Pittsburgh, PA
May 21, 2019
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
A & E
Tv Listings
The Dining Guide
Headlines by E-mail
Home >  A & E Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story
A & E
Analysis: Jansons' health, lifestyle, ambitions may be factors in Maestro mystery

Thursday, July 04, 2002

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

It's a maestro whodunit, and everyone's looking for the smoking gun -- or rather the smoking baton -- that will explain why Mariss Jansons is leaving his post as Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director. Last month, Jansons gave a somewhat vague explanation as to why he's chosen to leave the PSO after the 2003-04 season. In a letter to the orchestra, he wrote: "As you know, next year I will turn 60 years old, and I think I must make changes in my life."

Considering the gravity of the change, we're left almost to beg a reason: Was there a falling out? Another job offer? A health issue?

No, say those close to Jansons.

"I take what he says at his word," says PSO board president Thomas Todd. "I am not aware of a hidden agenda."

Responding to a letter from the Post-Gazette, Jansons politely reiterated his decision not to grant interviews on the subject until his return to Pittsburgh in September. But until then speculation abounds in Pittsburgh and beyond, as decisions like his are, by their nature, hot topics.

Jansons may very well already have said all there is to say about his leaving. He told Todd, "It was especially hard to make this decision when there is nothing I can point to as wrong." Invoking Occam's razor, Jansons' statement more than likely speaks the truth. But taking Jansons primarily at his word doesn't mean there isn't a larger context around his reason -- factors that to one degree or another may have contributed to the big picture of his departure.


Three words sum up the influences weighing on Jansons in recent months: health, America and ambition.

With a father who died on the podium, a defibrillator in his own chest and a history of cortisone treatments for shoulder pain, any discussion about Jansons begins with his health. He tries to mitigate stressful situations in his professional life. Of course, that's often compromised by his desire to conduct in as many places as possible, from Australia to Oslo. But in the past year, Jansons was more vocal in expressing his dread of the long travel time from Europe to Pittsburgh, a trip he makes four or five times a year.

Beyond that, the American way of life never seemed to grow on Jansons. He often expressed displeasure about low audience turnout while also decrying a governmental culture that doesn't make the arts a priority.

"Politicians should really treasure the Pittsburgh Symphony and give us everything we need and even perhaps more," he said last summer. "You must go in the right political direction, even if you are not [personally] interested in something -- especially if it's something extremely important to the city."

PSO general manager Gideon Toeplitz understands his concerns and says other foreign-born conductors often feel the same way. Some adjust; others do not.

"He is very European," Toeplitz says. "It is very different for someone who has grown up in Germanic/Russian culture to come to America."

"He loved Pittsburgh -- the honesty, openness and friendliness," says Todd. "But he had real problems with a culture where you can build sports stadiums and not artistic venues."

If the country and city were a shock to Jansons, it appears the PSO was a real jolt.

"I think he never got used to the American system," says PSO English horn player Harold Smoliar. "That's no knock on him, it's just his way of looking at things."

"European orchestras are very different from what you get in America and with the Pittsburgh Symphony," says concertmaster Andres Cardenes. "In America everything is like a straitjacket. If there's a passage that hasn't been going well in rehearsal, you couldn't dream of staying five minutes after the rehearsal and doing it. With orchestras in Europe, you wouldn't dream of leaving until it was right."

Jansons may have been addressing this disparity in styles with the unusual, nonplaying sectionals that he called in the spring.

"To call a sectional to just talk is a bit unusual," says Cardenes. "I think what he wanted to do was to find out, through a personal forum, how people feel about playing in the sections or how they feel playing with him. Do they have any complaints or observations or recommendations?"

If anything, the experience was positive for some musicians. "We are in the business of being told what to do, so when the music director asks you your opinion of something, that's nice," says violinist Christopher Wu.

"I thought he was really investing himself and doing everything he could to get the orchestra to the next level," says Cardenes.

Goals and ambitions

In February 2001, Jansons took the unusual step of making public his long-term agenda for the PSO. This came on the heels of his agreeing to remain with the PSO following a period of courtship by several orchestras. He expressed his plan as seven goals. "My recently announced decision to stay in Pittsburgh as music director, with an 'evergreen' contract, hinges on goals which are extremely important for our orchestra's future," he wrote in a concert program. The goals: adding three musicians, creating a music academy, improving Heinz Hall's acoustics, building a small hall, securing a summer home, restructuring the season and building audience.

In hindsight, his comments could be taken for an ultimatum, especially since he left with the first four goals uncompleted. But Toeplitz downplays this, saying the PSO was "moving full steam ahead" on several of the goals and that Jansons had pulled back from some of his demands.

That may have been a little too late, however, for Jansons. In all his five years on the job, the conductor never had both feet firmly in Pittsburgh. Surely a major flirtation with another orchestra (the New York Philharmonic) and the need for all of Allegheny County to write him letters of appreciation so he would stay point to this.

Toeplitz believes that the tendency goes back even further, asserting that the events of the past six months didn't have as much impact on Jansons' thinking as it might appear. "The moment he decided to go on an evergreen contract, which was back in 1996 ... that was the first crack," he says. Jansons first signed a conventional three-year contract, but after one year he shifted to one that requires renewing each year.

"What does evergreen mean?" says Toeplitz. "It means I keep my options open." The New York Philharmonic affair was another splintering of the PSO-Jansons relationship, according to Toeplitz, as was his cutting back to eight weeks' conducting in Pittsburgh in 2003-04. "There were a lot of cracks there," says Toeplitz. "I thought we could keep him until 2005-06 and that's what we asked him to do, and he came to the conclusion that he didn't want to."

There is no mistaking the fact Jansons has moved up the ranks of the music world and that he has the desire to make music at the highest levels. Since he's a past candidate for jobs at the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic and a highly acclaimed conductor in London, Vienna and St. Petersburg, it's no surprise that Jansons would want to lead a worldwide top five orchestra.

Interestingly enough, there happens to be a top post open right now -- the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. The ensemble and city already respect and admire Jansons: He is frequently booked as a guest conductor or with one of his touring orchestras. With the Concertgebouw's chief conductor, Riccardo Chailly, stepping down in 2003-04, the timing couldn't be better.

"So far we have not announced any names," says Sjoerd van den Berg, a Concertgebouw spokesman. The committee that is searching for a successor to Chailly will, as expected, include orchestra musicians. That's significant since, as van den Berg says, "Jansons is one of the favorite candidates of the orchestra." A decision is expected by the fall.

The major obstacle to Jansons leading the Concertgebouw is that he previously agreed to be chief conductor of an orchestra in close proximity, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. He is to begin that tenure in 2003. Taking up both positions would be a tough sell for each of the orchestras.

"We realize he could have two orchestras in Europe, and we are thinking about what conclusion that would mean," says van den Berg. "We have had in our history conductors who have had other commitments, but mostly in opera houses."

Adding to the speculation that Jansons is holding out for the Concertgebouw position is the belief by many -- van den Berg among them -- that Jansons has yet to sign a contract with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra.

It is this predicament that has Toeplitz convinced that Jansons' departure is not a reflection on Pittsburgh or the PSO. "It has all to do with Mariss and his thinking about what he wants to do, and what he thinks is left in his life to do."

So even taking Jansons at his word, it's likely these events had some influence on his decision. Until he elaborates, the situation is best summarized by board president Todd:

"It appears that in this period of his life, he is going to focus elsewhere."

On that point, at least, there is no room for speculation.

Back to top Back to top E-mail this story E-mail this story
Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections