In 1946, his father won second prize in a national competition and was chosen by Evgeny Mravinsky to be his assistant at the Leningrad Philharmonic. When his family joined him in 1956, young Jansons entered the Leningrad Conservatory, where he studied piano and conducting, although his father urged him to continue playing violin. In 1969 he continued his training in Vienna with Hans Swarowsky and in Salzburg with Herbert von Karajan. Karajan had invited Jansons to be his assistant with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, but the Soviet authorities blocked Jansons from ever hearing about the offer.
In 1973, Jansons was appointed Associate Conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (now St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra). In 1979, he was appointed music director of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he performed, recorded and toured extensively. Jansons resigned his Oslo position in 2000 after disputes with the city over the acoustics of the Oslo Konserthus.
In 1992, Jansons was named principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He has worked as a guest conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra and has recorded Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 with them for the LSO Live label.
In 1997, Jansons became the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. His initial contract was for three years, but his subsequent contract renewals were evergreen contracts that required yearly renewal. In June 2002, he announced that he would leave the orchestra in 2004.
In April 1996 in Oslo, Jansons nearly died while conducting the final pages of La Bohème, after a heart attack. He recuperated in Switzerland. Later, surgeons in Pittsburgh fitted a defibrillator in his chest to give his heart an electric jolt if it fails. (Jansons’s father died at a 1984 concert, conducting the Hallé Orchestra.) Jansons has stated that he suffers from jet lag, and this was one reason that he left his American position.
At the start of the 2003-2004 season, Jansons began his tenure as chief conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO), for an initial contract of 3 years. His commitment with the BRSO is for 10 weeks per season. In September 2006, Jansons extended his initial BRSO contract to August 2009. In July 2007, he further extended his contract with the BRSO to August 2012.
In October 2002, Jansons was named the sixth chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (KCO) of Amsterdam, effective 1 September 2004, succeeding Riccardo Chailly. His initial Amsterdam contract was for 3 years, and his commitment in Amsterdam is for 12 weeks per season. As of March 2008, no published reports of the continued length Jansons’ tenure with the KCO have been given, although Jansons stated in February 2007 that the next opera production in Amsterdam that he is scheduled to conduct is Carmen. Jansons continues to be listed as the KCO’s Chief Conductor on the orchestra’s website for the 2008-2009 season.
In 2006, he conducted the Vienna New Year’s Concert. Also in January 2006, he was awarded MIDEM’s Artist of the Year Award in Cannes. On considering his driving force, in a December 2006 WNYC radio interview, Jansons explained to his host:
“I want that every [one] of my concerts should be [an] event, for me, for [the] orchestra and [for the] public.”
In October 2007, Jansons (who himself is Lutheran) conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for Pope Benedict XVI and 7000 other listeners in the papal audience hall (Auditorio Paul VI). The concert was televised worldwide in many countries.
Jansons has been married twice. He and his first wife, Ira, had a daughter, Ilona, a pianist who currently works at the Mariinsky Theatre. The marriage ended during his tenure in Oslo. Jansons and his second wife Irina, a former speech therapist, have a home in St. Petersburg, where Jansons keeps his collection of scores.