Conductor sees music as casualty in Russian decline

March 26, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Mariss Jansons became an international conducting star in spite of the fact that the Soviet Union forbade it. He went ahead and did it anyway.

"In our country we used to have a saying -- 'Anything is possible as long as it is forbidden,' " says Jansons, who will conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tonight and tomorrow in works by Rossini, Saint-Saens and Sibelius.

In 1979, the Oslo Philharmonic invited Jansons to become its chief conductor. But the Soviet government would not allow the Latvian-born conductor to accept the position.

"I know that you in the West cannot understand this, but our country, even though it was a dictatorship, was so chaotic that sometimes we could do what we were forbidden to do. Now, things are just as chaotic and we are free to do whatever we want!"

When Jansons went to Oslo he was still an unknown young conductor who was taking over an orchestra that most listeners outside of Scandinavia had never heard.

Thirteen years later, the conductor's boyish visage -- he is 49, but looks much younger -- stares out from more than two dozen highly regarded records, with the Oslo orchestra and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (formerly the Leningrad Philharmonic), on the Chandos and EMI labels. And those remarkable records brought Jansons to the attention of some very important orchestras. He is now a regular guest with the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and the Cleveland Orchestra.

In fact, among the Soviet-trained conductors of his generation, Jansons' only real competitor is Yuri Temirkanov, with whom he shares conducting duties for the St. Petersburg ensemble, Russia's most distinguished orchestra.

But Jansons -- who is the son of the late Arvid Jansons, a conductor who was one of his son's predecessors with the St. Petersburg orchestra -- worries about the future of his city and his country.

Although he could live anywhere, he lives in St. Petersburg, which he calls "the first city in the world in many things.

"But all the beautiful old buildings are falling apart," Jansons says. "St. Petersburg is like a beautiful museum in which there is no money to take care of the paintings. Unless something happens soon, my city will become a tragedy."

He's just as worried about the musical future. Russia's economy is a disaster -- there is no money and no food, Jansons says --

and many of her best musicians have already left and many more are trying to leave.

"When I conduct the Israel Philharmonic I see many old friends sitting in the string section," he says.

"There are no teachers in Moscow and in St. Petersburg now. The great violin and piano traditions of our country -- they will disappear. Everybody must first have food -- they can't think about music or culture until certain needs are met.

"But I'm afraid that by the time those needs are met, Russia will be a less interesting country. We will have lost what is best about our country and we won't be able to get it back."

Jansons at BSO

When: Today and Friday at 8:15 p.m.

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: $12-$40.

Call: (410) 783-8000.

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