Kaplan: Welcome to “Mad About Music” as we continue our exploration of maestros, today with a remarkable conductor, Mariss Jansons.
Kaplan: At a time when orchestras are lamenting over the shortage of outstanding conductors, he is a genuine star – so much in demand that he serves as the music director of two of the very best orchestras in the world: the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich, with which he just came to Carnegie Hall last month and produced concerts only describable as remarkable events – with raves from the critics and an audience response at a decibel level rarely witnessed in a concert hall. Mariss Jansons, welcome to “Mad About Music.”
Jansons: Thank you very much for inviting me here. I’m very happy to be with you.
Kaplan: Now you know this is an interesting time for conductors as I’ve observed it. Many years ago, the comments in the press were very much about whether conductors were overpaid so many millions of dollars, and conductors had to defend themselves. Today it seems to be the opposite. There are laments there simply are not enough star conductors around. We have orchestras like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, just in this country, all looking for music directors, all having a very hard time. Some months ago, Clive Gillinson, the Executive Director of Carnegie Hall appeared on “Mad About Music,” and he said this was a real problem today finding star conductors. So I wonder if you have a theory about why was it that generations ago, there seemed to be more outstanding conductors than we have today?
Jansons: I don’t know actually what does it mean, star conductors? I mean, when you speak about professionals, I understand star conductors, this means you’re very famous and people like you. But I think not always this means star conductors is very high quality.
Kaplan: Well, let’s change it then to high quality conductors!
Jansons: I think it has something to do with generally with importance of I would say music in society, generally. You know, I think I belong to some pessimists because I think that our world is not going in the right direction at all. We are thinking so much about the materialistic side of our existence, which I think is of course very important, and not enough thinking about spiritual development. And the music, I would say all art is nourishment for our soul, for our heart, and I think, religion. And these are two extremely important things which I think should take a very important place in our society. Then it will become for people very important and I think then the musicians, professionally, and conductor’s profession, will take a more important role in our society. And education will take a much more important role.
Kaplan: There are many theories about this but no one seems to really know. They say the same thing about opera singers to some extent. Where are the great voices we used to have so many of, now we have fewer? But I notice that on the list of music you would like to play today, you have one conductor who would be both a high quality conductor – to use your term, and a star – to use mine. That’s Herbert von Karajan and I believe that you have said previously he had a substantial influence on your own thinking and your own career.
Jansons: Oh, very, very big career. I can say, you know, that the first time I met Karajan in Leningrad that time and he made a master class when he came first to Soviet Union that time. It was 1968 and we twelve young conductors conducted, and he chose me as his – let’s say, he wanted that I come to Berlin and study with him. At that time there was a very strong dictator in Soviet Union. They didn’t allow me to go to Berlin. I was very, very unhappy that I could not do anything. But since he mentioned my name, so that bureaucrats from the Culture Ministry wrote, you know, my name, and then later they sent me to Vienna to study in the music academy because there existed an exchange between Austria and Soviet Union. One ballerina came to study in St. Petersburg, in Leningrad at that time, and one conductor to Vienna. And then when I went to Vienna and I was in a completely free country, and I called to Karajan’s assistant in Salzburg. He said immediately come to Karajan in Salzburg. So I came to him and I spent with him three months in his different festivals, which was Easter festival, summer festival, and I was with him from morning 9:00 until 11:00 evening. So really I was his assistant. Then I really was very close to him and he made on me an enormous influence. I felt and I still feel now that he was something like a bird who is flying over, higher as we all, because he can see the earth much wider than we on the earth, and this, I was saying this because his ideas were enormous. He had fantastic ideas. He was an enormous repertoire. He made our profession of conducting extremely popular. His videos, recordings, all what he did, festivals, supporting very young talented artists, to organize conductor competitions, enormous, you know, activity. And then you see him conduct, and his enormous energy, and even of course he was definitely one of the best conductors in history.
Kaplan: Well, tell me then about the particular recording you’d like us to play.
Jansons: I think we will now listen to the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 which Karajan recorded with Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and actually I must say that he did it three times, the whole cycle in recording. And I remember when I studied in Vienna, I had this opportunity to hear him perform all Beethoven’s symphonies in Vienna. And I remember the Seventh Symphony was something very special.
Kaplan: The concluding moments from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic with Herbert von Karajan on the podium. A selection of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” conductor Mariss Jansons. You know, Karajan, like most of our great conductors, became known for a certain approach to music. My own way of characterizing it would be a certain perfection of sound. In the case of Leonard Bernstein it might be pushing emotions to a breaking point. With that in mind, how would you describe yourself as a conductor?
Jansons: Oh! It’s very difficult to speak about yourself!
Kaplan: Well, I’m not asking you to say how wonderful you are or how terrible you are, but rather what is your approach to music? If someone were to compare you to other conductors, not in terms of how good a conductor you are, but what your approach would be.
Jansons: I must tell you that when I started to study – I studied in Leningrad and I had a very high level. There exists a very high level of education, especially of course in conducting. I had wonderful teachers. And generally I was very much looking for perfection, and so it means that everything should be really perfect, and sound, and, you know, technical side. And I was a very good student because I very much believed and followed what my teachers said. And I’m very happy because I think it’s very important when you study you really, should really do everything that your teacher says. Then many, many years when I started myself to conduct, and I came now to the conclusion that I can say what I think for me is most important these days. For me it’s important I think that the goal of a very good performance is a very interesting performance in terms of imagination, content, what I call what is behind the notes. Because notes are signs, like letters. Letters, when you put together, this is a word. Word means something. The same in the music. The notes together, they make a phrase. The phrase means something. The phrase creates atmosphere, creates image. And I think when you perform not just everything fine, how it is written, the right crescendos, diminuendos – I know the accents, and right notes, and perfectly played, it’s extremely important. Of course, no doubt, the orchestra should play together, and of course should play with a wonderful sound. But I think this is not the last step. The last step is when you come to what I call a cosmic dimension. Which, when you are really thinking about enormous feeling of atmosphere, imagination, and you try to explain what you feel is behind the notes.
Kaplan: Well, we’ll come back to your working habits a little bit later in the show, but I would like to suggest to you that this approach of going deeper and deeper does require, I suppose, a smaller repertoire, rather than a larger repertoire, and I notice that on your list today you’ve selected a conductor, Carlos Kleiber, who I understand had the smallest repertoire in the world. And maybe that’s why so many people have come to regard him as certainly a candidate for one of the greatest conductors in history.
Jansons: Yeah, of course, I think he was one of the most interesting and wonderful conductors in history. I think this man had enormous imagination, intelligence, you know, enormous charisma, everything, you know. Of course, his repertoire was limited, but I don’t think, you know, it’s so important the quantity of pieces what you are doing. The most important is how you are doing and he did everything completely fantastically.
Kaplan: Did you ever see anything that he did – did you watch him conduct at all?
Jansons: Yes! I even, I met him; he came to my rehearsal. You know, I wrote him some letters because my father played in Riga Opera Orchestra when Erich Kleiber, the father of Carlos Kleiber, was the conductor in Riga. My father played under Erich Kleiber. And I wrote here to Carlos Kleiber this letter, that my father thought so much about his father, and he answered me. He always doesn’t answer in letters, he answers in cards, very small cards. And he wrote me two cards and I was very happy. And then when I became music director in Munich, the Radio Symphony Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber came to meet me at my rehearsal, completely. I was so happy to see him. He came before rehearsal, we talked 45 minutes, he extremely was an interesting man and very knowledgeable, very, very sensitive, incredibly sensitive. And this, I think, sensitivity, was, helped him be really such a wonderful musician.
Kaplan: I was just about to ask you, can you put your finger on what it was that he had, because you as a top conductor would spot it?
Jansons: I think in one word to say great talent. You know, great talent for me, you know, you can learn many things. I myself as teacher really learned myself now what is actually the conducting profession. As a conductor you can learn technique, you can learn repertoire. You can learn, of course, a feeling of style and many things. But one thing you can’t learn, this is what God gives to the conductor is this talent, what I call conductor talent – this ability is this energy, inner energy, which gives you the possibility to lead 100 musicians, to unite them and to do wonderful performances. And this is a conductor’s talent. You can’t learn this at all. Now, in five minutes, I can see when somebody conducts. I can see if he has this talent or not from God. And this was, of course, Carlos Kleiber had enormous talent and plus all other things of the highest level. I said intelligence and everything. What actually needs only to have this talent from God, it’s not enough. You must be educated in many things. So but he had everything.
Kaplan: Now after all this talk about all these other conductors you admire so much, we come to a point in the show where we’re finally going to hear something conducted by you, and I see it’s Sibelius with your Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. You’ve had a very close association with Sibelius over the years, especially when you were in Oslo, didn’t you?
Jansons: Yes, but actually it started earlier because this was my diploma exam when I finished conducting in the Conservatory in St. Petersburg. It was my piece, what I really, it was actually my first concert because it was the last exam. And I enormously liked this symphony and of course it takes special place in my repertoire because that’s how I said it was a special event for me. But generally, I like enormously Sibelius, and of course I did conduct it a lot in Oslo. Especially what I like, this is a fantastic combination – from one side, such Nordic, severe atmosphere, dark, sometimes gray, pessimistic even, if you would say. But then it comes moments where you feel, my God, such color, such really touching melodies and moments, which you think how it’s completely contrast to what was before. So it is that two sides of Sibelius and two sides of actually I would say human beings. Because sometimes you see, somebody who looks oh very, you know, perhaps even sometimes unpleasant, dark, pessimistic place, person, you say, oh, he doesn’t have a heart, he is really very cold person. But then you suddenly you find out, no! It is wonderful person, but he just doesn’t show it. So Sibelius, I think for me, is some kind of combination, suddenly he shows these qualities. And this makes me sometimes really crazy, how I like this!
Kaplan: An excerpt from Sibelius’s First Symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of my guest today on “Mad About Music,” conductor Mariss Jansons:. When we return, we’ll talk with Maestro Jansons about composers he doesn’t like to conduct.
This is Gilbert Kaplan: with my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music,” conductor Mariss Jansons. Now before you were describing your affinity to Sibelius and it’s been my observation that many conductors are extremely comfortable with certain composers but not with others. In your case, are there composers you don’t feel personally connected to, and such a degree that you tend not to conduct their work?
Jansons: One is Nielsen. I think he’s very good composer because even I conducted his pieces. But then when I conducted, I felt something -- it’s not my music. But you know, I again, I can’t say this is forever. It can be that one day, suddenly, I will feel that oh yes, it is very interesting. I will start to conduct, so I can’t say this is forever. But if you ask me now, for this moment, I don’t feel that I have such strong connection, for example to Nielsen. Or for example, Elgar, even though I conducted Elgar.
Kaplan: Well, let’s then look at the other side of that coin, and I’ll ask you a question in a sort of silly way, but it makes the point. You’re not likely to be auditioning for jobs anymore at your stage of your career, but if you had to, if you were called upon to pick one piece that you would conduct which would best show you off as a conductor, who might it be? What composer? What piece? You’re only allowed one.
Jansons: A lot of questions there.
Kaplan: You’re only allowed one.
Jansons: It’s like the lottery. You think which I like or you think the piece which will show me the one, my best?
Kaplan: The one that will get you the job.
Jansons: Job, I think perhaps it could be Heldenleben from Richard Strauss.
This was my, I chose this piece even by my first concert as music director in Concertgebouw Orchestra. You know this piece is dedicated to Mengelberg Concertgebouw Orchestra, but I always liked this music when I was a young conductor. Sometimes, you know, I think it happens in your life, and it existed in this case, with Heldenleben. When I remember when I first time conducted this piece in a small city province, I was very young. I was somehow, you know, fascinated by this music enormously. I had such joy I think never in my life. And after the concert, I went to the conductor room and I was crying. I could not stop crying for fifteen minutes after the performance. You know, it happened in my life not so often. It happened quite a lot when I conducted Mahler, but this was the first time really when it happened with Heldenleben and I think this somehow gave me such an impact on my inner world, that this piece became for me something like a holy piece.
Kaplan: An excerpt from Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra led by their music director and my guest today on “Mad About Music,” Mariss Jansons:, and one work he feels best shows his approach to conducting. And that leads in my mind to a related question as you examine your future. What is left for you to do as a professional conductor? I put it in this context: Sir Georg Solti was once asked this question and he said, “I just keep trying to get better and better.”
Jansons: I just wanted to say the same. Really, I always think that quality doesn’t have a limit. And my real approach is that I wanted to do better and better, I wanted to do better and better concerts. And I want that every of my concerts should be event, for me, for orchestra and public. So there I am really putting all my strength, everything, my emotions, everything, to each concert. And I don’t allow myself to give such relaxed atmosphere, where I would say, O.K., today I will take it a little easier. So no, somehow, you know, I burn for all my work, for all my concerts, and will try really to do my best and even better than I did before. I think it is only way how you can, I think, maintain your quality.
Kaplan: Well one conductor who certainly maintained his quality to a ripe old age was Stokowski, and I see that you have a work of his on your list to play today.
Jansons: Oh yes, actually, you know, I choose these pieces not because of the composer, I choose the pieces because of conductors. I enormously like Stokowski. I find him an extremely interesting musician conductor. I remember many, many years ago he came to Leningrad and he conducted Tristan, Wagner, his own arrangements of Bach, and Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony. And he, you know, even placed the orchestra completely differently. He put the strings right side, the woodwinds left, and brasses the middle. It was something already very special, and I found it fascinating how he sounded, the orchestra sounded. And I understood this man has a special feeling of sound, and then later, of course, when you hear the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the sound what he gets from this orchestra, is very special, very specific. And many pieces which he conducts you suddenly find incredibly interesting ideas which you never heard, completely, I would say, different from composers many times, which perhaps I would not do, or composers perhaps would not have allowed him to do, that I find it extremely interesting. And one of these is Firebird Suite, this version 1919. And I really must be honest, I took many interesting ideas from him, which really, I was so fascinated that I felt it became my idea! And you know, I bought almost all his records and videos and when I went to Philadelphia, I visited his, you know, library, and so and I was in connection with Stokowski Society. And this man, for me, is something very special.
Kaplan: The conclusion of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite in the 1919 version with the London Symphony Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski on the podium. A selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, the conductor Mariss Jansons. Now we were talking earlier about the music you don’t connect to and at the moment you mentioned Nielsen. But there’s a whole area of music you don’t seem to be connecting to and that’s opera. I don’t see you conducting very much opera.
Jansons: Yes, you know, I conducted quite a lot of opera my first years when I started, then I already was a conductor. But so then my life always was connected with symphony orchestras, and actually with two. I was music director almost always of these two orchestras and it didn’t give me opportunity to conduct a lot of opera. I adore opera. I grew up in the opera house because my both parents worked in the opera house and I spent all my days in the opera house. I adore. And then one day, I decided that I must come back to opera again, I want to conduct a lot, even that my schedule didn’t allow it, and I planned a lot of different operas in different opera houses. And then I, during the La Bohême performance in Oslo I got a heart attack. And you know, I collapsed, and it destroyed all my plans and I should cancel all my operas. And now, I’m so happy that again I started to conduct opera which was now last June, because I am now the music director of Concertgebouw Orchestra and my contract is so I have to conduct regularly opera with the orchestra in the opera house. And I’m so happy because it gives me the opportunity to conduct opera without giving special time for opera because it is included in my commitment. And I did the Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk because it was Shostakovich Jubilee and I was so excited about, because I think it is nothing more beautiful if you have a wonderful orchestra, singers, chorus and fantastic producer as to conduct opera. I think it is the most beautiful thing in the world.
Kaplan: An excerpt from Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The London Philharmonic led by Mstislav Rostropovich, a selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, conductor Mariss Jansons. When we return, we will learn Mariss Jansons’ “wildcard.”
Kaplan: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on “Mad About Music” today, conductor Mariss Jansons. You know, earlier I asked you to characterize yourself as a conductor, but I must say that one area that everyone else has noted is the enormous time you devote to study and preparation, even with works you supposedly know quite well. Now with that approach and considering your being a music director of two orchestras and doing some guest conducting as well, do you find much time for yourself for non-musical things?
Jansons: Unfortunately not. This is my big problem.
Kaplan: You know, if I’m not revealing a family secret, I must confess that your wife once told me when I asked had you seen all the exhibitions in the city we both were in at the same time. She said, ‘show me a conductor who has seen all the exhibitions, and I’ll show you a conductor who isn’t preparing enough.’ So I think your wife understands that. Well, speaking of activities other than classical music, here’s a good transition time, then, into our next section of our show which we call the “wildcard” where you have a chance to pick music from outside the classical music or opera genre. We’ve had some extraordinarily wild cards. So, what did you bring us today?
Jansons: You know, I always liked very much jazz. And I grew up in the Soviet Union, and when I was young, so 50s, 60s. It was a time when in the Soviet Union jazz was, I can’t say forbidden, it would be not right word, but it was not appreciated by our leaders. But of course, the young generation especially knew what is jazz and I remember how we, we in the night, we with friends, we were sitting and listening from America, first of the time change and secondly, on the day we were very busy with our studies, and so in the night, so we spent time to listen to jazz from America. And then Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, whatever, all this, we were so, thrilled and then many played the piano themselves, which – It was, you know, something very special. I remember how I was fascinated by Ella Fitzgerald. When I already went to Vienna to study, which I told you before, one day I was walking on the street and I saw the poster that she was singing in concert house and I said, ‘Oh, I must definitely go.’ And I went to the ticket office and almost all the tickets were sold, but some left, but the were very expensive. I as student really could not afford. And I was seeing what I can do, and I confess in the interval I went in so completely, so secretly, and I heard the second half. So it was, you know, unforgettable for me, the experience.
Kaplan: Ella Fitzgerald singing “Stairway to the Stars,” the wildcard selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, conductor Mariss Jansons. Now I’d like to explore a subject I often discuss with conductors when they appear on “Mad About Music” and it has to do with the relationship between conductors and orchestras. And in particular, what it is that you conductors do which can sometimes cause that relationship to sour?
Jansons: I think there are some important principles which you should follow. First, I think, you should know what you really want, how this piece should sound. You should have an interpretation model and you should know the sound model. You must come prepared completely 100%, you know what you want from your musicians. When you start too much improvisation, people feel, oh, he’s not sure, you immediately lose your authority. Secondly, I think it is extremely important psychologically and just normally as human beings, you must feel that even that you as conductor, you are the leader, you have a lot of power. But you are conducting, they are your colleagues, musicians. I don’t think you can’t think, oh, I am the conductor, I will now decide and you must do what I want. With such perception, even if you don’t want, it can create problems. Because somehow, you know, when you inside have this feeling, and the people feel, and you know, musicians are actually very sensitive persons. And even if you don’t want, but you still have this feeling of power, showing power, in one moment they can feel, and this immediately will create the problems between conductor and musicians. Because they are ready to follow you, but they want that you have respect for them. And I think it is extremely important.
Kaplan: You know, having worked so hard to get that right relationship with the orchestra, and with your enormous experience, do you still feel nervous when you walk out on stage?
Jansons: Oh, very much! I’m a very nervous person generally. I’m always nervous, before rehearsal, before concerts. Incredibly.
Kaplan: All right. And I suppose that no conversation with a conductor is complete without talking about the critics. How do you respond when you get a bad review? I don’t think it’s a great secret to say the greatest conductors also get bad reviews from time to time.
Jansons: That’s actually a very interesting question. When I was very young, of course I take a lot of care with critics and read everything, and then I heard from my older colleagues. They said, ‘Oh, this is terrible, this critic, they don’t understand anything. I don’t take care, I don’t read,’ and so, you know, I was saying, oh, yes, perhaps, it’s the right way. And then with the years, I found it out why I should play this game. I think it’s very natural, yes, I must tell you, I tell you today. I read my reviews, yes. I’m very unhappy when I get bad critics, I’m very happy when I get good. I think it’s normal.
Kaplan: Well, I see your next conductor, Leonard Bernstein, and you’ve selected his music to play, certainly had his share of difficulties with the critics. And I see you’ve selected a Mahler Symphony, his specialty, and I might add, also yours.
Jansons: Yeah, Lennie Bernstein was of course fantastic conductor and fantastic human being. I will never forget when I came to a rehearsal with my orchestra in Musikverein in Vienna. After his rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic, I got introduced to him. I was young conductor. He was so friendly, you know, he gave me a big hug and, like you know, my father. I said “Oh my God,” we never met, of course; I was a student in Vienna when he was conducting, but he didn’t know me. We started to talk, such heart, like his, you know, cordially. I perhaps never saw – not one of my colleagues I could compare with Leonard Bernstein. And he was of course a great man, a great personality, great conductor, very subjective. I think his interpretations were really key, Leonard Bernstein, but so was he felt that very sincere! And I think you can hear this in his performance of Mahler First Symphony.
Kaplan: An excerpt from the second movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Leonard Bernstein on the podium, the final selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, conductor Mariss Jansons. I find it interesting that of all the Mahler symphonies, you’ve selected his First Symphony to play today. As you know, there is a story that goes with this symphony of a hero who struggles, is struck down and finally triumphs. Heroes are a theme of yours, in a way, because Heldenleben, of course, is the life of a hero; but, in a way, as you told it earlier on the show, this is your story, too, isn’t it? A few years ago, you experienced a conductor’s worst nightmare, a heart attack on the podium, and you were lucky. As you know, two of your colleagues, Sinopoli and Mitropoulos, both died while conducting. In spite of that, you have maintained what most observers would say an extraordinary pace. I wonder whether the experience has affected your approach to conducting at all.
Jansons: I think, yes. Even I didn’t give an order to change, but I felt that something changed in my inner world. I started to appreciate more quiet music; I started to appreciate more slower tempos. I think even my slow tempos became really slower, in comparison with what I did before. And somehow, I think something happened in my inner world that perhaps it’s not right to express how I grew up with more significant profound ideas. Because I think it’s something that subconsciously happens with you, when you face a moment about death and life, which was in my case, of course. And then you start to analyze what is it of value in life? And somehow after such a big drama, completely something changes in your – even, I would say, perhaps in principles. But this is not a process in which you say, “now I will do,” like this or so. It comes some kind from itself, naturally, even you can’t lead this process.
Kaplan: All right. Then, one final question, I think, that since we’re sitting here in New York, we talked earlier in the show, but all these orchestras are looking for music directors, including the New York Philharmonic. And I know that before they selected their present music director, they had explored that possibility with you. And my question, obviously, is that if they came to romance you again, would that be something you would be open to at least considering?
Jansons: Oh, you are asking perhaps in the end the most difficult question! All questions were…
Kaplan: Save it for last.
Jansons: Incredibly interesting! I really don’t know. This I can’t answer, you know. I’m not ready for this. I’m very, very, very happy now with my work in Munich. It’s a top class, fantastic orchestra. I am so happy that we are now in the United States. We are doing wonderful concerts here in Carnegie Hall, three, and Philadelphia and Chicago and we are doing many recordings, and this orchestra is really top-class. Unfortunately, not perhaps so well-known because this is a radio orchestra. I’m very happy, of course, to be in Amsterdam which is a very famous orchestra. So you know when you have very, you are satisfied, do you really then need to think all, oh I need something more? It can be that of course with the years, you need changes, which we all need. But then I don’t know, you know, because I am not so young, of course. I’m not so old too I must tell. But to answer your question now, really, I don’t want, you know, to give you some dishonest answer which would be some kind of compromise. But really, honestly, I don’t know.
Kaplan: Well, I think it’s a very honest answer, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing for New York to find you in residence here, by the way. But here or there, wherever you are making music, we wish you the best of luck and thank you for appearing today.
This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”