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Mariss Jansons, Who Led Top Orchestras, Dies at 76 December 2, 2019

Mariss Jansons, a renowned conductor who brought new distinction to orchestras in Oslo and Pittsburgh before taking the helm of two of Europe’s finest ensembles, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra of Munich and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, died on Sunday in St. Petersburg, Russia. He was 76.

The Amsterdam orchestra was among those announcing his death. He had been in failing health recently, and had long dealt with heart problems. In 1996, he collapsed onstage in Norway while conducting the Oslo Philharmonic after having a severe heart attack.

“Mariss Jansons was an extraordinarily inspiring musician who gave us innumerable wonderful moments,” Jan Raes, managing director of the Concertgebouw, which Mr. Jansons led from 2004 to 2015, said in a statement on the group’s website.

Before taking the Concertgebouw post, Mr. Jansons was music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1997 to 2004, delivering performances that were technically brilliant but notably expressive.

He also spent more than two decades as music director of the Oslo Philharmonic, beginning in 1979. He was widely credited with bringing that orchestra to international prominence. He was also principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1990s.

In 2008, Gramophone, the classical music magazine, asked a panel of music critics to rank the best orchestras in the world. The Concertgebouw was No. 1 on the list; the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra was No. 6. Mr. Jansons was chief conductor of both at the time.

In 2013 the critic Anne Midgette of The Washington Post called him simply “the greatest living conductor.”

Mariss Ivars Georgs Jansons was born on Jan. 14, 1943, in Riga, Latvia, which was under Nazi occupation at the time. His mother, Iraida, was in hiding at the time because she was Jewish.

He certainly had music in his DNA. His mother was an opera singer, and his father, Arvid, was a conductor. Young Mariss was introduced to the Riga Opera House early — perhaps too early.

“My father once took me to see my mother in ‘Carmen,’” he told The New York Times in 2005, “and in the first act, when they grab Carmen and take her to jail, I started shouting, ‘Don’t touch my mother!’”

He recalled sitting in on his father’s rehearsals at 3; sometimes he would wave a stick in imitation.

At the end of World War II Latvia came under the control of the Soviet Union, as it had been briefly before the Nazis arrived. As a teenager Mr. Jansons moved to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where his father became assistant conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, and began to study conducting himself at the Leningrad Conservatory.

In 1969, having impressed the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan during a master class in Leningrad, he won a scholarship to study in Vienna. He became Karajan’s assistant at three Salzburg Festivals, and in 1971 he was named associate conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic.

Some Soviet artists defected during this period, but not Mr. Jansons.

“I had mixed feelings,” he told The Times in 1994. “St. Petersburg is a great city, with great culture. It gave me so much: my education. And although I thought, yes, this is a terrible dictatorship, I was never prohibited from working or traveling.”

In 1979 he became music director of the Oslo Philharmonic, which at the time was something of an afterthought on the European scene. Recordings of Tchaikovsky works in the 1980s were key to increasing its profile, though Mr. Jansons and the orchestra had to take the initiative to get a contract.

“We made our own tape, at our own expense, of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth,” he told The Independent of London in 1993. “We brought it to London, showed it around, and Chandos liked it so much that they eventually gave us a contract for the whole cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies.”

When he was hired in Pittsburgh, he succeeded Lorin Maazel. He was again credited with implementing a significant upgrade.

“When he took it over from Lorin Maazel in 1997, this was a respectable, B-list group,” Allan Kozinn wrote in a review in The Times in 2004, when Mr. Jansons brought the orchestra to New York. “But the incarnation of the Pittsburgh Symphony that Mr. Jansons conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at Carnegie Hall was a streamlined, virtuoso ensemble. And the music at hand, though all drawn from the mainstream repertory, had an enlivening vitality that made a listener wish Mr. Jansons and company were staying out the week.”

Mr. Jansons’s programs often featured the Russians — Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich were favorites — but as his career went along he showed more willingness to branch out. “His concerts avoid clichés and aim for surprise,” the British cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht wrote in 2000.

The numerous recordings Mr. Jansons made with various orchestras also sometimes showed a taste for underappreciated works. In 1999, for instance, he and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded orchestral works by Kurt Weill, a composer much better known from the theater.

Mr. Jansons often noted that each of the many orchestras he conducted had different strengths and sounds. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he had been chief conductor since 2003, particularly impressed him when it was at its quietest.

“We have a very full sound, very emotional, brilliant and dark, the full spectrum,” he said in an interview on the orchestra’s website. “What pleases me most is our pianissimo: It’s easy to play soft, but extremely hard to sound vibrant and expressive at the same time. This orchestra can do it.”

The 1996 heart attack that nearly killed him was almost a case of history repeating itself. His father, too, had a heart attack while performing, in 1984; his was fatal. Mr. Jansons said his own near-death experience changed him musically.

“Of course, you start to analyze what is important in life, really, and what is a priority, and how to divide your time and calculate your energy,” he told The Times in 1997. “But then something comes unconsciously, and this is what I felt in music. I started to like calmer music, quieter music. I like slower tempos. I enjoy it more, because I enjoy, perhaps, a more philosophical approach.”

Mr. Jansons’s first marriage ended in divorce. His survivors include his second wife, Irina (Outchitel) Jansons, and a daughter from his first marriage, Ilona. He lived in St. Petersburg.

Mr. Jansons often listened to internal recordings of his performances immediately afterward, scouting for what could have been done better.

“Nothing was ever good enough,” Robert Moir, the Pittsburgh symphony’s senior vice president of artistic planning, told The Post in 2013, adding, “No matter how blazingly outstanding the performance was — and they all were; I don’t remember a bad concert in the time he was here — I don’t remember him being satisfied.”

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