Jessica Linnebach last played the Bartók Volin Concerto No. 2, 15 years ago when she was a student at the Manhattan School of Music.
“I played it when I won the concerto competition. That’s the last time I played it and the only time.” Until this week that is. But she’s been captivated the concerto ever since hearing it in her early teens.
“I remember feeling emotionally grabbed by it. There is a real intensity to it.”
Béla Bartók wrote the piece in 1937-38 as Europe was facing the gathering storm of fascism. In his home country of Hungary, he was under fire for his anti-fascist views.
Linnebach says you can hear the fear and anger that was swirling around him in this piece. Given our current political climate, a performance of this work seems appropriate.
Linnebach, who is known for the intensity of her performances, admits that she may not have been ready to plumb the depths of the piece 15 years ago.
“A lot of teenagers go through a phase of listening to heavy metal music. It was a little bit like that.
“It was a type of hard core classical music that I hadn’t been exposed to so, I was kind of playing it as loud and as rough as possible, with taste, but just hammering.
“This time around, I am able to see the nuances, the different colours and the moods. And I’m a lot more aware of the orchestra part and what’s going on.”
That’s all part of her maturation as a musician. These days she’s the associate concertmaster of the NAC Orchestra.
“Then it was a soloist’s mentality. I was going to play this awesome piece and everyone was just going to follow me.”
She credits some of the evolution of her personal musical perspective to her partner Yosuke Kawasaki, who is the NACO concertmaster.
“I feel like a lot happened when I met Yosuke. I had so much respect for him at the beginning. He has an amazing knowledge of score and everything going on in the music. It was very important to him. Everything he does, he can explain why he does it. I had never been exposed to anyone like that.
“I played how I felt. If it felt good and sounded good, that’s how I played.
Settling into an orchestra has helped too.
“I have become a lot more aware of everything around me. When I hear other soloists play now I think to myself they really have no idea what else is going on.
“I’ve become hyper sensitive about that. I like to play with my colleagues. I don’t really care that I’m standing up front. I’m just happy to play with everyone. That comfort is awesome.”
Linnebach says she has been pushing to perform the Bartók in Southam Hall for “about 10 years.” Finally the call came last year.
Also on the program this week: The Overture to The Bartered Bride by Smetana and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. But Linnebach is only tackling the Bartók.
At 40 minutes long, it’s also physically demanding.
“I have been studying the score a lot. I want to make sure that I’m bringing across what is going on in the music. I’m trying to make it as accessible and likeable as possible.
“The instrumentation incredible. There is a lot to hear in there. You are participating as a listener. It will be intense. You won’t fall asleep I hope.”
She has been playing the piece every day for a couple of months to be in shape for the performances this week.
“I did a run through with piano for a few people just to get some nerves out of the way. I wanted to play it with full power and emotion.”
That’s the Linnebach style and she doesn’t apologize for it.
“That’s the way I am. I play everything like that even in the orchestra, it doesn’t matter. I would never dial it in, ever.
“That’s just me. It’s the way it has always been. It makes me sad when I see people in orchestras phoning it in. I hope to never be that way.”
She will be conducted in the piece by Karina Canellakis, an old colleague from her days at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
“She was a violinist back then. She’s very easy going, very smart. Karina always seemed like this all-American girl.
Canellakis is also one of a small contingent of female conductors.
Linnebach isn’t sure why there aren’t more women holding the baton.
“I don’t know if a lot of women want the job, if they want to deal with all the BS that goes with it.
“For myself, I feel like I could be a concert master somewhere else, but I’m happy where I am. I don’t need to be at the very top.
“Being a conductor can be highly competitive. Maybe it’s not that appealing.”
There is also a lot of management work that is done that isn’t that much fun … meeting, and hirings and firings.
“I also can’t imagine not playing; that’s why I could never imagine conducting. I’d want to play so badly.”
No matter, Linnebach says her colleagues are very excited to be working with Canellakis.
“We are always keen to work with new people. It’s just an attitude we’ve had for the past 10 years. Change is awesome. Stability is fine but to challenge ourselves and try something new is very exciting.
Linnebach and Bartók
NAC Orchestra conducted by Karina Canellakis, Jessica Linnebach, soloist
Where: Southam Hall
When: Jan. 10 and 11 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca