Jansen gives stunning advocacy to concerto premiere with Philadelphia Orchestra

March 15, 2018
By Eric C. Simpson
Janine Jansen performed Michel van der Aa's Violin Concerto with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Janine Jansen performed Michel van der Aa’s Violin Concerto with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Steve J. Sherman

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is on top of the musical world right now, simultaneously holding two of America’s most important directorships: between the Metropolitan Opera, where he is set to take over officially in September, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which visits Carnegie Hall a handful of times each season, New York will be seeing a lot of him in the coming years.

Nézet-Séguin brought the Philadelphians to New York on Tuesday night, joined by Janine Jansen for the final concert of her Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall. Her year-long series of curated programs culminated in a remarkable new Violin Concerto by Michel van der Aa, given a stunning performance in its New York premiere. (The Dutch composer’s opera, Sunken Garden, received its U.S. premiere at Houston Grand Opera last week.)

There is a feeling of icy distance as the violin enters alone in the first movement. Wandering but not aimless, the lines are logical and purposeful, even their direction isn’t quite clear. Gradually filling out the skeleton of the orchestra with brass, strings, a whiff of glockenspiel, van der Aa builds up finally to a manic energy. Many composers today work in generalities in their orchestration, creating a wash of indistinct sound, but van der Aa writes with purpose. His music is angular, but not self-consciously so; its sharp edges and spiny tonality excite rather than feeling like ostentatious gesture.

The second movement at first seemed to struggle to distinguish itself and falling into stretches of stagnation, but energetic bursts pierced through the smothering heat. The movement ends on an uncertain upward gesture from the violin, reprising a similar question from its opening bars. The three-movement concerto runs about 30 minutes and ends in classic style, with a hot-blooded finale: after an opening swell of strings and brass, the violin solo launches out of the gate, keeping up an electrifying pulse until the final bars.

Hearing Jansen’s riveting performance, it’s clear why van der Aa wrote this concerto with her in mind. There is a bracing ferocity to her playing that matches the spirit of the work; she is one of a special class of violinists who show no fear in their approach to the instrument, pressing the sound where it serves the music, pushing the instrument to its limits without losing control. It is a thrill to hear her play.

Providing contrast on the second half was a Romantic warhorse, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. This work offers a chance to show off the richness of Philadelphia’s sound, and they certainly did so in the opening Largo. When Nézet-Séguin wants to execute a huge swell of sound or broaden the line, the orchestra responds magnificently.

The playing in the scherzo wasn’t perfectly together, but one doesn’t look to the current Philadelphia Orchestra for cool precision. They play with a special intensity, as they did here, taking an aggressive, almost intimidating approach to much of this movement while still finding the charming counterpoint of its more playful side.

The arching melodies and thick orchestration of the Adagio are not exactly subtle, and Nézet-Séguin was not afraid to let it be sentimental, offering without apology a gorgeous, lush mesh of sound. And he brought the perfect touch to the finale, achieving delirious, shining, unbridled joy without blaring.

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