Jansons conducts Oslo to world stage

November 30, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra visits the Kennedy Center tonight as part of an American tour that officially celebrates the 75th year since the ensemble's founding. Unofficially, however, the tour celebrates the 15th year of the orchestra's remarkable relationship with its music director, Mariss Jansons.

When Jansons went to Oslo in 1979, he was a promising young conductor who was almost unknown outside of the Soviet Union; the Oslo Philharmonic was a provincial orchestra, with 70 players, located in one of Europe's musical backwaters. Fifteen years later, Jansons is one of the stars shining most brightly on the international conducting circuit.

The Oslo Philharmonic, currently more than 100 musicians strong and still growing, is one of the world's most-acclaimed, most-recorded and most-traveled orchestras. Although Jansons is one of the handful of names invariably mentioned when the question of succession comes up at such orchestras as the Philadelphia Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic, the conductor doesn't see any reason to go any place else.

"An important principle is at stake," the conductor, 51, says. "Oslo is a fantastic orchestra with high morale and selfless dedication. As long as I feel I can give something to the orchestra and as long as it responds, then there is no reason to leave."

If you don't know one of Jansons more than 40 recordings with the Oslo orchestra, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (of which he is one of the two principal conductors) or the London Philharmonic (where he is principal guest conductor), then you may get to know future recordings with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, Berlin Philharmonic or the Philadelphia Orchestra. Orchestras apparently like working with Jansons as much as audiences like hearing him. One of those orchestras is the Baltimore Symphony, many of whose musicians consider Jansons the best guest conductor they have played under.

The feeling is mutual. "Nothing could prevent me from returning to Baltimore," Jansons says. "Those players were among the best musicians, as well as being among the nicest people, I've ever worked with."

It was perhaps inevitable that Jansons became a conductor. His mother was a well-known singer in Jansons' native Latvia and his late father, Arvid, replaced Kurt Sanderling in 1956 as associate principal conductor of the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Philharmonic.

Mariss Jansons first came to international attention in 1971 when he won the International Herbert von Karajan Foundation Competition. The great Karajan wanted the youngster to join him as his assistant in Berlin, but Jansons instead returned home to Leningrad, where he became the protege of his father's mentor, Evgeny Mravinsky. Mravinsky was as great a conductor as Karajan and a better teacher.

In 1977, Jansons traveled to Norway for the first time to guest conduct the Oslo Philharmonic. His first concerts in Oslo were the beginning of a love affair. Two years later the orchestra dismissed its music director so it could hire Jansons. Three years after that, Jansons and his musicians believed they were ready to introduce themselves to the world music community. Tours and recordings were to be the key. Jansons and the orchestra began an aggressive policy of touring -- tours of Europe almost every year and trips to either the United States or Japan every third year.

"You can't build a great orchestra without touring," Jansons says. "Without it, an orchestra becomes stagnant. Tours force an orchestra to bring its level up and the appreciation it receives -- which is rarely the case in an orchestra's home city -- is wonderful for the ego of everyone who participates."

Making records proved a little more difficult. It was almost impossible to get anyone interested in hearing a Norwegian orchestra play anything but Grieg.

"In the end, we made our own tape, at our own expense, brought it to London and showed it around," the conductor says.

Jansons and his musicians deliberately chose Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony because, the conductor says, "that would force people to compare us to other orchestras and make them realize that this unknown orchestra from little, old Oslo could play."

It did. Executives at Chandos records liked the tape so much that they invited Jansons and the Oslo to record a complete Tchaikovsky cycle. That critically acclaimed cycle sold so well that by the middle 1980s giant EMI records stole conductor and orchestra from Chandos with an offer the musicians couldn't refuse -- 15 records in the next five years and even more in the years to follow.

The orchestra's recordings and tours have been terrific opportunities, say many Oslo players, but not as wonderful as 15 seasons working with Jansons.

"Whenever this ends, we're going to look back and say these were fantastic years," says Arne Jorgen Olan, Oslo's principal second violin. "The great thing is, we're realizing it while it happens."

THE OSLO PHILHARMONIC

Where: Kennedy Center

When: 8:30 tonight

Tickets: $22.50-$35

Call: (202) 467-4600

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