Janine Jansen is a charismatic violinist of tremendous versatility and breathtaking virtuosity, performing on the world’s great concert stages with legendary orchestras and conductors. She is also a superb chamber musician, establishing enduring and artistically fruitful bonds with esteemed musicians who regularly performed with her during her past artistic directorship of the International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht.
For her Perspectives series (with concert installments beginning December 7 and popping up through March 2018), Jansen performs central works of the violin literature, as well as new works with two acclaimed orchestras and expert chamber-music partners, among them famed pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. In advance of her Carnegie Hall residency, she reflects on her musical relationships and her approach to performing.
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You made your Carnegie Hall concerto debut in 2010 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the most prominent musical ambassador of the Netherlands. Can you describe that experience?
Janine Jansen: I played the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Mariss Jansons conducting. I have wonderful memories of that concert. I grew up with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, listening to so many of their concerts from a very young age. Every time I play with them, I feel like—it sounds so cliché—I’m performing with family. Plus, I have so many friends in the orchestra, people with whom I’ve studied or just gotten to know over the years. So to come back to Carnegie Hall together with them feels very special.
This time it will be with Daniele Gatti at the podium, the orchestra’s new chief conductor.
We are going to perform Bruch’s First Violin Concerto, which of course is a very well-known piece and such a joy to play. It was probably one of the first violin concertos that I performed when I was very young, with a youth orchestra in Holland. Of course, one comes back to it over the years, but you keep finding new things in the score, and to do it with Gatti and the Concertgebouw Orchestra will be a really nice adventure.
Did you always know you wanted to become a professional musician?
I grew up in a musical family. My parents are both musicians and I have two older brothers who are also musicians. My grandfather was a musician, my uncle … I mean, really, everybody. There was always a lot of music at home. As a young girl, I sang in the choir that my father led. And then when I was six years old, I began playing the violin and I started taking my first real music lessons. I had a wonderful teacher, Coosje Wijzenbeek. She is well-known in Holland for teaching young children and instilling an appreciation for chamber-music making. She put her students in ensembles—string quartets, piano quintets—so that from a very young age, we were taught to open our ears, to be aware of what’s going on around us. I think that has been very special in my life. Maybe that’s also where my love for chamber music started.
How much of your work in programming the International Chamber Music Festival in Utrecht has informed your programming of chamber concerts in your Perspectives series?
I have probably programmed all of the pieces I’m bringing to Carnegie Hall at some point during the Utrecht Festival—not necessarily that I played each of them myself, but I have gotten to know these pieces through the festival. For instance, one piece that comes to mind is Rachmaninoff’s “Trio élégiaque No. 2.” I programmed it in Utrecht some years ago with pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk and cellist Torleif Thedéen. They are two very good friends of mine with whom I’ve played a lot and who will join me in Zankel Hall this December. But at the festival, they played the work with another violinist, and their performance literally brought me to tears. It’s an amazing piece and the way that they played it—from the opening bars, it just completely got to me. So from that, I got really excited to play this piece with this wonderful pianist and cellist whom I love very much. In another program, I’m playing Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” with Torleif and clarinetist Martin Fröst, who is another very dear friend. The three of us have played this work together for many years, but this time we’re being joined by a young, French pianist whom I’ve gotten to know more recently: Lucas Debargue. I cannot wait to dive into that piece with him. There’s also Szymanowski’s “Mythes,” a very colorful piece that I absolutely love. My approach to programming is all about finding that emotional link for me and the other musicians. It’s very, very personal.
You will also be giving a New York premiere of a violin concerto with The Philadelphia Orchestra that was written for you by one of the most important Dutch composers, Michel van der Aa. How did you first become familiar with his work?
It’s very special to come to New York with a premiere of a violin concerto that was written for me and commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. It’s nice to be part of the process with a living composer because one has a chance to see the piece come alive—from the first notes, from the first ideas to the first rehearsal—and find the message and the tonal colors and the different aspects of the piece. I got to know Michel’s music before I accepted the commission—I like to really dive into the musical language of a composer before I can commit with my heart and being. The first piece I heard by him was “Spaces of Blank,” which was also written for the Royal Concertgebouw and Christianne Stotijn, a wonderful Dutch singer. I was very taken by that piece, so I asked him to write a chamber work for the festival in Utrecht.
How closely did you collaborate with him on the concerto?
We met multiple times to talk about his ideas and the form of the piece. It was clear from the start that he wanted a lot of percussion. It’s a very powerful and rhythmic piece, but it also has wonderfully lyrical moments. It’s really effective. And it was nice to have a chance to speak with him about it during the process. And then the first rehearsal with orchestra … It must be one of the most exciting moments—not only for the performer, but especially for the composer—to hear the piece for the first time. I’m sure the composer vividly imagines how it should sound beforehand, so for me I try to play it as I imagine the composer would want to hear it—like I do with any music. Artists try to dive into that, into the mind of the composer. And the nice thing is that after the rehearsal, one can speak to the composer and actually hear if it comes close to what he had in mind. And maybe he meant something completely different, but this opens the door for different ideas to shape the work.
With your series beginning this December, what does it mean to be a Carnegie Hall Perspectives artist?
I’m extremely honored. For me, Carnegie Hall is such a legendary place, and this is the ultimate dream. It’s so nice to have this wonderful residency, where one plays solo with an orchestra, but also has three chamber concerts alongside wonderful friends. What is important to me as a musician, is being a musician—not being a soloist, not being limited to any specific form, but being a musician.