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Classical 101

Meet Dylana Jenson, Violinist with a Voice

17 AUDIO PIECES, ALL INTERVIEWS   It's more than a little strange to be introducing a musician whom the classical music world has in one sense known for more than three decades. But hear American violinist Dylana Jenson's story - one of a prodigious musical talent virtually silenced at the flowering of what augured to be a brilliant concert career, and now, with the release of a new recording of violin concertos by Shostakovich and Barber with the London Symphony Orchestra, again on the rise - and you'll understand the reason for this little introduction. Jenson joined me in a phone interview recently from her home in Grand Rapids, MI, years after an unfathomable episode left her without an instrument to play - left her, as Jenson says, artistically voiceless. Here is Jenson's story in (mostly) her own words, and in her own voice. Jenson, 49, was a child prodigy. Her mother had come to America from Costa Rica and fell in love with classical music when she heard the Beethoven symphonies on some some old 78s.  Jenson's mother was poor and never had the opportunity to learn how to play an instrument, but did everything she could to take part in music: [audio:jenson-when-mother-was-in-high-school-she-pretended-to-play-violin-in-the-orchestra.mp3] Jenson's mother insisted that Jenson and her siblings have a chance to learn how to play instruments. In the early 1960s, the noted Japanese music educator Dr. Shinichi Suzuki was making his first tour of the U.S. and showing parents and teachers alike his innovative approach to teaching music to very young children. For Jenson's mother, the Suzuki method was the answer to a prayer: [audio:jenson-mother-taught-herself-suzuki-method.mp3] For four years, Jenson learned to play the violin alongside her mother. When Jenson was seven, her parents took her to study with noted violinist Manuel Compinsky.  Just this year Jenson found a cassette tape her parents made of her first lesson with the chamber music master: [audio:jenson-remembers-first-lesson-with-compinsky.mp3] Jenson thrived on Compinsky's perfectionism; like a sponge, her muscle memory absorbed his pearls of wisdom.  Her mother was firm in her desire for her daughter to learn correct technique through actual violin performance repertory - concertos, solo pieces - rather than through etudes of little artistic depth.  So Compinsky guided Jenson through the violin repertory, refining her technique one passage, one phrase, one piece at a time. But when Jenson told Compinsky she wanted to learn the Mendelssohn concerto, a work that calls for mastery of the ricochet technique, her teacher hesitated and her mother stepped in with just the right magic: [audio:jenson-mother-taught-me-ricochet.mp3] By age 13 Jenson was performing in public.  When Jenson was 15, she moved with her family to Bloomington, Indiana, where she met the legendary Indiana University violin pedagogue Josef Gingold.  The young Jenson and Gingold were more like colleagues than student and teacher: [audio:jenson-mentorship-with-josef-gingold.mp3] In 1978, when she was 17, Jenson won the silver medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.  That win, and the prospects of what would no doubt be a dazzling concert career, convinced the owner of a 1743 Guarneri del Gesù violin to loan the violin to Jenson.  A Montagnana violin had seen Jenson successfully through the Tchaikovsky competition.  But the del Gesù, Jenson says, felt like an extension of herself: [audio:jenson-how-it-felt-to-play-the-del-gesu.mp3] Jenson's calendar began filling up with engagements to solo with major orchestras.  She signed a contract to make a series of recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  As one of precious few women musicians on the concert circuit in the early 1980s, the barely-adult-aged Jenson was building a life for herself. So when Jenson and conductor David Lockington decided to marry, Jenson sent the violin's owner a wedding invitation.  She could never have predicted his response: [audio:jenson-how-i-lost-the-del-gesu.mp3] Two weeks after the fateful phone call, Jenson handed over the violin to its owner.  The instrument landed back in the vault. At the time, Jenson thought the withdrawal of the del Gesù would be only a minor obstacle to her career.  She was wrong.  For a couple of years she borrowed violins from players in the orchestras with which she performed as soloist.  But these instruments lacked the presence and quality of sound a concert violin needs in order to project over an orchestra.  Music critics started to notice the problem, writing reviews of Jenson's performances of concertos "without violin."  Jenson asked everyone she knew for help finding a concert-caliber violin, but no one came through. [audio:jenson-i-asked-everyone-for-help.mp3] Her management and recording company became increasingly frustrated with her inability to proceed with scheduled performances and recordings.  Lacking an instrument suitable to her work, Jenson eventually was forced to leave the major concert stage, performing occasionally only on borrowed violins and with smaller orchestras. With each failed attempt to find a world-class instrument, Jenson grieved more and more the loss of the del Gesù.  At one point, even hearing the sound of a violin was enough to leave her in tears: [audio:jenson-had-to-leave-performance-at-sound-of-violin-tuning.mp3] But Jenson's luck started to change in 1996, when she met luthier Samuel Zygmuntowicz.  When Jenson told Yo-Yo Ma of her quest for a concert instrument, the world-renowned cellist referred her to Zygmuntowicz.  She commissioned a violin from him, for which Zygmuntowicz made a copy of a del Gesù.  After some retooling, this instrument became the instrument Jenson played in a 2005 Carnegie Hall performance with her husband's orchestra, the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra.  Jenson was also given a second Zygmuntowicz, a copy of a Stradivarius ("Strad") violin.  She says her twin violins couldn't be more different: [audio:jenson-the-two-zygmuntowicz-violins-are-very-different.mp3] The reworked Zygmuntowicz violin is also the instrument on which Jenson made her 2009 recording of the Barber Violin Concerto and the first Shostakovich Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra, her husband conducting.  That project was the result of what could without much exaggeration be called the stuff of every musician's dreams: [audio:jenson-michael-hampton-invited-jenson-to-record-with-lso.mp3] Hampton gave Jenson carte blanche to select the repertory for her recording with the London Symphony Orchestra.  Jenson chose the Shostakovich concerto because in it she hears her own struggles: [audio:jenson-the-emotional-process-of-shostakovich-concerto.mp3] Hear the ponderous bleakness in her sound near the work's beginning: [audio:jenson_shostakovich_1.mp3] . .  and the frenetic determination as the cadenza moves into the finale: [audio:jenson_shostakovich_4.mp3] Jenson selected the lush and lyrical Barber Violin Concerto a "nice juxtaposition" with the heavier Shotakovich.  At the Barber concerto's opening, she veritably sings above the London Symphony Orchestra's rich bed of support: [audio:jenson_barber_1.mp3] With not one but two top-flight instruments in her collection, a recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, and engagements for concerto performances with regional American orchestras of note, Jenson's career has all the appearances of a comeback.  But she emphatically rejects this notion.  Years of grieving over the loss of the del Gesù instrument she says felt like a part of her have convinced Jenson that hope can be dangerous: [audio:jenson-i-cant-think-in-terms-of-comebacks.mp3] And her life experience has taken her on a journey that, in the final analysis, is a spiritual one, a journey full of questions to which there may be no answers: [audio:jenson-i-dont-know-why-this-happened-to-me.mp3] But at the very least, Jenson is silenced no longer. - Jennifer Hambrick