VSO’s Messenger of the Gods explores the quiet within

Janet Steinberg, VSO cellist
Associate Principal Cellist, Janet Steinberg. Photo courtesy of Vancouver Symphony

For the Vancouver Symphony’s resident players, work (that is, performing music) is so much more stable than the freelance variety—it even runs the risk of becoming routine. Perhaps that’s why, when I asked about cellist Janet Steinberg and her upcoming solo with the VSO, Maestro Bramwell Tovey first mentioned her demeanour.

“At every rehearsal, Janet always has a smile—she’s happy to be there”, Tovey told me. He added: “but if you asked her to talk about herself, she’d be reluctant”. It’s this modesty that confounds my assumptions of a soloist, even one drawn from the ranks of the orchestra—aren’t they always supposed to be bigger than life, and flashy?

Apparently not. To place Janet somewhere in the Messenger of the Gods pantheon, she’s “Hestia”. Since she made the Vancouver Symphony her home back in 1987, Janet has quietly tended the hearth of music as a section player (albeit Associate Principal). She moved here from San Francisco where she’d been playing in the Oakland Symphony and part-time with the San Francisco Symphony. “So, you quit two orchestras to join one?”, I asked and she laughed.

But it was no joke though when a few short months later, the VSO went bankrupt. “I was devastated”, she said remembering the months of uncertainty as the Symphony struggled to finally re-organize itself. Janet toughed it out and ever since has been a quiet and stable force within the Symphony’s cello section.

Life in the symphony lane

In the Byzantine hierarchy of the Symphony’s string sections, Steinberg is Associate Principal Cello. That’s a step above Assistant Principal Cello, but a step below outright Principal Cello (I imagine these designations work their way back to the far distant shore of the section where some last stand cellist enjoys the title of Co-Associate Assistant Deputy Junior Subaltern Cellist). The selection process for how resident players are awarded solos is no less complex.

Janet explained that the Symphony contains many exceptional players who deserve solos, so farming a solo out to a resident player rather than flying in an international soloist doesn’t come down to cost cutting and is certainly not a second-best choice. Usually the Symphony’s Selection Committee picks the piece first and then the section leader is asked if he or she wants to perform it. If not, it passes to the next player in line. Occasionally a resident player will approach the Selection Committee with a solo suggestion he or she would like to play, but that’s an exception.

When the Symphony’s Selection Committee approached Janet about a new cello concerto, Bow to String by Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnson, she offered a tentative “yes” pending a thorough listening, and a definitive “yes” when she heard the work and liked it.

Janet Steinberg

Janet Steinberg in rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Vancouver Symphony

Bow to String

Bow to String was not originally written as a concert work (for live performance)—it wasn’t even originally a cello concerto. “Originally, it was a studio piece that used many multi-layered tracks of a single cello”, Janet explained adding “that version would take about 65 cellists to perform live.”

After the original studio version won the Best Piece category in the Iceland Music Awards (and Bjarnason won the Best Composer), Bow to String became popular enough that Bjarnason shrewdly set several concert versions including cello and chamber orchestra, cello and full orchestra, and multi cellos alone. Janet now prefers the chamber version but adds that all versions retain the “raw emotions” of the original.

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