Classic Mornings

Elevating Music


It was supposed to be in the background. But I noticed right away that the folks I was visiting had tuned into one of those New Years Day concerts from Vienna.

I never was very good at turning off my ear for music. And even though the orchestra was performing pieces I had heard so many times, I suddenly found myself in a sort of trance – and probably not very good company at the time. It was as if those pieces had been re-written. Who was conducting Strauss waltzes and polkas with such great care?

I should have known. It was the Latvian-born conductor Mariss Jansons. I already had been playing a good number of his recordings for listeners over the years. And I hadn’t heard that he was going to be conducting the New Years Day concert that year. So it was like auditions you sometimes hear about at which those who are selecting candidates listen to them perform from behind a screen or curtain to minimize biases.  And sure enough, Jansons conducting the Vienna Philharmonic turned out to be my choice in that moment. 

I did apologize to my friends for having been carried away more than momentarily by the music. But I also thanked them for tuning into the concert!  Maybe the lesson is: background music might well make its way into the foreground!

I thought about that New Years Day concert last week when I heard that Mariss Jansons had passed away on November 30th at age 76. I was rather stunned, though I was aware that he had suffered a heart attack in 1996 while conducting Puccini’s La Boheme in Oslo, Norway.  And recently, he’d been cancelling engagements due to ill health.  Given that, he must have been grateful for being able to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic’s grand event in 2006, 2012 and 2016.

It seems as though classical music listeners were fortunate to have heard Jansons at all.  At the time of his birth, his mother, Iraida Jansons, who was Jewish, was in hiding during the German occupation of Latvia. Her father and brother had been killed in a Jewish ghetto in Riga. She was a singer, married to conductor Arvīds Jansons, who died of a heart attack while conducting the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England in 1984.

Michael Rusinek, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s principal clarinet, recalled that Mariss Jansons conducted every concert like it was his last. Rusinek and a number of his colleagues were quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week as a part of a tribute to Jansons, who served as music director of the PSO from 1997-2004.

Mariss Jansons began his music studies with his father. He then entered the conservatory in St. Petersburg, known as Leningrad at the time. He became an assistant to the legendary Evgeny Mravinsky in St. Petersburg. He also had the chance to spend some time with conductor Herbert von Karajan in Vienna. The story is told that Karajan wanted Jansons to be his assistant with the Berlin Philharmonic. But the Soviet authorities stood in the way . Eventually they did permit him to become music director of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. He served there for more than 20 years. Later, he would become the music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich.

I could have spent hours reading tribute after tribute to Jansons. But I already knew from recordings what was confirmed by some of those tributes: that Jansons brought out something so special in the orchestras he worked with. Musicians loved working with him. And he was known to hand the baton to one of the orchestra players so that he could listen throughout the concert hall during rehearsals.

Whether or not you’ve come to know the work of Mariss Jansons, I hope you’ve had the joy of suddenly being captivated by performances either of familiar or unfamiliar works. I’m not able to see how the audience responds to the pieces I play each morning. But I always hope that with thousands of listeners out there, that sort of thing goes on all the time. I certainly intend for it to happen in carefully selecting the music for each day’s program. And, once in a while, I actually hear from listeners who are moved, excited, thrilled or “blown away” by a performance they’ve heard on Classic Mornings. I hope it makes them tune in regularly, knowing that it might happen any morning.

Listeners certainly called in on “Giving Tuesday.” That gave us a boost for our end of the calendar year fund raising, which marks the halfway point of our fiscal year. If you’re one of the many who have contributed to the success of the “first half,” thank you! If you haven’t yet had the chance to make a contribution, please consider it. You may give online at or call 217-244-9455.

Enjoy the music you help make possible over the holidays, when you may well have a bit more time to listen.  And know that there’s more to come in the new year!