Mariss Jansons, the maestro with the sweetest smilemain
If you were fortunate enough to know Mariss Jansons, you soon became aware that he was one of the kindest men alive and that he had no interest whatsoever in the business of music.
I spent a morning with him once in a deprived area of Pittsburgh, where he devoted as much respect and attention to a classroom of welfare kids as he did to the Vienna Philharmonic in their finest suits. Respect was his watchword. He treated every person as his equal.
If he went one step further and decided that he liked you then you were his friend for life. Flowers would arrive for happy occasions, phone calls at times of distress. Once he entered your life Mariss never left.
Even so, a part of him was always withheld, stood back, observing. He was both in a friendship and outside of it. Only when he told me of growing up in a forest hideaway under Nazi oppression did I understand his essential wariness.
No musician ever entered rehearsal better prepared. He knew the players’ names and the markings in their scores. In the first interval, when the players went out for coffee and phone calls, Mariss stayed behind to adjust their chairs, a millimetre here or there, to achieve the sound picture he envisaged.
In concert, he appeared expansive and relaxed. Inside, a time-bomb ticked. His father, Arvid, had died in the podium (or very soon after) and Mariss walked ever after with an inbuilt fatalism, soon to be augmented by an implanted defibrillator.
He could have been chief conductor of the London Philharmonic but the players never quite understood what he wanted. Instead, he made Pittsburgh smile once more and achieved sublime happiness in Munich, slightly less so in Amsterdam.
He was curious, widely read, generous. He had none of the usual maestro weaknesses – food, drink, sex, wealth – confining himself to music, books and ideas – as well as jokes, gossip and absurdities. He did not know how to open a wine list. He was loveable and without fault.
We talked a lot about Mahler, he from the technical aspect, I from the psychological. He held a vast repertoire in his head but conducted only a very limited selection, the works he considered central. I can’t remember him ever wasting breath on politics. He was all feeling, all human, all music, to the point of selflessness.
I wish I had phoned him more often. (He once said the same to me.)
We have lost an irreplaceable treasure.