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Laurie Niles interview with Janine Jansen

March 17, 2009 at 3:57 PM

What intensity.

That's how I felt after watching a live recording of Janine Jansen playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto – a fiery and physical ride that held me spellbound, in which she completely gives herself over to this concerto. Even the hair on her head comes unbound by the last movement, flying into her face, which also registers most every musical gesture and nuance.

Jansen said that she doesn't really notice how much she exerts in a performance, that she doesn't feel physically drained afterwards.

"I don't notice that because it is the most natural thing for me to play like this," Jansen said, though she admitted she sometimes feels emotionally worn after a performance. "For example with the Britten concerto, that takes so much emotionally out of you," she said. "For me, music is the strongest language, and it just goes through me."

Janine Jansen

Jansen's recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Souvenir D'un Lieu Cher is released in the United States today. Predictably, it is being released for digital download, as Jansen was long ago crowned "Queen of the Download" by the The Independent of London, for the successful Internet marketing of her Vivaldi Four Seasons recording.

"When that was said, it was when my Vivaldi came out," said Janine, laughing. "It was one of the first classical recordings to be on iTunes, which has become a big part of today's world. I'm sure by now I'm no longer the queen! "

It wasn't her idea to go the digital download route. "Back then I hadn't even visited iTunes and didn't really know how to download music," she said. "I wasn't so much aware of it."

That success wasn't without its downside; the alluring cover art that appealed so widely may also have let to some of the condescending adjectives ascribed in the early days to her playing by people who had never heard her perform live. "Kittenish charm"? "Beguiling small tone"?

In what universe?

At 31, Jansen takes this in stride. "I really do enjoy the day with the photographer," Janine said. "It's also art in some way." For her more recent albums, "the last few photos are more grown up, I think."

"The most important thing, with album covers, or with anything else in life, is you just have to do what's right, and stand behind what you want, what you think is right, and not let yourself be pushed in another direction."

Janine learned the Tchaikovsky concerto – from scratch – in a matter of several months, a feat that I find astonishing due to a) my own 10-year battle with the piece and b) the fact that from the point of its very conception the concerto was labeled "unplayable" by its dedicatee. It's a hard piece to play.

Jansen was first asked to play the Tchaikovsky by conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

"It was so intimidating to play it with these great conductors so early on," she said. But since then she has played it frequently, even as a debut piece with important orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At this point, she has been playing it for nine years.

"You are never through learning it. But after all these years, I felt ready to share my view of it as it is now," said Jansen. For the recording, she said she loved working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. "Each and every player is so flexible," she said, "and Daniel Harding is an emotional musician."

Jansen recorded the album with her 1727 "Barrere" Stradivarius, which she has been playing since 2002, on extended loan from the Elise Mathilde Fund through intermediation of The Stradivari Society of Chicago.

She said that getting the Strad "was kind of like a fairy tale story." She had been playing on an Italian instrument, a Tomaso Balestrieri that had belonged to her former teacher, Philipp Hirshhorn. "His widow was loaning it to me," Janine said. "I tried to find a sponsor to buy it and loan it to me, but I was not able to do so, and so I was left with nothing." During the midst of this time of searching, a man approached her after one of her concerts and gave her a card, and that is what led her to The Stradivari Society of Chicago. Bein and Fushi brought her eight instruments to try.

"I tried all of them," Janine said. "All of the instruments were of the highest quality. But with this instrument, I felt immediately that it was right. You have an ideal kind of sound in your body – in your heart. For me, an instrument should have a richness and also be flexible. What I particularly like about his instrument is it has the ability to be soft and still really carry."

"I say that I knew it was the right instrument from the start, but that was only a start," she said. It takes years to get to know a instrument, she said, to unlock its strengths and to compensate for any of its weaknesses. "You learn so much from this kind of an instrument."

I was thrilled to see Tchaikovsky's Souvenir D'un Lieu Cher ("Souvenir of a Beloved Place") – on Jansen's new recording as well as the concerto. This is a group of three pieces that includes the moody and emotional, "Meditation," which begins like the richest dark chocolate – scarcely leaving the G string; then it winds up and calms down, loses its composure and gains it back, gets dizzy and finds equilibrium. In the end it expires at the other end of the spectrum, on a towering D that's too high for the ledger lines required to write it (would someone like to count?).

The "Meditation" also was written as the middle movement of the violin concerto – until Tchaikovsky thought better of the idea.

"The 'Meditation' itself is a gorgeous piece. It's just very interesting to see the two of them together," said Jansen, comparing the "Meditation" with the "Canzonetta," the more emotionally restrained movement that Tchaikovsky ultimately placed at the center of his violin concerto.

"The second movement (of the violin concerto) is the greatest, most beautiful piece of music, and it is exactly the right intimacy, the right character, everything is there," she said. "It's quite short in the concerto, but it is exactly right, and if this Meditation had been in the concerto, it would have been too much. Too much emotion, just too much."

Having played the Meditation with piano myself, and having listened to many versions of it with orchestra, I did a double-take upon hearing a solo cello making its elegant descent in the introduction – solo cello? And wait, what happened to the woodwinds, too?

Apparently Jansen wanted all strings, and she chose a version of the Souvenir D'un Lieu Cher that was arranged by Alexandru Lascae. Tchaikovsky originally wrote the piece for violin and piano, and the most commonly used arrangement is a full orchestration by Alexander Glazunov.

"I especially love the strings – the sound blends so well," Jansen said of the Lascae arrangement. "It's more of a chamber music way of playing it."

And it shouldn't be surprising that Jansen would love something that felt like chamber music – her affinity for this kind of music goes back to her very first teacher, Coosje Wijzenbeek, who is well-known in Holland for teaching young children.

"Every week there were lessons in chamber music," Jansen said of her lessons with Wijzenbeek. "For me, the essence of making music is this way of communicating with each other, this whole flexibility. Without each and every part, the music is not the same. You must be alert to each person."

Every year, during her winter holiday break (from a schedule that includes some 100 solo performances a year) Jansen holds a yearly chamber music festival in her hometown of Utrecht in Netherlands.

"Most of the time I'm traveling alone, to new cities, and it's wonderful to meet new people," Janine said, "but it's also wonderful to come back, and to play chamber music."

Janine's festival culminates in a jam session of sorts, and "this year it lasted three days!" she laughed.

"It's a relaxed ending of the concert," she said. Everyone just kind of gets up, announces their piece, sometimes even talks about the piece a little bit. And the pieces come from a range of genres: This year, clarinetist Martin Fröst played klezmer music. Also, the Dutch jazz pianist, Michiel Borstlap brought music to play with Janine. "I never improvise, but he brought something for me, so that we could play together," she said. Even an audience member who worked as a TV presenter rose up to play. "The whole atmosphere is so relaxed."

I wondered if this was a bit like being in an orchestra, where all the familiar faces, togetherness and music-making makes people start feeling like family members.

"Sometimes people think, when we say that it's like a family, that it's just corny. But it's so true," Jansen said. "Those are the people I love playing with. It's so nice socially to be together, too. This whole communication, it's so wonderful to have."

From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on March 17, 2009 at 4:33 PM

It's about time someone made another recording of this concerto.

From Michael Divino
Posted on March 17, 2009 at 7:46 PM

It's been a long time coming.  I love JJ.

From Bram Heemskerk
Posted on March 17, 2009 at 10:01 PM

I like the humour of Jonathan Frohnen. Laurie, you forgot to ask Janine's opinion about the Karlowicz violinconcerto.

From ev E
Posted on March 18, 2009 at 1:19 PM

i saw her perform the tchaik with the ny phil maybe 2 years ago and it was insane. she's amazing. her interpretation is just phenomenal and an absolute pleasure to listen to. been a fan ever since, buying her CDs and going to her concerts/recitals...!

From Lilien Voong
Posted on March 19, 2009 at 7:03 PM

 Jansen is such an inspiration. Thank you for the lovely interview. 

From Paul G.
Posted on March 19, 2009 at 9:52 PM

Thank you very much for this interview, Laurie.

Janine is amazing and I am absolutely sure that she will be recognized as one of the best violinists of her generation, if not ever. Only thirty years into her life and she's this amazing... Imagine where she'll be at age 65.


From Royce Faina
Posted on March 23, 2009 at 2:36 PM

I love what these interviews do for me, is that after I have read them, hearing the artist in my minds (ears ?) eyes and then listening to their recordings, it's like feeling the music throught their fingers, especially through their heart.

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