Janine Jansen is tall and fine-boned, with piercing blue eyes and a girl-next-door kind of openness. But when she picks up her 1727 Stradivarius, she takes no prisoners. Jansen made a big splash in 2005, when her recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons became one of the best-selling albums on iTunes. Since that time, her career has only grown.
Swiss composer Richard Dubugnon has written several pieces for Jansen, including a violin concerto. He says he fell in love with her playing immediately.
"She has a great honesty — on top of her beauty, naturally — and you feel it," Dubugnon says. "She's completely dedicated to her instrument and to the music. She serves music, like, 200 percent. There is no fuss. There is no ego. It's just complete dedication and gift."
Jansen grew up in a musical family in Holland, and she picked up the violin when she was 6. She says she played chamber music with her parents and older brothers all the time.
"It's so important, I think, that you do that from a young age and learn to communicate through music," Jansen says. "Listen to each other, react to each other; just be, you know, aware of everything. "
By the time Jansen was 15, she had played solo on the stage of the famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. In her early 20s, she embarked on an international career and was signed by Decca Records. But her big break came when her Vivaldi recording hit it big.
"It was, for me, also very, very strange," she says, "because I didn't even know so much about iTunes — I had never downloaded a thing in my life, you know?"
The album sold more downloads than physical CDs. Jansen says it brought her an audience that extended beyond classical music fans.
"From the comments, you could kind of get that they had never heard, for instance, a harpsichord in their life before," Jansen says. "And this is, in a way, really great; that they react so positively to something new to them."
Classical critics, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns, took notice, too.
"I love her technique," Stearns says. "I love the fact that there's none of that syrupy faking or anything like that. But, more than that, I love the fact that she is not only willing to show us who she is, but she's able to, because the technique is so precise."
Jansen has recorded many of the standard violin concertos — Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Beethoven — but she's also recorded lesser-known repertoire like Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto, which premiered in 1940. She first played it more than 10 years ago in England with the City of Birmingham Orchestra. She says she remembers that the orchestra members were grateful to her for reviving the piece.
"They came up to me afterwards, saying, 'Oh my God! Thank you for bringing this piece to us again. We haven't played it for 25 years!' And then you think, 'My God. Benjamin Britten, it's like the British composer and they haven't played it. I as a Dutch person am coming to bring it to them again.' So, then, I really started to fight for this piece," she says, "because I loved it so much."
Like A Chamber Musician
Jansen played Britten's violin concerto with the New York Philharmonic just last week. Paavo Jarvi conducted. He says that even when she plays with an orchestra, Jansen approaches the music like a chamber musician.
"It is such a wonderful quality," Järvi says, "And it's a rare quality, because very often soloists sort of stand there and do their thing and everybody else has to, basically, accompany. With her, it's always give and take, and it's always flexibility. It's never business as usual."
Jansen plays about 140 concerts a year, but she makes sure there's plenty of room for more intimate music-making. She's artistic director of an annual chamber-music festival in her hometown of Utrecht. Jansen's new album, Beau Soir, is her first recital disc.
"I wanted to have the French repertoire," she says, "because I love especially the sonatas by Debussy, Ravel. The Messiaen 'Theme et Variations' is one of my favorite pieces since I was young."
The French repertoire allows her to show off all the colors in her Stradivarius violin — which, for a while, was owned by the French ambassador to Italy.
"I am incredibly happy with it," she says. "I've been playing it for 11 years. It's on loan by a Dutch foundation, and I can play it as long as I play, as long as I live, as long as I play concerts."