Conductor Mariss Jansons dies at 76; led top orchestras including Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Conductor Mariss Jansons dies at 76; led top orchestras including Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Mariss Jansons. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — Mariss Jansons, conductor of top classical ensembles including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, has died in Russia. He was 76.

Jansons’ death in St. Petersburg was confirmed by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he was chief conductor. Jansons had canceled concerts this summer because of health reasons, the dpa news agency reported.

Born in German-occupied Riga in 1943 in what is now independent Latvia as the son of a conductor father and an opera singer mother, Jansons grew up in the Soviet Union and studied at the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Conservatory. A Soviet-era exchange program brought him to Austria in 1969, where he studied with famed conductor Herbert von Karajan. Jansons’ work was also influenced by the legendary Soviet conductor Evgeny Mravinsky, who brought him in as his assistant at the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1972.

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He was chief conductor in Pittsburgh from 1997 to 2004, regularly appeared at the Salzburg Festival, and in 2006 and 2012 conducted the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Concert broadcast around the world. He left the Pittsburgh orchestra to become principal conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw, a post he held until 2015. Jansons is credited with raising the reputation of the Oslo Philharmonic through recordings and international tours during a 23-year tenure as music director.

Jansons’ musical focus was large-scale orchestral works by 19th-century central and eastern European composers including Mahler, Dvorak, Bartok, Brahms and Shostakovich. He was known for close attention to detail in rehearsal and made extensive pre-concert sound checks, listening from different points in the hall while one of the musicians wielded the baton and even adjusting the position of players’ chairs to get the sound he wanted.

“The notes are just signs,” he was quoted as saying in a 2012 interview in the Guardian. “You have to go beyond them and see what your fantasy tells you. But how do you express that through sound? If you think of the technical aspects of conducting as being on the ground floor of a big building, then 20 floors up you are beginning to get the sound you want.”

Jansons, who said in the Guardian interview that he held both Russian and Latvian passports, collapsed on stage during a concert performance of Puccini’s opera “La Boheme” in Oslo in 1996 after suffering a heart attack and was subsequently fitted with a defibrillator.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra released the following statement on the news of the passing of Jansons:

"Our hearts are heavy and saddened with the passing of Maestro Mariss Jansons, a great and beloved Music Director for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He was an exceptional leader who brought the orchestra into the 21st century with astonishing music not only at Heinz Hall, but at halls throughout the world on tour," said Melia Tourangeau, President and CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. "We are compelled to reflect on his passion for music making and his call to, 'perform each night as if you think it is your last.' We offer our deepest sympathy to his wife Irina and their family."

At the Pittsburgh Symphony concert Sunday afternoon at Heinz Hall, PSO music director Manfred Honeck addressed the audience with rememberances of Jansons, and then led the orchestra in a performance of the Schubert Lianie in honor on Jansons, followed by a moment of silcence.

"I was so very sad to learn this morning of the passing of our beloved former Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Music Director, Mariss Jansons. What a deep loss this is for the entire music world, which loses one of its greatest artists, but especially for Pittsburgh,” Honeck said. “We will cherish the many unforgettable concerts that Mariss led, his extraordinary artistry and beautiful humanity. I personally have lost a dear friend and he will be greatly missed by all. Our thoughts, prayers and deepest condolences are with his wife, Irina, and the entire family."