengelberg, are currently embarked upon a Mahler cycle for the orchestra's own label, RCO Live.) Although Jansons says he plays a wide variety of music when he is getting used to a new orchestra -- including Haydn, featured on the Concertgebouw's last Washington program, and not a staple of many major symphony conductors -- European critics have voiced the same reservations. Audiences, however, tend not to complain about a conductor who, instead of pushing them to explore new works, gives them the kinds of things they like.

Jansons's Pittsburgh tenure may not be the best measure of his music-director abilities. There is a hands-on, community focus to the work of an American music director that many European conductors find hard to take. Jansons, in dealing with the public, had certain reservations: When he came out to greet his fans in the lobby after concerts, he preferred to be cordoned off behind a velvet rope.

"He's not a guy who runs up and down Main Street," Toeplitz said.

This reserve, this lack of obvious flashiness, may have been one reason Jansons appeared under-appreciated while he was in Pittsburgh. He is not a conductor who plays the game. His approach is all about musical excellence.

And the aural evidence was that the musicians, schooled by the icily virtuosic Lorin Maazel, were more than ready for Jansons's sometimes inarticulate warmth. At the orchestra's final concerts under Jansons at Carnegie Hall, the national critical confraternity was finally ready to notice that the Pittsburgh orchestra was sounding better than ever. There can be no better measure of a music director than that.

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