11 september 2018
Janine Jansen: Violin Queen
Janine Jansen (40) is one of her generation’s foremost classical musicians. In between tours, we met the Dutch violinist in her hometown Utrecht to talk about family, growing up in the limelight and her precious Stradivarius: “The violin is my voice.”
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A dense fog lingers around the top of the Dom Tower, the monumental eye catcher that stands 112 meters tall, looming over Utrecht. When Janine Jansen, casually dressed in blue jeans, brown boots and a green turtleneck sweater, sets foot in the cafe of her choice, nothing betrays the fact that this woman is one of the violin greats of our time. She has played and recorded with the best conductors and musicians. Legendary classical music venues all over the world, from the Wiener Musikverein to Carnegie Hall, hold no secrets for her.
In fact, Jansen just returned from New York City. Tired but satisfied, she tries to describe the sensation of being on stage and letting the music flow from her instrument. In doing so, her long fingers make a fist that she raises to her chest, as if she’s saying: words aren’t enough, you have to feel it in your heart.
When Jansen isn’t touring, she divides her time between Utrecht and Stockholm, the hometown of Swedish cellist and conductor Daniel Blendulf, to whom she got married in 2012. “During an intense tour, I can really look forward to sleeping in my own bed, not having to live out of a suitcase and seeing my family and friends,” the much sought-after violinist says. “Living a normal life.”
Family is very important to Jansen, who grew up in the Dutch town of Soest. Her father Jan played the organ in the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and was a music teacher at the conservatory in nearby Utrecht. As a young girl, Janine would sing in the church choir, holding hands with her mother Christine, a soprano. “I could read sheet music before I could actually read, so I sang without words. Just the melody, by instinct.”
Jansen’s brothers Maarten and David are five and six years older, respectively. Maarten is a cellist, David followed in his father’s footsteps as an organist. Their parental home was always filled with instruments and music. Jansen would often find herself playing alongside her family in the living room. “I initially wanted to play the cello like my brother, but when I was six years old my parents nudged me towards the violin.”
From that moment onwards, mastering it became an obsession – and master it she did. Not that Jansen never feels tempted to cheat on her beloved violin, but her impatience holds her back. “I could never play another instrument the way I can play the violin,” she says. “Sometimes I think: I would love to sing. But then I realise that the violin is my voice and that I’m really happy with it.”
Be that as it may, it wasn’t this particular instrument that caught her ear. It was the music she heard at home and in church. Bach, mostly. His works became the soundtrack to her childhood. It might as well have been another one of the genre defining composers – Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mahler – but it just so happens to be that none of them take Jansen back to Soest the way Bach does.
In a recent interview, her brother Maarten said: “As a musician, Janine is very extrovert and expressive, as a person a little less.” Upon hearing this, Jansen bursts out in laughter before admitting that he has a point. Music was, is and will always be her favourite form of communication. “It’s where I feel I can completely express myself and I don’t worry about being judged,” she explains. “In daily life that’s not as easy or even necessarily wanted, you don’t just pore out all your emotions and feelings to anyone at any given time.”
The stage is Jansen’s natural habitat. Baring her soul through music with hundreds, often thousands of eyes focussed on her is what she does, distinguishing herself with talent fueled craftsmanship and intense emotional performances. “On stage I’m confident and can fully surrender myself to the music. If you’re not true to yourself, why bother playing?”
Finding her voice
Jansen is the first to admit that her musical and personal development didn’t always run parallel. While studying at the conservatory, she lived in Utrecht for a year before returning to the familiarity of Soest. Only in 2011, the year her father retired as organist of the Dom Church, did she make her way back to the city where she’s currently sipping her hot mint tea.
“As a musician, I was standing on my own feet a lot earlier than as a person,” she admits. “When I was just thirteen or fourteen years old, I already attended a summer course in America. At that age, being away from my parents was a big deal for me. I would go on to travel by myself a lot as a teenager. On the road and on stage, I knew who I was and what I wanted. I was so occupied with finding my own voice that I didn’t take the time to ask myself: who am I as a human being?”
In the early aughts, Jansen’s budding international career gained momentum. She played with highly admired Russian conductor Valery Gergiev for the first of many times, toured Japan with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and got the Stradivarius ‘Barrere’, built in 1727, on loan from the Dutch Elise Mathilde Fund.
Her face lights up when the Barrere comes up. “I will never forget the first time I played it, feeling inspired by an instrument that gives so much more – and so easily.” Little did Jansen know that fifteen years later she would receive the 1707 Stradivarius ‘Rivaz, Baron Gutmann’ on a ten-year loan from Norway’s Dextra Musica foundation. “I started playing the Rivaz two years ago and I’m totally in love with it,” she says. “Whether a violin suits you is very personal. I recently played some violins at a dealer in London. These were topnotch instruments, but that doesn’t mean they all work for me.” She pauses, looking for words. “A violin has to match my idea of tone and color. I want an instrument with a lot of flexibility, an instrument that enables me to paint with sounds. I now notice that, whenever I play something else, I immediately return to my own violin. This is me.”
Flashback to her self-proclaimed breakthrough year, 2002. Jansen, 22, had just made her London debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy, who was signed to Decca Records, the classical music subsidiary of Universal Music Group. A year later, Jansen released her first cd, a compilation album, followed by an immensely popular rendering of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in 2004. Recordings of Bach (2007), Tchaikovsky (2008) and the combination Beethoven/Britten (2009) – the latter’s violin concerto being a lifelong favourite of Jansen – cemented her status as bona fide classical music star and earned her the title ‘queen of the download’, with iTunes sales going through the roof.
By the end of the new millennium’s first decade, Jansen’s calendar listed around 120 concerts per year, all over the world. The documentary Janine (2010), which can be found on YouTube, offers a revealing look behind the scenes. The travelling, the sold-out concerts, the fancy dinners, the photoshoots – and Jansen slowly crumbling under the relentless pressure of her fast-paced existence. She’s all too aware why she ran into a brick wall: the musician and the human being Janine Jansen weren’t in sync. Her body could no longer deliver what her mind demanded, forcing her to take a break. “I didn’t perform for four months and didn’t touch an instrument for at least two,” Jansen remembers, not very fondly. “Sometimes I tried, but I felt an aversion. Not only when I played, also when I heard classical music.”
Jansen processed the wake-up call like a professional: she became more picky, turning her calendar into a carefully balanced succession of highlights. She learned to listen to her body. “Now I know exactly when I’m about to enter the danger zone. But even though I’ve become more aware of that moment, I have to remain careful on tours.”
And there are plenty of those. Jansen is still figuring out which schedule works best for her and Daniel, reserving “red weeks” to be together. “Nobody touches those,” she exclaims with a smile, immediately adding the inevitable “unless”. “As a conductor, Daniel is more at the start of his career than I am as a violinist. When a good opportunity presents itself, it’s important that he takes it, while I now feel that it’s okay to decline requests. I know I need time in between tours to catch my breath.”
On the road
A typical day on the road goes something like this: Jansen spends two hours in the hotel, preferably with her eyes closed, before heading off to rehearsal in the concert hall. After the show, she has dinner. By the time she gets back to the hotel, it’s 2 A.M. Six hours later, the alarm reminds her to catch a flight to the next city, where she rehearses, plays, dines – and so forth, for weeks on end. Short flights aren’t really her thing: too many stimuli. “Sometimes I manage to fall asleep for a while, sometimes I’m so tired I just can’t. I rather enjoy intercontinental flights, because nobody can reach me and there’s nothing much to do. I read the paper, watch movies, sleep. Those are moment of peace.”
With all these endless air miles and concerts in bustling cities, it’s no wonder she prefers her holidays to be wholesome and homely. Her love for snow-capped mountains – visiting the Himalaya is a secret wish – brought Jansen and her husband to Switzerland. “The last couple of years, we’ve rented the same house that feels like it’s ours. I love to be there, in the fresh air of the Swiss Alps. In the summer we hike, in the winter Daniel goes skiing. To be honest, I don’t need much. Cycling through the Dutch woods or boating around Stockholm makes me just as happy.”
The Dutch master violinist only daydreams about settling down when she’s very busy and fatigue starts creeping up on her. “But in the end I can’t imagine myself doing that, at all. A few summers ago, I took two and a half months off and there were moments where I felt like the walls were closing in on me.” She grins. “Maybe I will try again in a couple of years.”
Though that may sound like a joke, it is the reality that comes with being a world-renowned musician: Jansen has to plan years in advance, both concerts and time off. “It can be difficult,” she says, “but on the other hand: it’s awesome that I always have interesting projects to look forward to.” What her life will look like in ten years? Jansen has no idea and prefers to keep it that way. “I just turned 40, which hurt a bit, so thinking about 50… I mean, I feel exactly the same as I did a year ago. You just realise more and more that life doesn’t last forever.”
Janine Jansen (Soest, 1978) grew up in a family of musicians. She started playing the violin at age 6, studied music at the conservatory in Utrecht and made her debut at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 1997. Five years later, she played with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, marking her international breakthrough. In 2003, Janine Jansen released her first, self-titled album for Decca Records. Subsequent recordings of Vivaldi, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Britten earned her the title ‘queen of the download’ and made her a classical music star. After a breakdown in 2010, as a result of relentless touring, Jansen switched to a healthier schedule: less concerts, more time off. It still takes her to every corner of the world. This season Jansen had a residency at Carnegie Hall, next season she has two more with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. Other destinations on her 2018 calendar include Verbier, Hamburg, Japan, Korea and Amsterdam.