A Guiding Hand

Conductor Mariss Jansons Knows an Orchestra’s Success Depends on His Ability To Inspire

On The Town | Matthias Wurz | April 2007

It is a rare occasion when an international renowned conductor talks about his profession. Thus the January lecture by renowned Latvian-born conductor Mariss Jansons (53) was a special event, an evening of personal insights into the Art of Conducting at the Musikverein.

Moderated by Peter Blaha, Chief Dramaturg of the Vienna State Opera, the evening was an enlightening two-hour about music and its creative processes, replete with historical examples and backed up with audio and video footage of some of the world’s finest musicians.

The sterile architecture of the Gläserne Saal, one of the newer concert venues in the Musikverein, was the one dampener on the evening, contrasting greatly with the open and charming Jansons.

Still, the intimacy of the room allowed the perceptive audience of about 300 to engage in a lively exchange with a musician of international standing.

Blaha began the discussion by presenting two contrasting historical examples, recoded in the mid-20th century: First, an audio recording of Arturo Toscanini (1867 – 1957) with one of his famous fits of anger, shouting violently at the orchestra; he was also nicknamed "the dictator." This was contrasted by video footage of the calm, polite, but persistent Bruno Walter (1876 – 1962) whom Blaha called "the priest of music."

Jansons, own career was catapulted forward by his association with the legendary Russian conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903 – 1988), for many years music director of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

We were given a chance to hear an example of Mravinsky’s work from the 1940s, though with poor sound quality, nevertheless it conveyed his extraordinary technical control over the orchestra, particularly over dynamics, which influenced a whole generation of composers to follow.

Jansons became Mravinsky’s assistant in 1971 and eventually also took over the orchestra in St. Petersburg until 2000. Since 2003, Jansons is Music Director of the Symphonieorchester des Bayrischen Rundfunks.

"Today, the conductor is an orchestra educator," said Jansons, himself a former of Herbert Swarowsky in Vienna and Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg, who is now the principal conductor of the Berlin Radio Symphony and regular guest conductor with the Vienna Philharmonic and major symphonies worldwide.

"It is like going to a doctor. Your role is to prescribe medication for healing." The conductor’s role is "not only putting together the music, particular in opera, but living the emotions it expresses." And to help the orchestra to achieve its best, Jansons added.

The role of the conductor developed, in fact, in the context of opera in the late 18th century and evolved over 200 years to what it is today.

Before that, there was the Kapellmeister, usually directing from the keyboard, playing the continuo-part opposite the concertmaster, who directed from the front desk of the violins.

As music became more complex, beyond the Baroque contrasts of loud versus soft volume and fast versus slow tempi, a clear directing position in front of the orchestra was needed.

But while technique is important in conducting, as is mastery on any other musical instrument, the real artistic challenge lies in the "balance of emotional expression of the music and the necessity of exercising control over it," Jansons said. "We need to inspire the orchestra first so that we, as conductors, get inspired by the orchestra. This exchange of musical ideas is very important."

But in the end, of course, said the maestro, with a twinkle in his eye, "like the father of his family, the conductor is responsible for everything."

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