Natural High

Janine Jansen is right at home both on her latest Bach CD and modern concerto premiere
As Dutch violinist Janine Jansen’s star has risen internationally, her commitment to her country and to the city of Utrecht, where she was born and grew up, has deepened and intensified. Her annual five-day International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht has become a key focal point for the city’s new TivoliVredenburg downtown, multigenre music center.

Jansen’s most recent CD is a Bach chamber-music concert that includes Jansen, her father Jan, and friends playing a refreshingly varied program with striking flexibility and pleasurable expressive subtleties, highlighted by the two sublime slow movements of the Sonata in E major (BWV1016) and the opening movement, a Siciliano, of the Sonata No. 4 in C minor (BWV1017). Jansen’s next CD will couple Bartok’s First Violin Concerto, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antonio Pappano, and the Brahms Violin Concerto, with Pappano conducting his Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome. Jansen will be playing Joachim’s cadenzas in the Brahms. “It makes a lot of sense,” she says.

Jansen newest live triumph came on the night of November 6 at Amsterdam’s iconic Concertgebouw hall, where the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) plays. She and the RCO, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, gave the world-premiere performance of a violin concerto by 2013 Grawemeyer-winner Michel van der Aa (pronounced “ahhh”), whom the young Dutch critics call “Double A.” The music was a rethink of the genre, like Peter Eötvös’s recent violin concerto in which soloist and orchestra work together instead of at odds or separately to achieve their musical ends, embedding the soloist organically


What do think of Michel’s van der Aa’s new concerto?

It’s a very exciting piece: 26 minutes in three movements, great fun to play, rhythmically groovy and funky at times. So it’s a very physical piece, which gives off lots of energy, but there are many lyrical passages as well. For example, the concerto starts off with an intimate long phrase, and the beginning of the slow movement is similarly peaceful. Even in the third movement, which is very loud, there is a beautiful sul tasto, multo espressivo moment with the brass, legato, before the faster pulse returns.

How well does van der Aa write for the violin?

He writes really well: It’s virtuosic and lies well for the hand, so it’s not impossible, but some things are on the edge of possible speed. When I asked about some very fast bits, he said, “Yes, this is what I have in mind,” and he explained a little, then he said, “But if it’s really impossible I can think of another way to get the same effect.”  “No,” I said, “I like a challenge.”


How did you two get along?

It was so nice to work with a composer on a project like this. Michel is in residence at the RCO, and they had asked him to write a violin concerto for me. So I dove a little bit into his music, and I really liked his sound world and the tensions he created. I had met him socially after a concert, and he had written a short chamber work for my festival in Utrecht a few years ago. But this was the first time we had worked together, and I learned that he writes music as a way of making connections, finding his own voice through the musicians.

What was the collaborative process like?

When Michel started to work on the concerto, he talked about his ideas before he even wrote anything down. In a lot of his work, he uses video and tape, but he decided on a purely symphonic work—with really a lot of percussion: three separate stations. In fact, he had originally envisioned arranging the three percussionists in a triangle really close to me onstage, but by putting them at the back we could have the winds closer to me. Richard Dubugnon wrote me a concerto five years ago, so I knew the process of working with a composer, especially the MIDI file process, listening to it on a computer, which is not the most ideal way to listen to a piece of music for the first time. When I got to hear it for the first time with the orchestra, however,  it was a very exciting moment. And I cannot imagine how Michel must have felt! Of course, then another kind of work starts for the orchestral musicians who have to make all sorts of adjustments on the fly.

Are you planning to record the concerto?


After these first performances, we will be touring the concerto beginning this December [2014] in Bergen with Andrew Litton. We want to see how the piece works, how it feels playing. The second performance in Amsterdam at the Concertgebouw was recorded by the radio, and maybe a DVD of a live concert will be made at some point. Nowadays, you get the feeling that every note you play is streamed, which means that more people get to be a part of the concert, but recordings can never entirely capture the intimacy that is at the heart of the memory, of being there.

How did your recent Bach CD come about?

Bach has always been at the center of my life. For many years, my dad was organist at the Domkerk in Utrecht, where I grew up, where I played music with him at home and in the church, and regularly heard the choir sing. I played one of my first solo concerts there when I was nine years old, and my grandfather played harpsichord.


How did you decide on the stylistic elements?

I simply put together my own ensemble with people I play with regularly but not for Bach and the repertoire of that period. It was challenging to develop our own sense of articulation and phrasing as an ensemble, and it was a lot of fun, including the recording process. Listening together is a very intense experience.

Did the Dutch early-music movement influence your stylistic approach on the Bach recording project?

The Dutch early-music movement and the music itself had influenced me through my father, and before this project I borrowed a Baroque violin with gut strings. In experimenting, I learned about feeling more with the right hand, about articulation and breathing, but I needed to make this recording on my own instrument with my own pallete of colors and expressions. And so we made a clear decision to play on modern instruments. In the end, it has to feel natural to you.