Slider Musiker & Instrumente - Dirigentenstab (c) Bureau Borsche


In Mariss Jansons’s conductor’s room there is always a box with six batons – the tools with which he shapes the sound of the orchestra. Yet the baton itself is not all that important to him. The mystery lies elsewhere. Florian Zinnecker asked him to explain.

Maestro Jansons, can you remember the first time you held a baton in your hand?

Certainly. I was a little boy. My father was a conductor, and I sat in at many of his rehearsals and concerts. One day I took a piece of wood – it may have been a pencil – and played being a conductor. I followed what I’d seen my father do. I must have been three years old.

Could you conduct a Mahler or Bruckner symphony today with that same piece of wood?

Of course, I could manage it. It wouldn’t be nice, or even good, but it would work. It even works without a baton at all; you just have to be a bit clearer with your hands.

Do you prefer conducting with or without a baton?

I conduct with a baton – always, actually. Maybe there are a couple of passages where it’s more pleasant and intimate to set the baton aside and conduct with the hands alone, but only when I feel the hands enable me better to express what’s in the music. But this happens only sporadically. A baton is the extension of the hand, the fingers. It lets the musicians see more clearly what I’m doing. It’s more pleasant for the ensemble.

Do you have a favourite model?

I use batons from Japan. I bought the last ones when we were there on tour. They are very good batons – very stable, made of wood with an elongated round cork at the end, not too light and not too heavy. I have several, of course, for occasionally one of them gets broken.

Mariss Jansons, London 2017 (c) BR/Meisel

To your way of thinking, what constitutes a good baton besides stability and weight?

It has to be comfortable. But this feeling is very personal. Some conductors like heavier batons, others like lighter ones; some like longer batons, others like shorter ones: some like a round grip at the end, others want an oval one. Batons don’t produce a sound, of course; they’re not even an instrument. They have no influence on the performance, on the music. The baton itself is not decisive in the orchestra. It only enables the conductor to conduct.

How long did it take you to get used to wielding a baton?

It happened very fast – perhaps one or two days.

Besides its practical function, a baton also has a symbolic value. It underscores who’s the boss.

I’d put it differently: there’s a good reason why it belongs to the conductor’s profession. It has an important function. One can do without it, as I already mentioned, but that’s not always comfortable for the musicians. I dispensed with a baton for two or three years because I had a problem with a finger and was operated on. But that was only an episode, and I was happy to return to the baton. And I demand from my students that they conduct with a baton.

What’s more decisive for a good concert: what the orchestra does, your conducting or the sound as you imagine it?

The most important thing is the orchestra. I’m the intermediary; I set down the interpretation, but the orchestra makes the music. I have to create the right atmosphere, and of course I have to lead the ensemble. But the sound from the orchestra is the most important. The decisive thing is the music and the performance you guide. The way you do so is your business. The role of the baton is not that crucial, except when the music becomes technically more difficult, when changes of rhythm call for precision and accuracy. But from the moment there’s no pressing need to hold the ensemble together, there are more important things.

What’s the proper way to hold it?

It’s important to keep your wrist flexible. The hand mustn’t become rigid and stiff. Everyone has their own method, but the question mustn’t be ignored. I’ve often noticed with my students that their expression becomes more lucid when they hold the baton differently.

Does an orchestra have to get used to the way a conductor wields the baton?

You should ask the musicians. I try to make things as easy and clear for them as possible. The musicians have to feel secure. I use the baton completely intuitively.

How do you do that?

It’s at once simple and very complex. The baton has to be clearly visible; I have to move my hands expressively. Simply beating time is, I feel, a bit primitive; actually, it happens automatically. The challenge lies in precisely creating the character and atmosphere I envisage. What I do is very closely linked with intuition. In the end, I have to express what’s going on inside me.

Mariss Jansons, 2017 (c) BR/Meisel

Do you train your movements beforehand, or do the gestures come at the spur of the moment?

I prepare every piece, of course, and have particular ideas, but I don’t know in advance what I’ll do with my hands. Of course I could practice my movements in front of a mirror and ask, What should I do at this change of tempo, and how should I take the finale? Some of my fellow conductors do exactly that. But I don’t feel it’s necessary as long as you have a good technique to rely on. Then the baton and the hands do what comes from the heart. Or rather, what comes into the brain from the heart. Perhaps that’s a good answer to your question about what I do when I conduct: the first impulse comes from the heart, from the soul. Then it goes through the brain, which tells the body and hands what to do.

What’s the role of your facial expression when you conduct?

A very big role. My face is almost more important than the baton because I can use it to express atmosphere and mood. But it has to happen intuitively and naturally. The point is not to grimace: I don’t have to put on a sour face just because a work sounds gloomy and threatening – or at least not intentionally. If that’s how I feel, it will happen by itself. It’s this difference that matters. It doesn’t help anyone for me to accompany the music in pantomime.

Jansons und Barakhovsky, 2015 (c) BR/Meisel

Has it ever happened that you dropped your baton in a concert?

Oh yes, lots of times! It’s always terrible, even dangerous. I’m scared that one day a musician will get it stuck in his eye. Sometimes the baton shatters when I accidentally strike it against the rostrum. Then it’s out of commission.

Are certain works particularly dangerous in that respect?

No, it can happen any time. No one can say in advance when.

Do you keep a spare baton at the rostrum for such cases?

Not at the rostrum – for the time being I’d have to manage without a baton – but I have a spare one in my conductor’s room. I always have a box of six batons on hand: that’s my stock in trade, and it will last for years. I doesn’t happen all that often that a baton shatters. I’ve managed two or three seasons with the same baton. But it can also happen that several batons get broken in a single month. It’s a coincidence, and to be honest, it’s not a tragedy.

Taktstock von Mariss Jansons (c) BR/Meisel
Jansons 2016 (c) BR/Meisel
Jansons 2017 (c) BR/Meisel