Interview with Stefan Jackiw

December 6, 2015, 11:04 PM · American violinist Stefan Jackiw has found success on the traditional concert stage, but he's also found something more elusive to the typical classical musician: a serious following among a younger demographic.

His "band," the Korea-based Ensemble Ditto, which has been called the "Shinhwa of classical music" by the Korea Times, simply plays classical chamber music to crowds of adoring teenage fans in Asia.

Born in Boston in 1985 to physicist parents of Korean and German descent, Jackiw has both classical-music and academic pedigrees: He simultaneously studied at Harvard University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts, and New England Conservatory, he earned an Artist Diploma. Recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2002, his teachers have included Zinaida Gilels, Michèle Auclair, and Donald Weilerstein. His grandfather was the late Korean poet Pi Chun-deuk.

Stefan Jackiw
Stefan Jackiw.

The "boy band," while greatly satisfying, is not his only priority, he told me in an e-mail interview. In November, Jackiw toured with pianist Jeremy Denk, playing the Ives Sonatas, and on Saturday and Sunday he'll be in Los Angeles (my neck of the woods -- I'm looking forward to hearing him live) playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. It's the piece that he played for his European debut, at the age of 14, with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, and yet it's a piece that never gets old for him, he said.

Stefan: Yes, I’ve played the Mendelssohn for more than half my life! And I never tire of it. Each time I revisit it, I go back to the score and try to “purify” my interpretation of it. Since it is a masterpiece, there are endless new discoveries waiting to be stumbled upon in the score.

There is also a long tradition of performance that comes with it. Of course, this is a wonderful thing, but this also means that several layers of interpretive “varnish” have been applied by violinists over the years. Since we’ve all heard it so many times, it’s easy, when playing it, to fall into certain patterns of phrasing or timing, simply because that’s the way we’ve always heard it. But, by revisiting the score, I find that there is such inevitability of line and seamlessness of phrase-connections in the way Mendelssohn marked the score. With each discovery, the piece feels more fresh and inventive. So, I would say that rather than complicating my interpretation with each revisit, I am, in a way, trying to distill the essence of the piece.

Laurie: How is it different, playing the Mendelssohn Concerto with a chamber ensemble vs. with a regular-sized orchestra?

Stefan: So much of the Mendelssohn concerto is either puckish and joyful, or tender and intimate, or dramatic and stormy. These all benefit from a chamber music-like give-and-take that allows for more spontaneity and flexibility in phrasing. Whether with or without conductor, for me the most satisfying performances are the ones in which I feel like we’re all responding to each other, rather than following a baton or soloist. I think with smaller ensembles, it’s sometimes easier to achieve this type of feeling.

Laurie: Over the summer, I understand you were in Korea touring with Ensemble Ditto, a group that has been described as a ‘chamber music boy band,’ which attracts a great many teenage fans. Please tell me all about this! How did you meet your bandmates? What made you decide to tour together? What is your concept behind Ditto? Are there really hordes of screaming teenage fans? What do you think is causing them to connect so well with Ditto? Is this mostly in Asia?

Stefan: Ensemble Ditto is one of the most satisfying parts of my life as a violinist. We are a Korea-based chamber music ensemble (we play repertoire ranging from duos to sextets) with a mission to introduce chamber music to new audiences. The group was formed in 2007 and I joined in 2008 at the invitation of Richard O’Neill, the group’s founder and violist, whom I met at the Seattle Chamber Music Society. We tour together for a few weeks each summer and we play works ranging from favorites like Schubert’s Trout Quintet to pieces by Steve Reich and John Zorn. We are fortunate to have an amazing marketing team behind us, and we play to sold out crowds across the country (and recently debuted in Japan and China), largely comprised of fans aged 15-30.

Ensemble Ditto
Ensemble Ditto.

While the marketing is very hip and geared towards young people, the concerts are serious events. One year we did a matinee and evening concert in Seoul Arts Center, which is like the Carnegie Hall of Korea, and the repertoire included the Kodaly Duo, which is by no means easy listening. I remember thinking at the end of the evening concert that it was truly amazing that over 5,000 people heard the Kodaly that day, probably most for the first time.

We are lucky to have a really loyal and thoughtful fan base. After we announce our upcoming tour repertoire, I often get messages from fans asking for recommendations on what recordings to buy in advance of our performances, so that they can get to know the pieces before coming to hear us.

Laurie: What was it like to spend the month of November touring with pianist Jeremy Denk? What made you decide to collaborate on Ives, which is not exactly the most common or popular repertoire?

Stefan: Jeremy is one of my musical heroes. On stage, he is one of the most emotionally generous, exuberant, and vivid performers I know. But, behind all this lies a profound understanding of the music. While everything he plays sounds spontaneous and of the moment (and it is!), it’s grounded in such a deep knowledge of how the piece is put together and of the composer’s language. Yet nothing he plays ever sounds academic or didactic.

Laurie: I read the New York Times review, and it sounds like you and Jeremy brought in a vocal ensemble to help show where the music came from. Tell me about this...Some would have just played the pieces and left it at that. But do you (and Jeremy) feel it is important to speak to the audience, to connect in ways other than just the music?

Stefan: Yes, in our Ives Sonata cycle, we included performances by a vocal quartet of the hymns and folk tunes on which each sonata is based. At their core, these sonatas are about nostalgia and clinging to fading memories of American heritage. While these pieces are known to be thorny, they are often tragically beautiful. We felt that the audience would feel more connected to the sonatas if they heard the songs and hymns that are embedded in them. It’s easier to be swept up in the nostalgia for a memory if you are aware of what’s trying to be remembered!

And yes, I believe speaking to an audience can be a wonderful thing. First, giving the pieces some context can help first-time listeners more deeply appreciate what they’re hearing, and it can also give those familiar with the piece something new to listen for. I think speaking to an audience promotes more active listening. Also, as both a performer and listener, I find that when musicians speak from the stage, it breaks down a barrier between them and the audience. It creates of feeling of togetherness that allows for more intimacy and vulnerability in the hall. It makes us feel that we’re all in this together, exploring the worlds of Brahms, Beethoven, Ives, etc.

Laurie: What made you decide to play the violin in the first place? And then what made you decide to make it your life’s endeavor?

Stefan: I started playing the violin by chance. Friends of my parents gave me a tiny violin for my fourth birthday. So, my parents, who are not musicians but are music lovers, enrolled me in Suzuki lessons at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, MA, and I’ve stuck with it!

Laurie: What was the most valuable thing you learned from your teacher, Donald Weilerstein?

Stefan: The most valuable and important thing Mr. Weilerstein taught me was how I should feel, both physically and emotionally, while playing the violin. I started studying with him when I was 16. At that time, while I could already play the violin reasonably well, I was doing just that: playing the violin well. I wasn’t really opening up and expressing who I was and how I felt about the music I was playing. Mr. Weilerstein taught me how to be vulnerable and how to be as moved as possible by the music I’m playing, while I’m playing it. This went far beyond how to play the violin, or how to phrase. It was more about how to live an open life as an artist.

Laurie: Did you study music at Harvard, or something else? And if the answer is something else, do you feel that has been helpful to you, as a musician?

Stefan: For my first two years at Harvard, I was a psychology major, but switched to musicology midway through. It’s hard for me to pinpoint a concrete way in which my studies in psychology have helped me as a musician. However, I think going to Harvard made me a better musician. While at Harvard, I met so many motivated, creative, entrepreneurial fellow students. It was inspiring to sit with them in the dining hall and learn about their passions and the intensity with which they pursued them. Being surrounded by such people, and also taking classes in a variety of fascinating fields, fostered a curiosity and searching in me that has undoubtedly helped me to become a more thoughtful musician.

Laurie: What type of violin do you play these days? How did it find its way into your hands? Do you have any thoughts on modern vs. older violins?

Stefan: I play a Vincenzo Ruggieri made in 1704. I’ve been playing on it since I was 16. I searched all over the U.S. and Europe for an instrument, and happened to find this one in my hometown, Boston. What I love most about it is its versatility. It’s a very flexible violin and can take on many different characters.

I don’t have much experience playing on contemporary violins, so I’m not an authority on them. But, I certainly don’t believe that an old Italian violin is necessary to produce a meaningful sound. My favorite violinist, Christian Tetzlaff, plays on a contemporary instrument, and I don’t know anyone with a more varied tonal palette.

* * *

Stefan Jackiw plays Bruch's Scottish Fantasy with Sinfónica de Galicia, Rumon Gamba conducting, Oct. 2014:

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December 9, 2015 at 09:46 PM · Note: Stefan Jackiw had to cancel his LA Chamber Orchestra concerts this weekend due to the flu. Wishing you well, Stefan! Violinist Simone Porter will perform in his place

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