By Jessie Tu
German Baroque and early music specialist Jonas Zschenderlein Credit:Gilbhart
Improvisation is a muscle we’ve all had to flex briskly since the beginning of the pandemic, but it’s something German violinist Jonas Zschenderlein has been doing since he was a teenager.
The Frankfurt-based musician, who specialises in early music and Baroque repertoire, was supposed to be in Sydney 12 months ago making his Australian debut with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. But like most of us, his plans were thwarted.
It’s early July when I first speak to him, and he is on Day 9 of hotel quarantine and preparing for live performances in Sydney and Melbourne.
“His melodies drift in and out like a warm breeze”: Jonas Zschenderlein in action.Credit:
“I did some YouTube yoga this morning,” Zschenderlein, 26, tells me via Zoom. “I’ve been learning Japanese during quarantine. I watch a Japanese woman teaching yoga. It also helps to calm me down.”
He tells me it’s a good way to get up with a fresh mind and not be distracted by the phone or “media stuff. It gives me some relaxation”.
It’s Zschenderlein’s first time in Australia – and relaxation is probably eagerly welcomed. Quarantine is a pretty crazy way to be introduced to a new country.
I speak to him again a few weeks later in the final days of July, when Sydney’s lockdown has just been extended for a further month.
The concerts are off but he is still in good spirits.
Following four full days of rehearsals, he and the musicians of the Brandenburg Orchestra have just recorded a live version of the program. They wore masks and kept a 1.5-metre buffer between one another. Before each rehearsal, and on recording day, the musicians underwent a rapid COVID-19 test, the 15-minute on-the-spot screening that has been relied on by arts industries over the course of the pandemic.
“It will look great,” Zschenderlein tells me. “It was a fun time, and we’re all so grateful we could do this.”
Zschenderlein has been focusing on early music and Baroque repertoire since he was 12. That summer he saw a poster on a noticeboard calling for a youth orchestra specialising in Baroque music. It was the first of its kind in Germany. “My father suggested I try it,” Zschenderlein says. “And I was curious.”
A love of early music and Baroque music permeates his family. Zschenderlein is the youngest of three boys; his mother plays harpsichord and keyboard and his flautist father plays the traverso, a traditional Baroque flute made from boxwood, ebony or grenadilla. “We all played an instrument,” Zschenderlein says. “It was just the way to go in my family – it was quite organic.”
Zschenderlein grew up listening to old vinyl recordings – Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Bach Christmas Oratorio and Sigiswald Kuijken’s 1990 recording of Bach’s Violin Sonatas and Partitas among his favourites. Zschenderlein was taken by the Belgian violinist’s clean interpretation on period instruments.
“I was in that atmosphere and space and culture with that kind of music,” he says. “I was introduced to this music in a very natural way.” But his personal devotion to early music was not love at first sound.
Zschenderlein’s first violin teacher had a Baroque violin that the teenager tried and dismissed at first playing. “I tried it out and it was horrible, I really didn’t like it,” he says. “The sound was so rough.”
‘We all played an instrument. It was just the way to go in my family — it was quite organic.’
But he continued to play in Germany’s first Youth Baroque orchestra. “We had great teachers, so this was pushing my interest in Baroque music,” he says. “Everyone around me was so enthusiastic about it.”
“We were practising the usual program during the day, but in the evening we did Early Music chamber music and it was such a huge experience for me because up until then I was just on my own. I went to the Youth Baroque orchestra and every day there was a new piece to play. We played so much together. It was so much fun.”
I ask him to help me understand what it is about Baroque music that drew him in. “It’s interesting that you transitioned to Baroque violin very early on and focused on early music,” I say. “Especially in the early teenage years, when usually the big romantic concertos are more enticing and seductive to a young person. I know as a former player myself, all I wanted to do when I was a teenager was show off with virtuosic runs and lush, exultant displays of emotion.”
Zschenderlein laughs. “I found Baroque and early music more fun,” he says. “I was drawn to it. There were more opportunities to play chamber music with other people, and it wasn’t just solo repertoire. You could do solo and chamber.
“You can’t do Bach justice”: Composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).Credit:
“In chamber music, when you play with other people, you don’t decide on everything immediately,” he adds. “You don’t say: ‘OK, so this part is always going to be forte and this part will always be piano.’ Sometimes in a concert you’ll do the opposite. You just show the musicians around you and it makes them more attentive.”
The recorded concert will open with a Bach pasticcio written by Paul Dyer, artistic director of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, who founded the group 32 years ago. The pasticcio will be an expansive tribute to Bach’s life, weaving together a selection of his solo and chamber works.
Musicians will enter the stage individually, stepping into columns of light as an actor narrates a script by broadcaster and conductor Christopher Lawrence on the life of the German composer, offering an intimate vision of Bach’s instrumental works.
Zschenderlein will open the second half of the program, leading the ensemble in a performance of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major before guest directing one of Bach’s biggest orchestral works, the Orchestral Suite No. 3.
“You can’t do Bach justice,” Zschenderlein says. “You interpret the music based on what you know from the sources from that time. But there’s a lot of intuition. I would say it is 80 per cent intuition and 20 per cent thinking.”
Online videos of Zschenderlein performing demonstrate this unique musical ratio.
In 2018, Sony Music released his first solo album, Pure|Violin Sonatas by Bach, Corelli, Von Westhoff and Montanari, a record coloured with bubbling, polished, silky tones. It’s an ephemeral auditory experience. His melodies drift in and out like a warm breeze. His Adagio from Bach’s Violin Sonata in G major is unobtrusive, atmospheric and enchanting. His bowing is deceptively breezy.
Zschenderlein recording a virtual concert with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.Credit:Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
There’s a spaciousness and swagger in the way he carves the phrasing in his rendition of Corelli’s Sonata Op. 5, No. 5 in G minor. He displays an electrifying tenderness that can only be achieved through years of delicate attention to detail. It’s a sensitivity and alertness that also surfaces in the way he talks about his craft.
“What’s important to think about when playing Baroque is to be spontaneous,” he says. “It’s always going to be different. Today sounds different to yesterday. You’re always trying to create something in the most natural way.”
Nature is unpredictable and tumultuous, yet somehow Zschenderlein has injected its aura into his rendering of music written more than 500 years ago.
Jonas Zschenderlein’s virtual concert with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Bach’s Universe, can be accessed on the Brandenburg’s website, released on August 28. Seven day passes for the digital concert are on sale for $35 (free for subscribers and existing ticket holders). Details at brandenburg.com.au/concerts/2021/bachs-universe/
Jessie Tu is the author of the award-winning novel A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing, which is set in the world of orchestras.
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