Music journalist calls on Jansons to quit

Music journalist calls on Jansons to quit


norman lebrecht

November 17, 2019

Malte Hemmerich, a young journo working for the FAZ and takt1, has published an article in a German online magazine arguing that too many artists are allowed to carry on far too long past their sell-by dates.

Hemmerich, 28, opens with an attack on Mariss Jansons, music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, who has failed to conduct many of the prestige concerts on his orchestra’s current tour.

Jansons is 76. Hemmerich also calls out Placido Domingo, Thomas Hampson and Maurizio Pollini. (But not Herbert Blomstedt, 92, or Menahem Pressler, 96 next month).

Read here.

Mariss Jansons in action, October 2019


  • christopher storey says:

    Hire a teenager whilst he still knows everything !

    • Esther Cavett says:

      To be fair, the film of MJ, shared on SD, doing the end of Symphonie fantastique was a bit of a horror story. What’s wrong with giving up ? Heifetz did it at his prime

      • David K. Nelson says:

        I recall an interview with Nathan Milstein, perhaps part of a Cleveland Orchestra broadcast, where he expressed the wish that when the “end” came — meaning the end of his impressive ability to play wonderfully into what for a violinist is an advanced age — it would come quickly, rather than so gradually that he would not be tempted to play on for too long. He may have been thinking of Kreisler and Szigeti when he said that. And he got his wish – as I recollect he fell and badly hurt his arm or shoulder, as well as aggravating an old back injury. His recorded “last recital” is even more impressively played than Heifetz’s, and at a much older age.

        Having said that I heard Arthur Rubenstein, Claudio Arrrau, Robert Merrill, and Leontyne Price when all were past their primes, but they still had plenty to offer as artists and performers, and not just out of a nostalgia trip, either. Of course their respective “primes” were very elevated.

        • Amos says:

          I recall reading that the morning before Milstein’s last recital in Sweden(?) he woke up and discovered that 1 or more of the fingers on his left hand were impaired. He spent the morning devising new fingerings which enabled him to give what by all accounts was a successful concert.

          Regarding the article in question the age of the author is irrelevant if his comments are sound. It is certainly understandable that any accomplished musician would want to concertize as long as possible. At the end of his life even a unrepentant nazis like Bohm supposedly cried while attending a performance of Rosenkavalier knowing he would never lead another performance. In many professions carrying on too long have potentially catastrophic consequences. In music the worst outcome is often embarrassment. In this case the audience and orchestra were defrauded and the conductor’s reputation was sullied.

  • Pacer1 says:

    Ah, the exigencies of Youth.

  • Katerna von Waldersee says:

    What arrogance, Mr Hemmerich! If I (and many other people) are willing to pay good money to hear these artists, who are you to telll them to retire? There are many younger performers on stage today who are fabulous but the artists you mention also still have the ability to make us happy. Long may they continue doing so!

    • Tamino says:

      Funny that you think you can hear a conductor.
      And for money even.
      When in fact the reason we have this celebrity problem that keeps sick people on stage is one of show business, not one of musical performance.
      It inspires you to see an old master on stage.
      Fine, but don’t delude yourself it had anything to do with hearing and musical performance.

      • Tamino says:

        P.S. having said that, there are some most inspiring old masters I absolutely love to hear perform on stage. There is just a thin red line, where the spiritual mastership is hindered by the triviality of the unhealthy ailing body. In case of MJ that line has been crossed in my humble opinion. Others are more lucky in their older years.

  • Olassus says:

    Blomstedt is in his prime, scusa.

  • anon says:

    Don’t blame the musician, don’t blame management, blame the equally aging and infirmed audience who keeps paying top prices (because given their age they can) to continue seeing one of their own equally weather-worn selves on stage.

    But hey, as long as the old patrons are still the (only) ones buying tickets and as long as they don’t mind the cancellations, and as long as they keep coming no matter what, it’s a no-brainer, wheel out Karajan in formaldehyde in a glass coffin.

    • Shimi says:

      Your life must be really sad…

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Well, maybe Karajan in formaldehyde in a glass coffin would conduct better than many current star celeb conductors.

    • Katerina von Waldersee says:

      I don’t think that only older people go to see these artists. The age factor is a problem for the concerts of younger artists too because classical music and opera do not always attract a younger audience. Also, I think there’s room for older as well as younger performers in the musical world today. You, as a discerning music lover, can choose which concert to go to and how much you want to pay for your ticket as usually a variety of prices is available. Even one of your despised older artists can be seen for a cheap ticket.

      • Tamino says:

        The age of the audiences is mostly an effect of who has excess income and time for it. That’s a constant over the times. We live now in times where the divide between the rich and (relative) poor is getting bigger and bigger and the middle class disappears. Two people need to work very hard to maintain a median income, where decades ago a single income would have sufficed.
        So the old wealthy people show up at classical concerts in statistically bigger proportions and there is not much we can do to change it without changing the underlying fundamental distortions in our society.
        Why is Currentzis performing in Luzern and not in Perm anymore?
        Because he goes where the (old people’s) money is calling him.
        The old people like to suck a little blood from the younger wild ones occasionally, makes them feel young.

  • Victoria says:

    From such a young age, probably even earlier, he is already joining the league of “journalists” / “critics” who abuse their power, the power of pen.

    (I hope this particular piece of his does not get accepted by FAZ.)

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    It seems that not especially long ago (he has not been around a long time) Mr Hemmerich wrote an article with the subheading ‘Der Kritiker, ein schlechter, dummer Musiker’.

  • PJL says:

    His father (a greater conductor in my view) died much younger of a heart attack in the Midland Hotel, Manchester and after earlier health problems he came back….he may feel if he stops conducting he has given up on life….

    • Petros Linardos says:

      If Jansons can still conduct effectively but cancels with increasing frequency, wouldn’t it be more reasonable for him to step down from his chief conductor position and continue as a laureate? The consequences of his cancellations would then be less disruptive.

      • Tamino says:

        It would be the responsible and honest thing to do. But we can only speculate that his urge to not loose his life essence combined with a management that needs him as their PR horse before the carriage has lead to this unfortunate situation you describe.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Yes, he should retire from his position as chief conductor. It seems he can only manage an occasional concert without too much travelling.

    • Peter Phillips says:

      Yes, Arvid, the father, was very good: heard him conducting the Hallé in Shostakovich.

  • RW2013 says:

    Let’s hope that todays “oldies” consult with this Bubi before continuing their careers.
    He may call out performers who he only knows from YT, but I for one will always cherish the last three recitals of Horowitz in Berlin, warts and all.

  • Shimi says:

    Well it’s sad when google search on said journo returns absolutely nothing of value. I can’t say I would disagree that Jansons should possibly reconsider his position on how valuable he still is to the Rudfunks in his current condition but to call on him to quit is ludicrous. I also heard Hampson in recital and CSO concert last year and he sounded rather marvelous.

  • sycorax says:

    Well,I rarely have a problem with elder conductors – and I remember Sergiu Celibidache, rather infirm already, but nevertheless impressing.
    However, tine case of the singers … Domingo as baritone was no pleasure at all and Hampson’s voice isn’t what it once was anymore …

  • Karl says:

    MJ should have quit years ago….. but the blame is with orchestra managments which let him continue.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    Malte Hemmerich’s article is actually rather more balanced and nuanced than many a commentator here gives him credit for. He makes a valid point too in questioning whether slipping standards in advancing years do the reputation of pianists, singers and conductors any good at all. I think that artists like Janet Baker got it absolutely right: she decided to retire at the height of her powers and not risk hearing whispered comments of the “But she’s not as good as she used to be” kind. I recall seeing a frail Radu Lupu giving a final concerto performance in London full of wrong, missed and inaudible notes (and being astounded that so many critics failed to register this fact). And I do have a lot of sympathy for concertgoers who pay elevated sums to hear the big names and are then disappointed at the last minute. I have lost track of the large number of orchestral managements who, despite knowing that an individual conductor has already withdrawn from a planned engagement on health grounds, continue to promote that particular event with the original name(s) right up to the day of the concert.

    • George says:

      The article is not balanced ; it is pretty arrogant, also towards the – older – fans. Malte understands nothing of what it means to grow up with an artist, following his/her career and having respect for them until the end, even if the performances are not what they used to be.
      The reason the Janson’s & Co do not quit is because without making music they would die. Their work is what is keeping them alive. btw, Malte Hemmerich looks like the kind of person, who, if he actually met Barenboim, Pollini, Domingo or Jansons IN PERSON would be the first to congratulate them, lol.
      I’ve seen this so many times – people complain, complain, complain but once the artist smiles at them they feel so important that suddenly they are all head over heels.

  • Bruce says:

    “Instead, we pay for an expensive antique in poor condition” — I had to smile at that one.

  • Bruce says:

    I think we-the-aging-audience-members sympathize with aging performers as they (as proxy for ourselves) try to do the things they used to do, and are often tolerant of less-than-stellar results because that’s what we achieve too. Often, we are so caught up in cheering on our hero (and, by proxy, ourselves) that we fail to notice that the performance was actually not good.

    This is too bad, since older performers are often at their peak artistically. Instead of trying to repeat the pyrotechnic stunts of their youth, and hoping an increasingly rare flash of brilliance will carry them through, it would make sense to play simpler music and do it beautifully.

    To take Pollini as an example: As much as I would love to hear what Pollini-the-artist can do with the “Hammerklavier” at age 112, I’m not sure I’d be excited to hear Pollini-the-112-year-old-technician tackle that piece. But there are many other Beethoven (and Mozart, Schubert, et al) pieces that he could play sublimely.

    Hemmerich seems to miss this point. Instead of acknowledging that aging (or aged) artists have other gifts to offer besides dazzling technique and thunderous power, he seems to say they should just quit because they aren’t what they were 20 years ago.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      In Jansons’ case there is a significant risk he will die on stage. He just can’t physically manage any more.

  • Nik says:

    I wonder if he also objects to Otello and Falstaff being performed, considering the age Verdi was when he wrote them.

  • John Rook says:

    The technical degeneration of certain artists is common knowledge and those who still go to hear them are probably aware they will not be attending a performance representative of that person in their prime. To everyone their motive, but I remember Hugues Cuenod, already octagenarian, I think, coming to give a masterclass at my music college in the 1980’s. He said of himself, ‘I have never worried about losing my voice as I never had one in the first place’. The point lay elsewhere: to hear him turn a phrase, breathe life into an otherwise seemingly mundane text was pure beauty. You need a good few miles on the clock to be able to do that.

  • Rob says:

    Here’s a gorgeous performance of Tchaikovsky 4 in 1979 when Mariss was 34.

  • George says:

    There are good performances by young AND old conductors and bad performances too. Same for singers. If you don’t want to hear Jansons or Domingo, don’t go.

  • fflambeau says:

    How many cancellations has this conductor had in the past two years? And in some cases, management continues to sell tickets knowing that he will not conduct.

    I think the questions raised by the journalist are perfectly legit. There is an important stiulation: all humans age at different rates so many of the “old” conductors/performers still have it; this seems, unfortunately, not to be the case with Jansons.

    I don’t know him but in many cases people like this feel they are irreplaceable. General de Gaulle once said something like, “Cemetaries are full of irreplaceable people.”

  • Cubs Fan says:

    All I can say is this: I will forever be grateful for those aged conductors who continued working far beyond what was expected or required. They brought wisdom and style. Yes, some of them probably outstayed their welcome. So thank you: Sir Adrian Boult, Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Arthur Fiedler, Charles Munch, Otto Klemperer, Sir John Barbirolli. And all the other old guys who gave us so much pleasure.

  • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

    I wonder how she feels about Franz Mazura, who sang in MEISTERSINGER, in Berlin, earlier this year, and is 95.

  • George says:

    I heard Domingo‘s Macbeth in Vienna. The timbre is still very beautiful, as are the colours. He was very short of breathe in this performance, but somehow this added to the character of Macbeth. I‘ve never believed the horror Macbeth goes through in the famous duet with the lady after killing Duncan as much as I have when Domingo sang it.

    • Katerina von Waldersee says:

      I also attended Macbeth in Vienna and totally agree with you. Domingo is as convincing in portraying the older characters now as he was in his previous younger roles. I must say I’m also astounded by his physical agility because both in Macbeth and in Nabucco (in Zurich in October) he often threw himself onto the stage floor, sang lying down or on his knees with no problem and got up with ease. In the interval in Zurich I heard many people commenting about this.

  • Bennet Seiger says:

    Dear Mr. Lebrecht,

    Your summary of the original article is very sensational and ignores a lot of information and good arguments of Mr. Hemmerich. Please stick to the facts. As a “journo” it might be a good advise for you to read more than the heading – which goes out to all of the commentators here, too.

    Mr. Hemmerich does not simply “calls to quit”, he gives good examples, why it might be the time to end a career. Mr. Jansons for instance is very ill and has to cancel a lot of concerts of his tour. Why does he take the trouble if he know, that he can’t make it? And to all of the old people here: Why doesn’t he have any right to say these things, just because he’s only 27? Yes, another mistake, Mr. Lebrecht. Do your research properly, thank you.

    • George says:

      He takes the trouble because he wants to perform. And is probably desperately trying everything in his power to get back on stage and not let his illness defeat him.

  • Maria says:

    Hmmm … a 28-year old pontificating on an international conductor obviously ill but much admired and yet happy to put Mariss on the scrap heap!

  • John Borstlap says:

    Continuing conducting at an age when it is probably better to take some rest, is tricky:

    (at 48:16)

  • Presbyteros says:

    I wish I were 28 again, so I could know everything.