The highly esteemed conductor Mariss Jansons, who was beloved by his orchestral musicians, has died at the age of 76 from a long-term heart condition. He had suffered a heart attack in 1996 during a performance of La Bohème from which he nearly died, making it necessary for him to be fitted with a defibrillator.
Jansons was born in Riga, Latvia on January 14, 1943 to conductor Arvīds Jansons and soprano Erhaida Jansons. He received his first violin lessons from his father, and in 1957 entered the Leningrad Conservatory where he studied conducting with Nikolai Rabinovich. A Soviet-era exchange program brought him to Austria in 1969, where he continued his training as a conductor with the venerable Hans Swarowsky. Jansons was soon invited by Herbert von Karajan, then at the height of his influence, to be his assistant after winning second prize at his conducting competition in Berlin in 1971. But to Karajan’s fury, authorities in then Soviet-controlled Latvia prevented Jansons from ever hearing of the invitation. He was instead appointed Associate Conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic in 1973, becoming its Associate Principal Conductor in 1985.
Jansons’ first appointment in the west came in 1979 when he was named Music Director of the Oslo Philharmonic, with which he performed, recorded and toured extensively. Describing it as “a love affair from the first season”, he is widely credited with transforming the orchestra into a truly great ensemble. Jansons also fought to gain higher salaries for his players, helped secure for them a recording contract with EMI, and won for them increased state financial aid.
But it was not until the early 1990s, when he began to guest conduct other orchestras in earnest, that he began to be seen as a conductor of formidable talent. His first major post came as Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1997, followed by appointments at two of the orchestras he would become most associated with, the Bavarian Radio Symphony in 2003 and the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam in 2004. He would campaign tirelessly for a new concert hall in Munich during his time as Chief Conductor of the Bavarian RSO, a post which he held until his death. Announcing his death, the Concertgebouw said “the music world has lost not only a great conductor, but a warm and humble man”, while the Bavarian RSO released a simple statement: “We are devastated.”
Jansons is survived by his second wife, Irina Jansons, and his daughter Ilona, a pianist, from his first marriage.