Interview with Violinist Dylana Jenson
At the age of 11, Dylana Jenson performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and at 17 she became the first American woman and the youngest ever to win the Silver Medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. She has received unparalled critical acclaim for her performances with major orchestras throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, Latin America, Australia and Russia.
Hailed by the New York Times as a "mature master," and as "one of the few extraordinary violin soloists in the world" by Frankfurt's Ruhr-Nachrichten, Dylana Jenson is one of America's premiere violinists today. From her acre-and-a-half of "paradise" (as she calls it) in New Mexico, where she resides with her husband, conductor David Lockington, and children, Dylana gave us this interview in the Summer of 1998.
Jones: As a soloist, what is your own personal view towards musical interpretation? To what extent is technique important in communicating a piece of music?
Dylana Jenson: As far as interpretation goes, I really think that the technical is only a vehicle for expression. If you make people aware of the technical as being awe-inspiring, then you've really lost the point of what interpretation is all about. So, even when I'm playing Paganini, I feel it in a musical way, and I hope that the technical should serve the musical expression.
Jones: You're probably the first person to say that about Paganini!
Jenson: But Paganini's music is gorgeous!
Jones: I know, but most people tend to hear him or Liszt, and think those are just "showpieces."
Jenson: There are people who can play Paganini a million times better than I can play it. They can be flashy and absolutely perfect. I hope that I what I bring to that kind of repertoire is trying to make the technical easy enough so that it goes right over people's heads, and instead they think about the music: "Wow, wasn't that just elegant, and beautiful?" Also, the violin, unlike the 'cello, has a very vast repertoire and the music is beautiful; and we have a very short life. And I feel that if I'm doing the same Beethoven sonata that I did 20 years ago, it's not the same. For me, it's reflective of who I am now. And so, coming to these pieces that I've played before, for instance, this week I'm playing Brahms' 1st Sonata, which I haven't played in at least twelve years. I've grown as a person, and my music has mutated along with me. I'm not going to comment about "maturity," whatever that means. I think that's kind of irrelevant. I think what you bring to your music as a teenager is as relevant as what you might bring to it in your fifties; it's just totally different. There are people out there who can express where they are, no matter what their age or life experiences are. The other thing I was going to mention was Nathan Milstein: For about ten years or so, I would follow him to recitals, and he would repeat the same repertoire over and over and over. He really felt that what he had to bring was through a certain repertoire -- not that it limited him, but there were certain things that he felt very close to. I'm not looking to find fabulous new music; I think there's great new music out there, and I like music that has been written in the last twenty years a lot. But, I guess I'd rather leave it to those who can do it better.
Jones: Along with Milstein, what violinists inspired you? Does that inspiration find its way into your own playing?
Jenson: I think that listening to others' playing is so essential, because what you're getting from admiring someone is you are understanding that person, and growing from that. There was a period of time in my life when people said to me, "you shouldn't listen to recordings, it should come from inside." Well, what comes out of a person is really what's been put in, not in an imitation process, but in a life experience. My parents were so into that, they would take me to see everyone who was performing in a 200-mile radius -- we went! It didn't matter if it was late at night, they wanted to give me that exposure. And when I was very young, it was David Oistrakh. I really felt very close to him, to his beauty of sound and his approach was so beautiful. Then, my father heard about Nathan Milstein, who was giving master classes when I was about twelve, and my father decided that would be a good thing for me to do, so he called Milstein -- I don't know how he got through -- annd Milstein really suggested that I was too young, but my father was absolutely determined. Now, Milstein was a living legend, one of the greatest violinists alive. So my father said, "you'll be going to his classes, you'll have to prepare for a certain repertoire." So I started listening to Milstein's records, and I didn't get it. I just didn't relate to his playing. Oistrakh was more of my musical mentor up to that point. But, I started listening to Milstein, and when I went to the master classes, and saw him in front of me, I understood what it was about. I had to put the person with the playing and see how the two were absolutely truthful to each other. Then, he became the great inspiration in my life.
Jones: How did you start playing the violin?
Jenson: I started on the violin when I was two and-a-half with my mother, who is not a violinist. She learned how to play the violin from library books --
Jones: -- Really! --
Jenson: -- she would teach herself the night before and teach us the next day, with another brother and sister, the three of us; initiation by just doing it. She taught me for a few years, and then she got up to the Bach Double with me and then couldn't keep up with me, so then I went to a regular teacher. I studied with Manuel Compinsky until I was twelve. He was a wonderful teacher: He really did what my father called "supervised practice." That is, I would have four or five lessons a week, and he would practice with me. What he taught me was how to practice. For example, just to say to somebody, "well, go home and work on your intonation." People have no idea what that requires, and this is what Mr. Compinsky taught me, was how to practice and he was meticulous. I remember many lessons in which I would be exhausted (laughs), practically falling asleep, but he wouldn't let one note go by if it was out of tune. He was such an incredible teacher.
Jones: Were you formally trained in an musical institute, such as Juilliard or Curtis?
Jenson: No. In fact, I quit school in general. I used to go a half-day to public school, but I went kind of sporadically, from the first to the sixth grade, from 9 to 12. I quit school, because I was performing a lot, and travelling around the world. But, I loved to read and I sort of ended up educating myself, and my parents really let me explore my ideas, and my obsessions (laughs). In fact, I home school my own children. I was "unschooled" before it was called something. My father was at home all the time. He was a writer, and so he was always discussing some book or some article or speech by somebody, so it was a constant intellectual stimulation. To be in the house, it would be so exhausting, like, "Pop, stop it already!" He would even proofread cereal boxes.
Jones: And, of course, later, you studied under Nathan Milstein.
Jenson: That was after I was a student of Mr. Compinsky. When I started taking master classes with Milstein, he said: "You don't need a teacher, you need to be free to experiment," which just made me ecstatic. I was already twelve and thought "I'm ready to be on my own," and I did pretty much stay on my own until I was fifteen-and-a-half, and my family moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where I studied with Josef Gingold, for about a year and-a-half. It was fascinating for me to live in Bloomington, because not only did I study with Gingold, which was very interesting for me, but I would also go to the master classes at the University of Indiana.
Jones: One of my favorite movies takes place there, Breaking Away.
Jenson: That was just fantastic! My brother was there when they made that and they had to get people to come to the stadium scene and he was in that final scene in the crowd for the Little 500.
Jones: So you studied at the University of Indiana?
Jenson: No, I just lived there, and studied with Mr. Gingold, and I would just go to all the master classes. It was so incredible for me to experience all the masters who were there, to just go listen. At the same time, every summer, or whenever I was in Europe performing, I would go see Milstein. He was so incredible. He was just sort of my mentor in life. He was just such an incredibly honest person, so committed to his art. His life was his art, and he was just a great....great man. Later I moved to New York, where I was just performing, after the Tchaikovsky competition.
Jones: You have been concertizing less frequently than you did, say, ten years ago.
Jenson: An unfortunate thing happened. I had a large career, was travelling all over the place, and I met my husband in Denver -- I played the Beethoven Concerto there -- and we met, and obviously decided to get married, and I sent out invitations to this upcoming wedding, including sending one to the gentleman who was lending me the Guarnerius del Gesu violin to record, and perform on. He then contacted me, and said "you have two weeks to return the violin, because obviously you're not committed to your career if you're getting married."
Jones: That's why he wanted it back?!
Jenson: You have to understand that 15 years ago, there weren't many women soloists -- with the exception of singers --Anne-Sophie Mutter and me; we really had yet to come on the scene. In the United States, there were maybe a handful of woman soloists. So, I don't think there's a history there to accept that women are soloists and could be committed to their careers. So, I convinced him to let me have it an additional week, and I played Brahms' Concerto in San Francisco. Then, I had to return it, and I thought, "I have a full season, three years booked ahead. There's not going to be a problem, I'll be able to find something to play on." Unfortunately, I was young enough that I didn't want to oppose anyone who was helping me with my career. At that time, I had a manager who was an older gentleman, and I immediately spoke to him about this problem, and he said "well you can't let anybody know you don't have a violin, because if you do, I can't book concerts for you." And I said, "well, if they don't know I don't have a violin, how am I supposed to play these concerts you've booked me to do?" He said, "well that's not my problem." And of course, I had a ten-year recording contract with RCA and I had a recording coming up of the Brahms Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and they also said they could not help me find an instrument. So, I was kind of left in a quandary, because I couldn't be open about the fact that I didn't have an instrument. But, then again, I was performing concerts. Luckily, I had a friend who was a small dealer, and he would lend me things that were in his shop. Or, at one time I rented a violin. One time I went to an orchestra and I didn't have a violin, so I asked somebody in the violin section if they had an extra instrument I could play on. So, time was passing and my anxiety was rising and I tried every scheme to raise money, to beg, to find something permanent to play on because the instruments I was performing on were very inferior and I was constantly changing. The first year I was without a violin, I played on 23 different instruments.
Interviewer: So it's that important to have a violin made by the Italian masters?
Jenson: Well, there are two reasons why it's so important. The first, of course, is that it's your wooden voicebox. You come to know an instrument, and for me, I'm no longer aware that I'm playing on a violin; I'm just expressing myself. If you can imagine going to a concert hall and Pavarotti is singing, and he gets up on stage and he opens his mouth and it's Phil Collins' voice! But can Pavarotti be the kind of artist he is with someone else's voicebox? Secondly, when I prepared the Brahms Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra for a concert, the concertmaster went into the seats to listen, hear the balance, and he came back to me and said "don't try to do any nuances, because they can't hear you anyway." And, at that moment, a realisation came to me that what I was doing by playing with these major orchestras, not knowing what instrument I was going to play on, maybe borrowing the week before sometimes, was irresponsible. I was not being fair to these orchestras. They expect a certain product; I've played with them before. To come back, and not be what they're expecting....you can't be intimate with a violin you've had for a few days, you can't know how it's going to respond on stage. So, I spent a lot of years just trying to find an instrument to play on.
Jones: The Guarnerius del Gesu you played on had such a warm tone, it sounded almost like a viola.
Jenson: Isn't it amazing?!
Jones: So, ideally, your instrument is an extension of your self when you do play?
Jenson: In my best moments, and now I'm feeling that more since I've had my violin now for a couple of years and it feels like it's not changing all the time, which it was going through for about a year. To answer your question: Absolutely. If you don't feel that, if you don't get it, you are not getting there! That's where I want to be that's why I play music, so that the instrument and my relationship with the music goes beyond playing the instrument, it should go directly to expressing what's going on.
Jones: It's sort of what Angus Young [of AC/DC] said about Eddie Van Halen: "His sound is so 'rehearsed.' He's a great instrumentalist, but you have to dig into the music itself, you've got to get in there" --
Jenson: -- yeah, and I think I've been very lucky that I started violin so young that it was my emotional language. I didn't have to struggle through my teens to figure out what I was feeling, because every time I played my violin, I could be in touch with where I am, it's like "so there I am!"
Jones: So, you use music to relate to the world, that's your voice.
Jenson: With myself as well, to be in touch with what's going on inside of me right now.
Jones: I have found that can be both ennobling and also liberating, and at the same time alienating. For example, when I was four years old, my hero in life was Rachmaninoff. And I asked my mother, "Mom, when are we going to go hear Rachmaninoff in person," and she told me, "Rachmaninoff is dead." And so, I went out into the street to tell all my friends that Rachmaninoff had died. And they said, "who's Rachmaninoff?" And it shattered my whole universe!
Jenson: I think that what you're expressing, that shock, that moment of realization is what I lived with for the ten years I was without an instrument. Every second, I was just in shock. It wasn't like, "oh, I'm so great," but rather that I had something to offer. How do I explain this, so it doesn't sound arrogant? There was a feeling that I was here because I had to give what I had to give in music, and to have this shock, this constant shock, that in my opinion, the world didn't care about what I had to offer, and I was just there to offer it. In fact, the life of a soloist is difficult. In fact, I had read an interview with Yo-Yo Ma in Time, and I remember when I used to travel ten months out of the year. You don't have friends every day, you're always in airplanes, you get insomnia and you're changing time zones every second. It was a great life, I'm not saying it was a terrible life, but it's very different and it's one that the gratitude that you must get from it is that you are giving music, and that people are getting it. So I lived for all these years thinking "I thought this is what life is supposed to be."
Jones: You finally have a permanent instrument, a Zygmuntowicz?
Jenson: I went to see Yo-Yo Ma, who was playing in Baltimore a couple years ago, and I talked to him over the years about the problem of finding an instrument, and he said "you should go see Samuel Zygmuntowicz, who is in Brooklyn, and listen to his violins," and so Mr. Zygmuntowicz made me this instrument, and for the first year it was a real struggle, kind of tough to play. It requires a lot of bow-arm pressure, just to get a big sound and to let the violin vibrate more freely. So now, I've had this instrument for almost three years, and I'm very pleased. I'm so happy to have my own instrument; I don't have to be afraid somebody's going to call me and say that it's time to give it back, or that I won't know what I'm going to play on next week. It's such an incredible feeling to know that that violin is there, and will be there next year, and five years from now.
Jones: As the editor of both the Sibelius and Ormandy Web Pages, I'd like to talk about your recording of the Sibelius Concerto, with Ormandy and the Philadelphia. Hearing it, even today, I think: Here's someone who understands Sibelius (and Sibelius is an enigma in himself anyway) as far as how he composed. Your performance is virtuoso in the sense that, it sounds impossible, yet your performance is quite integral with the orchestra, which to me is quite Sibelian in the sense that Sibelius composed for the strings, using the other instruments for tonal coloring. I've had that recording for about fifteen years now, and your performance still sounds immediate, very heartfelt.
Jenson: Thank you. You know, when you mentioned that, it makes me think of when I was a kid, I was in love with the recording of Oistrakh playing the Sibelius, and I listened to it so many times that my mother thought it wasn't good for me, she thought, well you know, "she's becoming totally obsessed." So, she hid the record; it was probably for a year or something, every second I was listening to Oistrakh playing the Sibelius.
Jones: What was it like performing and recording with Eugene Ormandy?
Jenson: Oh, very easy, very easy. The Philadelphia Orchestra obviously had built up a rapport with him after so many years, so he didn't have to do very much with his conducting to get the orchestra to totally respond to what he wanted -- he got an immediate response. I think that he was incredibly supportive -- when we were performing at Carnegie Hall, and I played a certain passage, he turned to me and whispered to me, "that was so beautiful." And then there was a fun thing in the last movement of the Sibelius Concerto, after the first section where I played a repeat sign, and I would come back with a run; there's a second run -- there are two runs that are exactly the same and he suggested that I do the second one up the g-string, and I did it that way during the concert, and he was beaming. He was so responsive. It was very easy, very very easy.
Jones: What musical pieces outside of the violinist's repertoire do you admire. For example, if I were interviewing a pianist and I asked, "what violin concertos do you like?"
Jenson: I love so many things.... I love the singing of Carlos Gardel, who is an Argentinean singer from the 1930s and 40s. I listen to him all the time, he's such a great artist, such a great artist. Of course I like Astor Piazzola as well. I just love his music, some of the earlier recordings were just simply written for the violin, piano, percussion and bandoneon -- just brilliant. I love other thhings, for different reasons, of course Gorecki, the Symphony No. 3. It's such an incredible piece. It expresses emotions that don't have any redemption, it seems to me. So few composers are willing to explore those emotions which are not popular.
Interviewer: By emotions that have no redemption, do you mean that there's no resolution to the music?
Jenson: Right. I don't think that there is, in my opinion -- my humble opinion. With his symphony, I feel that there is no hope given. It's sharing the emotions, for instance, of a parent losing a child, which is an emotion you cannot experience unless you've already experienced it -- and he has been able to share these intensely desperate emotions, so that we can all understand and feel them. Not to make a general comment, but women tend to feel some of these emotions more, because they experience childbirth, and can be very connected with their children and I think that for Gorecki to be able to write this and share this with more of humanity -- not just mothers who have gone through great sorrow losing children -- it isn't even like losing a parent. I lost my father and I was intensely affected for several years by that great loss, and still he was an older man; he had lived a life. I could never imagine losing a child, who is just in the beginning of life and hasn't lived and experienced life fully. [On the issue of "hope"], My husband disagrees with me, because he feels that there is some sort of hopefulness at the end of the symphony. In my opinion, it's an acceptance that there is good and bad in life. It is impossible to hope that the world will change to the extent that the bad "will go away!" (laughs) In the end of the symphony, there is no false hope for great peace and love that will be save humanity. I don't see that there.
Jones: Rather like Sibelius' Fourth Symphony. People walk around, and say "I don't get it." They're unwilling to accept the great and unrelenting stoicism that's in it. There is no "happy ending" to it. Does that make it any less worthy? I don't think so.
Jenson: No, I don't either. Another interesting piece is Brahms' Second Sonata in A for Violin and Piano. For me, the whole sonata is unrequited love. Beautiful love is expressed in each movement, and yet, each movement ends quite abruptly, without tremendous resolution.
Jones: Are you considering recording any time soon?
Jenson: I don't know how soon I'd really like to record. Just now, this year, maybe in the last few months or so, my violin has stopped changing dramatically every couple of months. For the first year, I was just breaking it in and finding its voice. So, I feel like I'm just starting to settle into the violin now. I'd like to start recording, but as I said, I've been waiting so long to finally have a violin I'd like to record on.
Jones: Thank you for giving me the time to talk with you.
Jenson: You're welcome; thank you.