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From the Archive: Mariss Jansons

Nothing Concrete text
7 Apr 2021
14 min listen

This week we return to our archive and a conversation with the late conductor Mariss Jansons, who sadly passed away in December 2019. 


He spoke to us in April 2014 when he was Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, who were celebrating their 125th anniversary year. Jansons talked to us about what makes each performance unique. 

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade.  

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Ben Eshmeade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. This week we return to our archive and a conversation with the late conductor Mariss Jansons, who sadly passed away in December 2019. He spoke to us in April 2014 when he was Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, who were celebrating their 125th anniversary year. Jansons talked to us about what makes each performance unique.

Mariss Jansons: For me, audience is very important. In my principal is that we play for audience. Because you can say ‘I’m making music and I’m playing for myself’ or ‘I’m making music and playing for public’. In my opinion we are doing this for public. Of course, we should like and love music ourselves.

BE: Along with the Concertgebouw Director Jan Raes, Jansons also talks about the orchestra’s then 125 year history and the benefits of touring. Jan Raes began with an introduction on the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Jan Raes: The orchestra was founded together with the building in 1888 because Brahms was complaining Holland has no good food and no good orchestra. And so in his frustration people put the energy and money together and that’s a wonderful old story and we are very grateful to have this golden concert hall because the acoustic is supporting and giving a massage to the orchestra every week. We can rehearse there always. One of the strong things in the history is we had first Willem Kes, he was I think six or eight years chief conductor. And then the legendary Willem Mengelberg was 50 years chief conductor and I think he put the orchestra immediately, in the beginning of the 20th century, on to an international level. Also because of his friendships, he invited many great conductors and composers as they are: Gustav Mahler was conducting many of his own symphonies in Amsterdam with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, but also people like Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Bartók, Ravel and Debussy all close to Mengelberg and that was a very interesting period.

Then after the Second World War we had the Dutch conductor Eduard von Beinum, he was 14 years chief conductor. Then we had an honour with the young, at that time, young Bernard Haitink to be chief conductor and he stays there for 25 years. He’s still an honoured conductor, working every year two or three productions with us. After Haitink we had Riccardo Chailly, he was sixteen years, longer than some people think. And now we are already eight/nine years with maestro Mariss Jansons. So it’s unique to have only chief conductors, six chief conductors in a row in 125 years. And the hall has not changed, we have still a very loyal public. Our main service is we can play one programme in a week four times so we reach 8,000 people in one week, so it creates some depth of the production and sometimes we have run out or we tour lots, it’s worth it to rehearse because we repeat it enough. Because I know some artists can do one programme once or twice and that’s a little bit losing of energy. You have to repeat all the things and we have time to refine it every day and it’s a dream to work on this frequent of programmes with great conductors.

MJ: It’s individuality. Sound individuality and musical mentality. The great orchestras, they keep their individuality. So when you come, let’s say you work with one great orchestra, you feel ‘ah, this is this orchestra’ and then you come to another and you feel ‘ah, this is this orchestra’. Great orchestras, they are proud and in good sense, they understand that they are great and they want to keep this greatness and to confirm, or I would say not allowed, to play lower than a certain level. Another thing is that great orchestras have musicians who are musically intelligent. What I mean is this, when you prepare a concert, of course first of all you look that orchestra plays the right notes, it’s a good ensemble and a good sound, and so, how I would call it, organise the process. When process is organised you can say prepare, but this in my opinion, is not enough and should not be goal, it’s only means how to get right level goal.

Then start something very special, what is, how I say, behind the notes, what is imagination, what is atmosphere. For that, musicians should be able musically and mentally to understand that this is the goal. And if the mentality is so simple, they think ‘why? I am playing everything right and good, what actually, what else I need? OK in the evening I come, I will be more excited, there will be more excitement and so is everything say. So this for me makes a big difference because with musicians who are incredibly musically intelligent you can give them very high, interesting, fantasy-full tasks which are behind these signs, musical signs. This for me means it’s a great orchestra.

JR: We try to work with the people we admire, of course. But always in combination with repertoire. It’s a question of casting and to trust and to tell a story with this conductor. Because I think it’s good to show the orchestra different repertoire, I think it keeps the orchestra flexible. We play every year also [St] Matthew or [St] John’s Passion and we have many world premieres. So it’s not as special as work, I think it’s a polyglottal orchestra, we have to speak many musical languages and that keeps everybody fresh, but I think one of the difficulties is to plan to this. The schedule for these conductors are very tight and complex and so we plan this in beforehand, three or four years.

We have always to be proactive and to find also the next generation of conductors, and we are now also investing to believe in the next generation. Not only the mid-generation of people like Iván Fischer, we have a very close relationship, and Daniele Gatti and so on but the generation of Andris Nelsons and we are already working many years. It’s very important to discover what is the best repertoire, and not to do only tip-casting because that’s not healthy for them, and to take risks, I think it’s good to take risks and to find out what’s good for the orchestra. To play Bach is very healthy, it’s like vitamins, but we have this area of contemporary music and we have good luck to have some subsidies for this and not to play always the well-known iron evergreens.

MJ: I think it’s very necessary for each orchestra to travel and play concerts in different countries. I think the culture exchange generally is important, especially these days when you know, people are so much travelling and want to know about other countries, about other nations, about other cultures.

From one side, you are ambassadors of your country, to show your, let’s say the musical level of your country. And something I think is important for orchestra because of course there are not concerts which should be better and should be worse, all concerts should be a very high level. But psychologically when you go abroad and play as a guest orchestra, you mobilise specially and this is the feeling – ‘look, we are guests, listen to us and how we play’. This is a positive, positive feeling.

JR: We travel a lot and we feel the changes in the world and also the inter-culturality [sic]. We just played in Korea, it’s a young public and I know Lang Lang is in a conversation every day on Weibo, the Chinese Facebook, every day with 10 million of his fans. When he’s playing in Amsterdam, he’s talking about Amsterdam and when he’s playing we have a lot of Chinese people who are living in Holland. So I believe in this inter-cultural chance and to influence education and to go to the public. Every audience is different. Every city has its own attitudes, of course the building has its own influence to the public. So in Barbican you’re close to the public and I think people like this because you can smell the orchestra and the orchestra can smell the public, you can see it in the eyes of the audience. So it’s very direct, it’s very risky because it’s a hall you can hear everything, it’s a very honest hall so everybody’s a little bit nervous but I think it’s good to have this concentration, it’s positive stress. It’s not a snobbish public in London, I can say. People just come for music, they come in jeans and it’s not only social to come just before, because of the content.

MJ: I have very, very positive feelings because London is a great city, big city. The people here like music, there are a huge amount of music lovers and very interestingly they are divided I think in some groups like football fans, who join special team. So I think there are as you know for each London orchestra, but I think even for guest orchestras, there are some kind of separate groups who like special orchestra and then there are I think, I don’t know how many, but quite a lot of people who generally like music and come just to listen concerts. And they are open for every foreign orchestra and come in perhaps more for programmes or for artists. And are not somebody who says ‘Oh, I go to this orchestra and then other one is not so interesting for me’. They’re really music lovers. It’s a concert with interesting programme, I think many who just like music and will come to any concert and this is very special in, my god, big city where there are so many concerts every day. It is unbelievable.

BE: You’ve been listening to conductor Mariss Jansons and Royal Concertgebouw Director Jan Raes, interviewed back in 2014. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and themed series.

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