Lucas & Arthur Jussen

The success of the Jussen brothers

Thursday 20 May 2010

HP/De Tijd – 20 mei 2010
By Ruud Meijer

The piano-playing brothers Arthur (13) and Lucas Jussen (17) are the only Dutch musicians ever contracted by Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft. Moreover, Arthur is the youngest performer who was allowed to record for this prestigious quality label. It appeared to be a golden opportunity for both parties: on the day Beethoven Piano Sonatas was released, the album had already achieved the golden status. Despite their exceptional pianistic gift, for Arthur and Lucas there is more in life than playing the piano – HP/De Tijd went to see what.

The success of the Jussen brothers

Pok! Swoosh! Yeaaah!!! Triumphantly Lucas Jussen holds his racket up for a second, before trudging back to his start position behind the baseline. Perhaps is hard to imagine, but a day earlier, those powerful hands that just hit the ball with a vicious backhand along the opponent at the other side of the net, tenderly and feather-lightly played the adagio from Beethoven’s sonata number 14 opus 10 number 1 – a dreamy piece of music better known as the ‘Mondschein’. At the court next to his, Lucas’ younger brother Arthur is also smacking balls like his life depends on it. Practically every Saturday morning the brothers are on the court to set everything aside. And contrary to the concert hall, at the tennis court it never is adagio cantabile but always presto agitato, as for a physical release all energy has to come out on this brisk spring morning.

After the training, walking back to the car, we want to know whether such a muscleman show-off with the tennis racket isn’t harmful to the injury-sensitive pianist wrists, Arthur firmly rejects any affirmative answer by stating that playing tennis only makes them play the piano even better. “We cannot think of that piano 24 hours a day. We really have to do something else to clear ours heads now and then, otherwise we would not have a life. At the parking of the sports centre the boys get into their father’s car; this morning he took them to their tennis lesson. Paul Jussen is a timpanist in the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. At home their mother, Christianne van Gelder, who is a flute teacher, is waiting for them. Paul and Christianne are the suppliers of the genes that have produced this talented piano duo. At the age of five Lucas already had piano lessons with Leny Bettman. Although it regularly occurs both in musical and in non-musical families, their oldest son quickly proved to be rather special. Three years later he already was among the finalists of the Rotterdam Piano Festival, and one year later he played Mozart’s piano concerto KV 414 in the Large Hall of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. In 2004 he won the Interprovincial Music Contest and in his category was awarded the Liszt Prize. Two years later, at the Prinsengracht Concert, he played side by side with the young Chinese master Lang Lang.
His four years younger brother Arthur quickly played out of his brother’s shadow. He too started studying with Leny Bettman as a five-year-old, and he too started winning prizes, for example in 2004, the ‘Young Musical Talent of the Year’ awarded by the National Contest of the Stichting Jong Muziektalent [Young Musical Talent Foundation]. One year later Maria João Pires, one of the greatest piano soloists in the world, invited Arthur and Lucas to come and study with her in Portugal and Brazil for a couple of months. Once they had the same level, a number of memorable duo recitals followed, such as a performance of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos under the direction of Jaap van Zweden, both in the Muziekcentrum Vredenburg and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. They also performed in the Knights’ Hall during the celebration of Queen Beatrix’ silver jubilee. Then a true victory march followed, with orchestras and directors both in the Netherlands and abroad. The media too ‘discovered’ the Jussen brothers; they participated in the documentary ‘Help, I have got talent’ by Roel van Dalen, and in 2009 NPS Podium broadcasted the documentary ‘Arthur and Lucas Jussen – Two very common brothers’ by Hinke Brinkman.

At home those common brothers are awaited with soup by their mother Christianne. The family speaks a Limburg dialect, as the parents originally come from this region in the southern part of the Netherlands. However, most other people would not understand a word of it. Before eating their soup, Arthur and Lucas go upstairs to take a shower. In the meantime Christianne tells about the reconstruction that was required to create room for her children’s instruments in their modest though comfortable home – as you cannot just stow away a Steinway concert piano and a somewhat smaller yet quite voluminous Yamaha in some corner of the house. Thanks to an annex at the back of the house, both black monsters are now permanently housed in the front room – which they easily fill up.

While the photographer prepares the room for the photo session, we just sneak upstairs to get a glance of the boys rooms of the talents. If you take a look at Lucas’ room you might think you find yourself in the practice room of a rock band. Arthur, who just sneaked into his brother’s room, is now behind his electric drums – ‘it had to be an electric one – we’re already bothering the neighbours with those pianos…’ And Lucas, complaining about the fact that he cannot find a guitar string anywhere, plays a few accords on his electric guitar. “Of course we do other things than play the piano,” Arthur re-emphasizes, as a reply to our surprised faces. But Lucas reassuringly adds that ‘obviously they love playing the piano.’ “We have to, otherwise we couldn’t keep doing this. But there is more. On my iPod, for example, there is only very little classical music, because if you are so intensively involved in classical music you do want to hear something else now and then.” Naturally, one immediately wonders what the Jussens do listen in their ‘spare time’. Arthur tells about his passion for Whitney Houston. “You may think, Whitney Houston, isn’t that a bit too common? But on my iPhone I have got a live recording of her in which she is singing a song with so much emotion and musicality, it really makes me admire her.” Lucas tells, and this applies to his brother as well, that Stevie Wonder probably is the pop artist they both admire most. “He is just making fantastic music that hasn’t lost any of its greatness over the years. I actually do not know what to say more about it. We often play along with his records. We try to play one of Stevie’s songs, however, rather unsuccessfully most of the time. His music is still a little too difficult for us.”

This may seem quite a remarkable statement for two musical super talents who have just released an album of Beethoven sonatas, but in the classical genre, too, the Jussens exactly know where their limits are. For their debut they would never have chosen late works by Beethoven, Arthur tells. “Beethoven wrote the sonata no. 5 opus 10 in his younger years, so that is why we can play it even at our age. But we would, for example, not have dared to play the sonatas opus 110 or 111.” Arthur plays the sonata number 13 opus 27 number 1, and Lucas the sonata number 14 opus 27 number 2, the so-called Mondschein. Furthermore, Arthur chose the sonata number 5 opus 10 number 1 which is also called ‘the little Pathétique’, and Lucas plays the sonata number 8 opus 13, the work that is known as the real Pathétique. There obviously is a red line going through the choice of the repertoire. Arthur: “We wanted coherence, not just some random programme. Together with our teacher Maria João Pires we really thought about that.”

The decision to limit themselves to compositions by the young Ludwig von Beethoven seems a wise one: too often it is held against young pianists that they lack the maturity to be able to interpret certain ‘adult’ emotions. Lucas and Arthur certainly are aware of that. Arthur, for example, studied opus 118, six pieces for piano by Johannes Brahms, because he liked them so much. Arthur: “Technically it is doable, but there is more to it. Actually I am not ready to play such a piece because there are so many different emotions in it, which you can only understand if you have gone through a lot. And obviously we are still at the beginning of it all. I don’t feel it that way when I play. Then I just do the best I can. But when our teacher, Maria João Pires, plays it, I do hear what is lacking in my play”.
One would say: just listen carefully how the teacher does it and that’s it. Lucas: “Yes, but that actually is the problem; real great pianists do not need an example to be able to study a piece. We can do that only to a certain degree. But we can with the pieces we play on the album. I studied the Pathétique practically completely on my own, and the first time I played it in the lesson with her, there already was a kind of ‘proficiency’ in it. But with some pieces this is just impossible. Well, if she says “play it this way”, of course we can actually play it that way. But obviously that is not how it works. Six months later you don’t remember the emotion it had in it.”
Arthur: “You should not become an imitator either: it must come from yourself. Otherwise you play without any personality, and that is not the way it should be.”

Everyone who has gotten to know Arthur and Lucas Jussen, like we did today, will have to admit that they have remained ‘two very normal brothers’ – the very proof that one really has a personality. Without in any way being cocky or arrogant, they are willing and friendly and feel comfortable to speak with anyone who enters their world. By their behaviour and appearance they friendly yet decisively eliminate the bias that all children with an exceptional talent belong to the class of the über-nerds. Nor do they feel too good for anything. In Giel Beelen’s programme they play little hits of Lady Gaga (Telephone) and Train (Hey Soulsister) and after an in-store recital on an improvised stage in the Selexys Donner bookshop in Rotterdam, they patiently sign dozens of CDs – as if they were accomplished stars. For every customer there is a smile and time for a talk: the Jussens clearly enjoy their newly achieved fame.

And that is what their mother, Christianne, tells over the soup. Together with father Paul, who has just returned from an errand, she contentiously steers their sons’ careers. “It’s quite a responsibility you assume when agreeing to sign such a contract. Some three years ago we were approached too, but then we said no, we thought them far too young. But now they were looking forward to it so much that we agreed.” In consultation with the boys they decide what promotions will be done; which television show to do and which not to. And school progress is closely monitored as well. Both Arthur and Lucas are in grammar school and, despite the CD recordings and the media circus that followed, they managed not to have any insufficient marks on their school reports. In the meantime the photographer has transformed the front room into a photo studio and upon her request the brothers sit down at the Steinway. As the stool is far too small for two bottoms, it results in pushing that quickly turns into a genuine Limburg stream of abuses. For a second their eyes blaze, but quickly four virtuosic magic hands play Beethoven’s ‘Acht Variationen über ein Thema des Grafen von Waldstein’ on the black 88-key monster. As music does fraternize, even when you already are brothers.

Site by Alsjeblaft!