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Violinist Janine Jansen: The Genuine Article

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


Photo: Sara Wilson

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.”

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