Following an unexplained hiatus, Dutch violinist and violist Janine Jansen has returned to the stage, rested and ready for the next phase in her skyrocketing career
by Inge Kjemtrup
When I tell friends in London about a musician I’m going to interview, I rarely get much more than polite nods in response. But when I let it drop that I’m due to meet Janine Jansen, there are several sharp intakes of breath. “Remember that amazing concert at Cadogan Hall when she played Bach?” exclaims one friend. “Janine, yes, she’s something special,” says another, for whom the current crop of star violinists is otherwise of little interest—even though he sees them up close all the time in his job as an orchestral musician.
He’s right; there is something special about the 33-year-old Dutch violinist. In between a globe-trotting concert career, Jansen has made seven recordings for Decca, including Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (a worldwide download hit), several of the major concertos, and a new disc featuring French repertory. Sales have probably not been hurt by the glamorous CD cover photos where she looks less like one of the world’s great violinists and more like a Vogue model. But her music making is taken seriously: in 2003, she received the prestigious Dutch Music Prize and in 2009 the equally distinguished Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist Award in the Britain.
In concert, she comes across as intensely committed to the music, yet also authentic and approachable. In a new Dutch documentary film, Janine, conductor Paavo Järvi, with whom she recorded the Beethoven and Britten concertos, enthuses, “She plays like she is. She’s a person of genuine warmth, genuine feeling, genuine expression. There’s nothing fake, nothing manufactured or prepared. The expression feels like it’s happening now and it’s honest. It’s like a child.”
I catch up with Jansen a few hours before her performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra. It takes some time to locate her dressing room in the cavernous concrete bunker that is the Barbican Hall backstage area, but the sounds of the Brahms concerto guide me to the right place. Putting her Strad in its case, Jansen greets me with a smile. She’s wearing casual, comfortable clothing and is taller than I had expected.
Jansen was born in Soest, a Dutch town in the province of Utrecht. To say that she grew up in a musical family is like saying that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart grew up in a musical family: music is at the heart of her family’s culture. Jansen’s father is an organist and harpsichord player (as is one of her brothers), her mother is a singer, and another brother plays the cello in a Dutch radio orchestra.
It’s surprising to hear from someone known as such a natural violinist that as a child she first had her eye on the cello. “My parents thought it would be nice to have a little more variety in the family,” she says of her decision to play violin.
It’s obviously not a choice anybody regrets.
Jansen began studying the violin at age six. Her first teacher, Coosje Wijzenbeek, gave her an excellent grounding in the basics along with “a love for chamber music making,” Jansen says. “That was always a very big part of the lessons.” Chamber music, she says, helped her to “be aware of the essence of making music, that you’re making music together, that you listen to each other, you react to each other, you’re aware of all the different voices of which you are just one part.”
If Wijzenbeek provided her with a firm foundation, it was her lessons at the Utrecht Conservatory with Philippe Hirshhorn, the Latvian-born violinist who won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1967, that took her playing to a new level. Their time together, so formative for Jansen, was tragically short: Jansen was 16 when she began studying with him and Hirshhorn was already suffering the brain tumor that would kill him two years later. In the Janine film, composer Victor Kissine talks about receiving a phone call from Hirshhorn, who had just heard Jansen play for the first time. “He wanted to share his amazement,” Kissine recalls.
The admiration seems to have been mutual between teacher and pupil.
“The lessons were so exciting and so inspiring for me,” Jansen says. “To play for such an electrifying musician, you always wanted to give your best.”
Hirshhorn often asked her to play the same phrase in five different ways. “I would try to play in another way,” she says. “He would say, well, actually that sounds the same—now really make a different approach. So I would start to be more clear about my idea and by the end, he would say, now just let it go and play it the way that you feel it. That helped me to be really convinced about what I wanted.”
The central lesson had been learned: “There’s no right way, there’s no perfection,” she says. “These are just things that don’t exist.”
After Hirshhorn’s death, Jansen took lessons with the Russian violinist Boris Belkin. Did she learn something about stagecraft from such a veteran performer? Their lessons mainly focused on working on the major concerto repertory, she explains, but it didn’t hurt to be studying with “someone who was standing onstage all the time and knows what works in stressful and nervous situations.”
How does she deal with nerves now? “It’s about having controllable nerves,” she says. “You need to have some nerves or some tension to be able to focus.”
Certainly the fact that her first teacher, Wijzenbeek, insisted on her pupils performing in public must have helped. Still, she says, “I remember my first competition when I was 10, I felt scared to go onstage. One has to go through that and with experience those things get easier.”
She entered a few competitions later on, though “none of the big ones,” except for the Dutch Music Prize. “That was the most horrible thing I ever did. I know how these things are at auditions and competitions. It’s not a place where you feel free to make music.”
From 2002 to 2004, Jansen was a member of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme in the United Kingdom, which provides performing experience in such elite venues as Wigmore Hall and with the BBC orchestras, along with the chance to record, still a new experience for her then. Nowadays, she sees a recording session as being “like the biggest lesson I have every year, just by listening back to yourself in such a critical, detailed way.
“You learn a lot from it.”
Ever the consummate chamber musician, Jansen also savored playing with fellow New Gen artists, including pianist Jonathan Biss, cellist Christian Poltéra, and clarinetist Martin Fröst. Today her list of regular collaborators includes pianist Itamar Golan, who appears on her latest disc of French chamber works, Beau Soir; violinist, violist, and former boyfriend Julian Rachlin; violist Maxim Rysanov; and cellist Torleif Thedéen.
“Maybe it has to do with getting older or valuing different things,” she muses, “but until a couple of years ago I was like, oh, I want to work with new people. And now I feel that I have met people that I love to work with and I want to go further with that.”
Rysanov and Thedéen joined her on a 2007 disc that features string trio arrangements of Bach’s Inventions as well as her performance of Bach’s D minor Partita. “It’s amazing playing with her, she’s a very good conversationalist,” Rysanov says. “She listens. There are very few people who listen. To have a fast reaction and to predict what the other person is about to play—that is a gift, her gift.”
This intensive listening happens as Jansen plays concerto repertory as well. In her performance of the Brahms with the LSO, following our interview, Jansen’s face is animated with interest through the long first movement introduction, and at the end of the concerto, she hands her bouquet of flowers to the first oboist, in thanks for a glorious solo.
Everyone, it seems, wants to hear Jansen. Her schedule has been full for years with back-to-back concerts around the world. But in spring 2010, the whirlwind came to a halt. Concerts were cancelled and a note she wrote on her website suggested she was taking a much-needed break.
She was back by the fall, the five-month hiatus officially unexplained. Some clues are found in the Janine documentary, when a tired-sounding Jansen, interviewed in her dressing room and then in the back of a car taking her to the airport, says, “Day in and day out, you give all these emotions, you give all of yourself. That’s how I want it—I wouldn’t want it any other way. Somehow you need love and support. That’s just something to help you come back into balance.”
What matters now is that she has found that balance. She’s on the road again—at a less frantic pace—promoting her first recital release. Beau Soir features the Debussy and Ravel sonatas, Messiaen’s Thème et Variations (“the three pillars” of the disc, she says), as well as such bon-bons as Debussy’s Beau Soir and Fauré’s Après un rêve. This calorific selection is tempered by three new works by her friend Richard Dubugnon, a Swiss composer based in France, who has written a concerto for Jansen and is working on a viola quintet for her that premieres soon in Amsterdam. “I always feel very close to the French composers and the richness in sound, in harmony, and texture,” she says.
How does she contrast the sound worlds of Austro-German repertory, such as the Brahms concerto, with the French repertory on Beau Soir? “Brahms is a more dark, more round, more earthy sound,” she says, “while in the French repertoire, it’s so important [to bring out] the different colors and find the air inside the sound. It’s a completely different approach, especially of using the bow technique.”
But her performances this year will range far beyond the French pieces. Recently, Jansen has been playing the Britten
Violin Concerto, a somewhat neglected concerto work from 1939. In February, she played the concerto with the New York Philharmonic. This summer she’ll be touring with the Philadelphia Orchestra performing the Tchaikovsky concerto, playing at the BBC Proms in September and with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in October.
At the end of the interview, she muses on her four-day festival in Utrecht coming up in the last week of December. “To have music and Christmas dinner, it’s the perfect combination,” she says with a smile. The festival’s concerts are held in churches and several unusual venues all over the city. This year for the first time, ticket buyers received a “scratch card” that tells them which venue they need to go to. “We scratch and they also scratch!” laughs Jansen, who conjures up the coziness of the festival. “Everybody walks with the lights and the candles through the city with the very traditional Dutch oliebollen, a dough ball fried in oil. It sounds disgusting, but it’s very nice.
There is no new year without eating an oliebollen.”
And, these days, there is no classical music scene without Janine Jansen.
What Janine Jansen Plays
Since 2000, Janine Jansen has played the 1727 Barrère Stradivari, on loan through the intermediation of the Elise Mathilde Fund. “I know it so well, I love it. It has so many possibilities. It’s not a typical dark instrument or a typical strong instrument, but I feel that I can do what I need to get there. It’s very colorful. And for the French repertoire, you need an instrument that’s incredibly flexible.”
Jansen primarily uses a bow by Dominique Peccatte, though she uses a Tourte bow for Baroque- and Classical-era music.