America has yet to get to know the real Janine Jansen, and I'm not convinced that I helped as much as I'd meant to with the piece I wrote for this week's TONY. (The article is here -- free of charge, but you have to register.) In that story, I mainly dealt with the single phenomenon that is currently making this 27-year-old Dutch violinist a quirky news item -- namely, that her new recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons on Decca is a runaway bestseller, but 91 percent of her sales to date have been via download at iTunes.
In the article, I talk about two factors I surmise to be the cause of this situation. One is that I suspect the iTunes market for classical music is probably driven by non-specialists who might want to satisfy their curiosity about this or that warhorse they've heard of, but don't already have a favorite record or three on their non-virtual shelf. To such consumers, I'd guess, one name is pretty much like another.
The other factor, not unconnected to the first, is that Decca is packaging and marketing Jansen's releases with extremely alluring photographs like the one you see above. Where a more hidebound classical consumer might look at that emphasis on Jansen's physical allure as a blind behind which a lack of talent could be hidden, I suspect that an iTunes user reared on pop-music imagery wouldn't necessarily be so skeptical. A well-placed banner ad like the one Universal Classics unfurled at iTunes could easily provoke curiosity, and sound bites that reveal the performance to be a genuinely exciting one would likely finish the deal.
In case you don't plan to read the article, I'll repeat here that I think Jansen's Four Seasons -- a fiery reading made more transparent by a unique one-on-a-part orchestration -- is as good as any modern-instrument performance I've heard, and better than most. Jansen ordinarily commands a sweet, succulent tone, but she's not at all afraid of digging in and getting dirty when the music calls for it. The opening movement of her "Winter" is among the most bone-chilling I've heard; the initial harpsichord figures -- played by Jansen's father! -- are the aural equivalent of watching ice crystals grow in time-lapse photography.
When I interviewed Jansen for the TONY article, she was bright, funny and well-spoken about the music. And she seemed genuinely flustered, if only for a moment, when I asked her if she worried that her glamorous photos might have a negative impact on a certain sector of the market -- the one that, to judge by Gramophone ads, only appreciates cheesecake in hi-fi advertisements. Her response was straightforward enough: If she spent so much time and effort making a record that sounded good, why wouldn't she want it to look good, as well?
My article covers all of this well enough, I think. But if I'd had more space, I would love to have talked about things like her commitment to contemporary music. Jansen regularly participates in Spectrum Concerts Berlin, a chamber-music series that has performed (and recorded, for Naxos) the likes of John Harbison and Robert Helps. She has commissioned and performed 24 caprices by contemporary Dutch composers, a project I'd love to hear, and she mentioned that the Concertgebouw will be commissioning a new concerto for her, as well.
I'd also love to have further elucidated her relationship with the Britten Violin Concerto, which she played tonight in Newark with Neeme Järvi and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Jansen first learned the concerto when she was asked to play it on one of her earliest orchestral-soloist engagements -- a point at which, she said, she would have been willing to play pretty much anything that was requested of her -- and quickly came to love the piece. Later, when she played it with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, a violinist from that ensemble thanked her for bringing back a work that British orchestra hadn't played in decades -- a fact that both surprised and delighted the Dutch musician.
Jansen's performance tonight left absolutely no doubt that she's a soloist of the first rank. Physically, she's a player of the body-rockin' Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg school, blonde hair flying and horsehair shredding. She pumped her right shoulder when preparing for more rugged entrances, making faces at the maestro as she launched into the music. But Jansen also played with tremendous delicacy when the score called for it, and boasted the most secure command of the instrument's highest notes and harmonics of any violinist I have ever heard in concert. Double- and triple-stops posed no difficulty, and she made the effort of simultaneously bowing and plucking notes on the neck seem like child's play.
If I had limitless funds at my disposal, I'd pack Jansen off to a recording studio with the LSO and someone like Hugh Wolff in a heartbeat, pairing her rendition of this piece with something that struck me as a natural complement, the Barber concerto. Compared to the three recordings of the Britten that I know and admire, Jansen's performance was more lithe than those of Mark Lubotsky and Maxim Vengerov, and tonally sweeter than Daniel Hope's. (Meanwhile, I suspect that Jansen's next recording project, the Mendelssohn concerto with the esteem-commanding Riccardo Chailly and his Gewandhaus band, will finally begin to crack the critical ice over here.)
Järvi's orchestra rose to the occasion both as a whole and in individually spotlighted instances, such as the remarkable passage in which piccolos snatch the fiddler's solo, then toss it up against the tuba player. I would have liked a richer horn-section introduction to the violin cadenza, but otherwise, this was a nicely gauged and wholly convincing reading.
The conductor built a sympathetic program around the Britten. Arvo Pärt's Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten opened the concert. Pärt's music has long been a Järvi specialty; that accounted for the luminous rendition, but rendered curious the fact that the conductor lowered his baton -- thus inviting raucous applause -- well before the final bell had faded. After the break, Järvi led a brisky paced, exactingly balanced and pointedly accented performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7. The New Jersey Symphony boasts an exceedingly warm string sound, at least in this hall, bathing the mysterious Allegretto in tones of mahogany, amber and honey. The Presto was effervescent (although here, the balance was less pristine), the Allegro con brio suitably breathless.
Tonight's concert, I'll add, was appealing on more than purely musical grounds. Prudential Hall at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center has long been one of my favorite local spaces, yet I'd never heard a classical performance there before tonight. (My previous encounters were with Cassandra Wilson and the Chieftains -- thankfully, not at the same time, though I wouldn't put it past Paddy Moloney to consider it.) The hall proved well suited to orchestral sonics, not nearly as dry and thankless as Avery Fisher Hall, although the man shuffling his shoes on the hardwood floor across the aisle drove me to distraction now and then.
Moreover, the tone of the presentation was friendlier, less ostentatious, than most of what we get in Manhattan, certainly at Lincoln Center. Before the concert, NJSO principal bassoonist Robert Wagner came to the front of the stage to warm up the audience. He called Järvi out to talk about the conductor's long relationship with Pärt, during which it was revealed that in Estonian, "part" means "duck" and "järvi" is "lake" -- which seems to explain a lot.
Before the Beethoven, an NJSO board member took the microphone to pay homage to second violinist Thomas Lindsay, who is leaving the orchestra after 35 years of service... and who personally introduced the board to a potential benefactor named Herbert Axelrod. (Which played out well for the orchestra, at least.) Even Järvi got into the act, eliciting passages so hushed as to draw chuckles from the audience during an encore of "Anitra's Dance" from Grieg's Peer Gynt -- and hamming just enough to prove that he was in sync with the moment's quiet humor.
Hard to imagine that kind of conviviality emanating from the stage at Avery Fisher Hall, isn't it?