A Violinist as Riveting in Silence as in Sound
The conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin gave the downbeat to Britten’s Violin Concerto at a recent Sunday matinee concert with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra here. But the soloist ignored him.
Instead, Janine Jansen, the Dutch violinist, was turned slightly backward, gazing at the timpanist who produced the work’s first, ominous notes. As they were answered by a restrained cymbal crash, Ms. Jansen glanced upward, then swept her gaze along the ceiling, as if following the sound’s trail of resonance.
She looked as if she were waiting to receive her orders from the percussionists — which is, in a sense, how Britten constructed the soloist’s voice in his taut concerto. As the music unfolded, pitting the sternly militaristic opening theme against a slinky, fragile melody, Ms. Jansen continued to trade cues with members of the orchestra, matching her sound to the metallic crispness of a snare drum or flashing a look at the brass section while dispatching a volley of notes for those players to pick up and build on.
At every turn, it seemed Ms. Jansen’s music making grew on the spot, out of the fluctuating colors and energy centers of the orchestra.
“It’s live; it’s in the moment,” she said in an interview after the concert. “Sometimes you’re given something by one of the orchestral players — this shape, that emotion — and you’re taking it from them. It needs to always be fluid. One cannot predict the outcome and one shouldn’t want to.”
While Ms. Jansen, 39, is a household name in this country and a classical star throughout Europe, she is far less well known in America. But this season she claims one of the New York music world’s plummest prizes: a Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall, starting on Thursday, Dec. 7.
Clive Gillinson, the hall’s executive and artistic director, said in a phone interview that it was the single recital Ms. Jansen gave at Zankel Hall in 2015 that led to the invitation. “Even though she’s not a huge name in America yet, we thought we have to put her center stage,” he said. “It was totally about her playing. She blew us away.”
With radiant tone and fiery technique, Ms. Jansen delivers communicative, passionate and alert performances. But just as riveting are the moments when she is silent.
Then her receptiveness toward her partners onstage is palpable — whether that partner is a star like the pianist Martha Argerich, with whom Ms. Jansen will tour Europe this winter, or a timpanist in the back of the orchestra. A 2010 documentary, “Janine,” opens with a close-up of her face through the long orchestral introduction to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Her expression reflects every change of harmony; her body recoils, with a slight jolt, at each rhythmic accent. In a classical landscape crowded with talented musicians, Ms. Jansen stands out not so much for her virtuosity — though she can make sparks fly — as for her eloquent listening.
That combined quality of focus and openness infuses each bar of Ms. Jansen’s concerts with the intimate drama of chamber music. And her five-concert Perspectives series is dominated by three chamber performances, including the opening event, featuring Messiaen’s otherworldly “Quartet for the End of Time,” which Ms. Jansen recently recorded for Sony Classical. (The series also includes a performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on Jan. 18, and one, with Mr. Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra on March 13, of a new work written for her by Michel van der Aa.)
Ms. Jansen sometimes struggles in interviews to match the elegance of her playing. During our conversation, she was thoughtful, relaxed and quick to laugh. But, despite her fluent English, she often seemed frustrated with the inadequacy of language.
“I don’t even know how to put it into words because it so often breaks the power,” she said when I asked about the conflict between opposites that I had felt so strongly in her performance of the Britten concerto.
“There’s this tension between instinct, emotion and intellect,” the cellist Torleif Thedeen, one of her partners in the Messiaen, said in an interview. “It’s always a struggle for all of us musicians.” But Ms. Jansen seems to depend on intuition more than most, even when designing programs, a task she relished during the 13 years she ran her own chamber music festival in Utrecht. Asked to elaborate on her choice of repertory for the festival, she hesitated.
“I’m not a theme programmer,” she said. “I just think, ‘For me these pieces would make a beautiful program.’ It’s very personal.”
Ms. Jansen created her Carnegie concerts in much the same way. For the Dec. 7 concert, Szymanowski’s “Mythes” seemed to her to come from the same color world as Messiaen’s quartet; Bartok’s “Contrasts” seemed a good contrast to those two. On Dec. 9 she will present another chamber program that stays rooted in the Russian repertory, with works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff. In January, she will pair sonatas by Debussy and Grieg with Chausson’s rarely heard Concert for Piano, Violin and String Quartet.
Born into a family of classical musicians, Ms. Jansen sang in church from a young age, played Bach sonatas accompanied by her father at the harpsichord and witnessed rehearsals of early-music groups in her home. Leading figures of the historically informed performance scene in the Netherlands, such as Philippe Herreweghe, Ton Koopman and Frans Bruggen, were family friends. In the 1980s it was Baroque specialists like them who were some of the country’s biggest classical stars.
“It’s what I grew up with,” Ms. Jansen said. “It was never academic.” She added that she played with a Baroque-style bow and gut strings, but only briefly: “I want to be inspired by it, but I don’t think I have to play on a period instrument. The sound of course is very different, but more important is the breathing and the phrasing.”
Naturally, Ms. Jansen rose to stardom with something chamber-scale — a reduced-forces 2004 recording of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” that managed to infuse the old chestnut with freshness and flair. It reached the top of the classical charts, but more remarkable for the time, digital downloads made up a substantial share of the sales, which even now is an unusual occurrence in her genre. In profiles Ms. Jansen was anointed “queen of the download.”
None of her subsequent recordings matched the Vivaldi for sales, but she was no fluke. A later recording of Bach concertos further cemented her reputation as an artist fully at home in the Baroque repertory, capable of combining the adventurous spirit of the early-music scene with a brilliant, often glamorous sound. Though she focuses on the core repertory of Romantic concertos, her interests run wide: She is well versed in 20th-century American chamber music, a passionate advocate for the unjustly overlooked Britten concerto and enthusiastic about the piece Mr. van der Aa wrote for her.
She took a six-month break from concertizing in 2010, around the time “Janine” was released. Parts of that film show her frustrated and tense: At one point, recording Bach, she flings her bow to the ground in exasperation with her own playing. Above all, the footage conveys the impression of Ms. Jansen surrounded by people — nearly all of them men — trying to manage, market and cajole an artist of uncommon value, a major talent with fashion-model looks and girl-next-door likability. “You’re a man’s woman,” an editor declares in a meeting as he brainstorms ideas for a special edition of a Dutch women’s magazine devoted entirely to Ms. Jansen.
“I learned many different things,” Ms. Jansen said of her hiatus. “Definitely to pace myself and play a little bit less than I was doing. When one is young, everything is exciting; one goes with the flow. I learned to be more conscious of what I’m doing and what I feel comfortable with. That can be in the amount of concerts or it can be in contact with people, whether it’s organizers, managers, or nothing to do with music — just life. To be more clear and conscious.”
Clarity and consciousness are means to the end that is Ms. Jansen’s ultimate goal: a point in a performance when, as she put it, “it falls into place and you don’t feel anymore that you’re performing a concert.”
“The audience is a very big part of that,” she added. “When all the focus is on the music and everybody is drawn to this one moment. I don’t anymore feel like I’m a violinist, a performer; time really stands still. It’s not something you reach every time.”
In the midst of the Britten concerto earlier that afternoon, she said that she had felt something close to this out-of-body experience for just an instant, right after her cadenza.
“This moment where the orchestra takes over from me and I’m drained from the emotional playing before and I completely take in what’s happening,” she said. “I’ve become a listener. Completely. I’m suddenly an observer.”