I was present for a transcendent performance last night. Janine Jansen, with Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic, turned Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major into a near-religious experience – the kind you remember from your first adolescent brushes with music that opened your soul, and hope the rest of your life to come across again, but so rarely do.

Janine Jansen and the New York Philharmonic © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Janine Jansen and the New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

From the opening orchestral notes, it was evident that this was not going to be an ordinary trotting out of a warhorse from the European canon. Van Zweden evoked the kind of sense of personal narrative one gets from the late Beethoven quartets, emphasizing sensuality and mood over structure and elegance. By the time Jansen rippled up the opening phrase of her first entrance, I was on the edge of my seat; within a few bars, it was clear that she would be delivering on the promise the orchestra had made. Every phrase had clear intention; even in the thickets of virtuosic figuration, Jansen found a way to give every note its own meaning. The orchestra were not only accompanying her, they were playing as a duet partner; every entrance was responding to what the soloist had just played, not just giving her a rest.

Jansen plays with impeccable technique and also with abandon. She also has a great deal of stage presence. Her cadenza (Joachim’s) gave the impression of being both improvised and felt in a way that reminded me of Coltrane’s great sax solos. Throughout, I felt as though I was being moved through a very personal landscape – literally transported. When she and van Zweden launched into the third movement, the sense of being included at a magnificent party was irresistible. It was journey and a party I will remember for a long time.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The concerto opened the concert, unfortunately for the music that had to follow it after intermission. Tania Leòn’s Stride (dedicated to Susan B. Anthony) is the second piece in the Philharmonic’s estimable Project 19, in which they are commissioning new work from nineteen female composers in honor of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in the United States. Stride was not an easy piece to like, as much as I wanted to. Many of the musical ideas were striking and memorable, such as the opening non-vibrato string lines and the recurring trumpet fanfares, the low violin melody under skittering woodwinds and the percussive evocation of an unstoppable machine. But if there was a logic or throughline to the constant quick shifting of mood and texture, it escaped me. While incorporating various elements of musical Americana, such as Louis Armstrong’s growl and the Cuban-American “clave” rhythm, along with bluesy chords and other dance rhythms, these were given only fleeting reference, never quite registering until they were already over.

Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier Suite received a perfectly acceptable rendition, drawing out the melodrama of the opera-derived music. Van Zweden here was a raconteur, spinning out a story and focusing on the good bits, embellishing the incidental to increase the fun. The waltzes were convincingly Viennese, the dramatic pauses appropriately tense, the climaxes a cheerful cacophony. The more contrapuntal passages were not always clearly balanced, but when there was a clear foreground and background, the story being told was engaging, if not as gripping as the Brahms had been.

*****