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Analysis: If we write Jansons, will he stay?

Thursday, October 19, 2000

By Caroline Abels and Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

How valuable is Mariss Jansons to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra?

 
Mariss Jansons (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette) 

He's so valuable that the PSO, faced with the possibility its music director may be offered the top artistic post at the New York Philharmonic, has asked local arts and business leaders to write to Jansons asking him to stay in Pittsburgh.

The request was made in a letter sent this month by the orchestra's board president, board chairman and executive director. The letter notes that, while the PSO is unaware of the Philharmonic's intentions or of Jansons' interest, community feedback is important.

"Mariss loves our orchestra, our city and its people," the letter reads. "He is a loyal, caring person. We believe that the views of civic and business leaders here in Pittsburgh will be important to him."

Whether or not letters to Jansons will affect his decision -- should he have one to make -- rarely, if ever, has a public request such as the PSO's been used as a means to retain a maestro.

But the PSO feels Jansons could be swayed by a demonstration of community support, given that he has expressed frustration with the number of tickets sold and the level of regional enthusiasm for the orchestra.

 
 
Musical chairs

   
 

"We believe the Pittsburgh community has to show Mariss its affection to balance the only reason he'd go to New York, which is prestige," said Gideon Toeplitz, the PSO's managing director. "Artistically, New York is no better than the PSO."

Although Toeplitz insists "money has never been important" to Jansons, the maestro could command more money in a larger market. Jansons earns about $1 million annually with the PSO.

Toeplitz said yesterday Jansons' scheduled appearance with the New York Philharmonic on Oct. 31 indicates that organization is serious about the 57-year-old Latvian. Orchestras seeking music directors often bring in candidates for guest appearances, although they rarely acknowledge that publicly. Another possible candidate, Christoph Eschenbach, was also recently scheduled for guest appearances.

"Everything is aboveboard and nothing is done behind anyone's back," Toeplitz said. "I know when [Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic's executive director] talks to Mariss and he knows when I talk to Mariss. But will he let me know that he got Mariss before he lets his board know? I don't know."

Mehta, reached in New York City, said he doesn't have a timetable for hiring a new director.

"It will be when the right person comes along and we as an organization -- and that means musicians, board, etc. -- think this is the right thing to do. We are not appointing somebody for six months. This will be a long-term appointment."

Mehta neither confirmed nor denied that Jansons was a candidate and said the conductor's Oct. 31 appearance doesn't provide evidence either way.

An unusually high number of the world's best orchestras are seeking new conductors. As one of the most renowned, Jansons has appeared on speculative lists on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a candidate for the top position at the Berlin Philharmonic last year before Simon Rattle was chosen.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich are all seeking new maestros. Boston and Philadelphia have taken many months looking for the perfect fit, and it's been reported that James Levine, who leads the Metropolitan Opera, is being courted by Boston and Eschenbach by Philadelphia as well as New York.

The big story this year within classical music circles, however, has been the dearth of highly regarded candidates.

Two months ago, the New York Philharmonic lost its bid for the top-rated Riccardo Muti. The former music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra practically held the Philharmonic for ransom, reportedly asking for $2 million for eight weeks of work a year. That such high-stakes negotiations even occurred is testimony to the seller's market in the conducting world.

Some observers say the lack of top-tier conductors makes holding on to one even more important, but Toeplitz isn't too concerned about finding the right replacement should Jansons leave the PSO.

"The mistake one makes is to say that because a conductor is visible in Berlin or Vienna or anywhere else, they're good for our orchestra," Toeplitz said. "When we got Mariss, he didn't have the name recognition in America that he has today."

The PSO might have to go that route again if Jansons leaves, hiring a conductor such as James Conlon or David Robertson or Paavo Jarvi -- very talented artists who don't, as yet, share the reputation of Jansons.

And reputation counts. Ticket sales at the PSO could suffer if Jansons leaves and his replacement is less well known and respected. Also at stake is the morale of the musicians.

Touring also could be affected. The stature and renown of a conductor plays a large part in securing prestigious overseas performances, and Jansons has a sterling reputation in Europe, especially in the best venues.

In the end, orchestras are free to court Jansons all they want, but the decision to leave rests with him.

Jansons couldn't be reached for comment. But in previous interviews, he's expressed concern over whether Pittsburgh has the musical qualities he looks for in a city.

In a February interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he wondered why people in the region do not express the same passion for classical music that they do for sports. He faulted city leaders for insufficiently promoting the orchestra, both locally and at national and international levels.

He also used the words "angry" and "depressed" to describe how he feels when Heinz Hall isn't filled to capacity for a concert.

In New York and Boston, filling the hall isn't as great a challenge. Those cities are known as classical music havens. Many cities in Europe are as well, so Jansons might choose to pursue a European orchestra.

He might also choose Europe so he can cut back on cross-Atlantic commuting for health reasons. Jansons has a history of heart trouble and might want to be closer to his home in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra wants people to write to Jansons before Monday. That is a week before he will conduct the New York Philharmonic.

"We believe we can keep him here," Toeplitz said.



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