Mariss Jansons, the maestro with the sweetest smile

Mariss Jansons, the maestro with the sweetest smile


norman lebrecht

December 01, 2019

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.


  • Ulex Xane says:

    “He could have been chief conductor of the London Philharmonic but the players never quite understood what he wanted.”

    Isn’t it down to the conductor to communicate it to them and ensure that they understand?

    • Tamino says:

      I think between adults the responsibility to make communication work is mutual. Only with small children does the adult have a higher responsibility to be understood.

      R.I.P. Mariss Jansons, great man, great artist and role model. I wish destiny had given you a stronger heart, so you could share your musicality and deep humanity longer with your fellow humans. You will be remembered.

  • A Slinger says:

    I feel deep sorrow by loosing this great Wonderfull man and conductor

  • FrauGeigerin says:

    I was very young, and it was I my first or second time playing as an extra-player in the last desk of the second violins. I was still a post-graduate student and needed the money to survive, and my teacher (the concertmaster of the orchestra) got me the gigs. I was not yet very experienced with playing in orchestras. This orchestra always played very late after the beat, but I didn’t know, so when Maestro Jansons gave the upbeat I played perfectly – on my own – on the the beat, and not after, like the rest of the orchestra did. I was embarrassed and thought during the rehearsal I was going to be fired and never called again to play in this orchestra. After the rehearsal I went to apologize to the maestro and he was incredibly nice, said I didn’t need to apologize, gave advice about a couple of passages, told me not to ever worry when I played my instrument ,and gave me some CDs! I went to see him to the backstage after a concert last year, and he remembered me, and asked about what I had done all these years.

    Wonderful musician, and amazing human being. Rest in Peace, Maestro.

  • Edoardo says:

    I can only agree. I have been lucky to have a chance to interview him. The scheduled 30 minutes became 1 hour and then more, until his wife came to literally drag him out to rehearsal.

    He even served me tea, adding sugar and stirring it. I would never forget those minutes with him.

    On top of this, many memorable concerts in Amsterdam and Berlin. Above all Mahler Second: a life changing experience. Watch and listen to it on YouTube.

  • Olassus says:

    He focused on orchestral music.

    I believe there are only six opera recordings, of three operas.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    I never met either of them, but MJ reminds me in terms of personality of the great Klaus Tennstedt. Wonderful people and the world is a poorer place without them

    • norman lebrecht says:

      I knew them both at around the same time; they had many things in common, especially a well-preserved naivety.

  • Bloom says:

    Thanks for your tribute.
    A very fine musician, indeed.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    What struck me most of all about Maestro Jansons was his humanity – his warmth, gentleness and love. It’s what the world needs now.

  • Amos says:

    The tribute is clearly heartfelt and appropriate. Referring to inner-city children in Pittsburgh or anywhere else as “welfare kids” is more odious than I can ever adequately articulate.

  • An immense loss to the music world! Mariss and I were colleagues in Swarowsky’s class in Vienna 1969/70 and in Salzburg with Karajan. I saw him for the last time in late spring with Vienna Philharmonic where, sadly, musicians had to help him on the way out after he conducted, while very frail, still brilliantly Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique. In 2000 he invited me to guest conduct his Pittsburgh Symphony. When he came with the BR Symphony to Montreal, he opened the doors for my students to attend his dress rehearsal! My daughter who studies Violin in Munich, went to all his concerts. The BR is to be praised and thanked that they stayed with him in faith, in spite of his many health problems! Mariss was a unique musician and conductor, and above all, he was a true ‘Mensch’. May he rest in peace, as he will live on in our memories!

  • mhtetzel says:

    Sad indeed. Maybe you can retrieve the beautiful interview you did with him in August 2007 during the Proms.

  • Nomen Nescio says:

    Oh, you could easily attack Mariss Jansons, as I`m sure Social Justice Warriors would do, for the comment ‘Women conductors are not my cup of tea’. Fortunately, they care little of music, so…

  • Roger says:

    And then there was this: “Women conductors are not my cup of tea.”

    A little balance is in order perhaps?

    • Nomen Nescio says:

      Indeed, perhaps the Social Justice Warriors awake, or “woke” again. I assume they don`t even notice his passing. Then again, no explanations, no apologies necessary, I say. Not even this: “How well he understood the question or the metaphor he used in reply is itself questionable. It was a slip of the tongue, no malice intended.” Women conductors are not for everyone. (I almost added “sorry”.)

    • Clevelander says:

      De mortuis nil nisi bonum, sir.

      • Nomen Nescio says:

        “Speak only good of the dead”. Actually, I did. You see, I have no problems with the comment “Women conductors are not my cup of tea”. I agree. (By the way, you should not assume I am a sir. What if I were non-binary, among other possible sexes?)

    • Bill says:

      There are probably male conductors (and composers and soloists of both genders) who weren’t his cup of tea, either. So what? Did he make an effort to block their careers, or did he live and let live? From what I’ve seen, the latter seems like the right answer, but if you know otherwise…

      • Nomen Nescio says:

        Indeed, the Finnish conductor Jorma Panula, an accomplished teacher, has, apparently, always taught any student fairly. There are many, many. And yet, when he dared to express his personal opinion regarding female conductors, he wasn`t teaching at the Sibelius Academy the next year. I believe he hasn`t apologized. Bravo.

    • Jim says:

      He who is without sin should caste the first stone.

      We all make mistakes – and he clearly apologised after he said it.

      This is a time to remember the magnificence of his life and what he has given to classical music and the world. Not to be petty.

      • Nomen Nescio says:

        Indeed, that would be John 8:7 “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone”. However, the sin in question was adultery. An opinion regarding female conductors does not qualify as a sin. Except in the Nordic countries, where it is probably a crime. Unlike adultery. Just ask the stately churches.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      He wasn’t “forced to apologize”. He was saying that there weren’t any female conductors when he was growing up, so he wasn’t used to it. The next generation, he felt, would find it perfectly normal.

  • Klaas says:

    In the Netherlands, we missed him very much. Mariss, R.I.P.

  • Derek says:

    You give a genuine and personal tribute which is much appreciated.

    He will be missed by those who knew him, those who worked with him and all of those who saw or heard him.

    R.I.P. Mariss Jansons.

  • J.-M. Pacheco says:

    A superb Adieu!

  • erich says:

    A grievous and irreplaceable loss. It is very revealing, in a profession not exactly teeming with selfless colleagues, that I never heard any of them say a bad word about him. Quite the opposite.