By Thomas May

Asense of modesty may seem incompatible with the drive required to remain successful in the highly competitive realm of classical performance. Yet violinist Stefan Jackiw has made it central to his artistic credo. “When we go to a concert featuring a soloist, all eyes are on that person, but I think the performer should not be the main event,” says Jackiw during a recent phone interview from his home in New York. “If you go onstage to be adored, you are missing the boat,” he adds, singling out Christian Tetzlaff as “one of my heroes” for always making the music the central focus.

Jackiw’s skepticism about the trappings of the star performer is no empty platitude. Bearing out this declaration of musical priorities are his descriptions of colleagues with whom he regularly makes music—such as  pianist Jeremy Denk, Jackiw’s partner in a project to which he has enthusiastically devoted himself over the past few seasons. Together, they have been touring with a program of the complete violin sonatas by Charles Ives, and their recording of these works is soon to be released on Nonesuch.

“Jeremy is one of the most emotionally generous musicians I can think of, but that is grounded in such a rigorous knowledge of what is happening in the score,” says Jackiw. “It never sounds academic or didactic—[his work sounds] so organic because it is so tied to the way the piece is constructed.”

Their paths initially connected through their mutual love of chamber music. Starting in 2007, Jackiw headed to Seattle each summer for several years in a row to participate in the city’s monthlong Chamber Music Society Festival, where Denk had also become a favorite regular guest. “The first thing we played together was the Richard Strauss Violin Sonata.” Jackiw recalls instantly realizing a sense of shared aesthetic values. Allowed a respite from the hectic pace of touring during Seattle’s leisurely summer festival, the two musicians took advantage of the chance to think about future projects to continue exploring this connection.

When Denk proposed the idea of touring with a program of all four of Ives’ sonatas for violin and piano, Jackiw immediately signed on, though he had previously only played Ives’ Largo and Piano Trio. They completed their first tour in 2015, culminating in a recital at New York’s 92nd Street Y that drew raves from the New York Times. “The event was a model of how performers can both inform and entertain an audience with a challenging program,” wrote Anthony Tommasini. “Mr. Jackiw, deftly balancing fervor and elegance, beautiful tone and earthy colorings, proved a comparably inspired Ivesian on this exciting night.”

In January 2018 they resumed the program for a series of performances, and Jackiw retains the same level of excitement about these works as when he and Denk first embarked on them, describing the experience as “incredibly rewarding.” What makes the Ives sonatas so special? “Many people think of Ives as a composer of craggy, complex music that is difficult to play and difficult to listen to. While he was a thorny Modernist and a curmudgeon, at its core his music is deeply Romantic with a capital ‘R.’ The ideas he brings to life in his music—memory, nostalgia, Proustian obsessions—have the kind of emotional content you could find in a Brahms sonata,” Jackiw says.

The comparison to Brahms is telling, since Jackiw’s 2010 performance of the complete sonatas by the German master on Sony (with Max Levinson at the keyboard) helped spread the young violinist’s reputation. The recording has been widely hailed. (Fanfare wrote, “This is now the recording of Brahms’ violin sonatas to have.”)

“We violinists spend so much time buffing our sound to a refined sheen, but Ives’ music is not about that.”

Though only 32, Jackiw has repeatedly impressed audiences with his unique combination of intellect, poetic sensitivity, and taken-for-granted technique. A corollary of his modesty is a tendency to emphasize the serendipitous aspects of his musical life—including how it all started out, as Jackiw puts it, “by chance. Friends of my parents gave me a tiny violin that their children had outgrown for my fourth birthday.” His parents, both theoretical physicists living in Boston (his mother from South Korea, his father an emigrant from Europe), loved and encouraged classical music but were not themselves musicians.

That chance gift of a miniature violin led to a group Suzuki class and eventually a connection to the legendary Russian pedagogue Zinaida Gilels, with whom Jackiw studied between the ages of six to 12. “She is really the one who taught me how to play the violin, and her method was in the Russian tradition, including specifics about how to hold the bow and a certain kind of rigor. She gave me good practice habits and a solid foundation, which I feel very lucky to have learned when so young.”

Donald Weilerstein later became his mentor while Jackiw pursued his undergraduate degree at Harvard (studying psychology along with music). “It was very much a departure from what I had experienced prior to that point, when the emphasis had been on the art and craft of playing violin. With
Mr. Weilerstein the focus was much more on what it means to be a communicative artist: using technique more as a tool for expression rather than as a goal in itself,” Jackiw says. He credits Weilerstein with grounding him in his understanding of how the performer should relate to the composer. “He focused on how your emotional vulnerability and commitment should make you feel physically onstage and how to let yourself be subsumed by the music.”

The intensity of this commitment to a composer’s voice is unmistakable in Jackiw’s characterization—simultaneously passionate and articulate—of what he admires in Ives’ music. “Ives is all about desperately clinging to musical memories of his youth, to the small-town traditions he knew: sitting around a bonfire; songs soldiers would sing while going off to war. One thing he captures beautifully is this experience of precious memories that start to fade and get obscured by the clutter of everyday life. When we get a glimpse of that memory, it becomes all the more precious. He translates that into sonic experiences, where for a moment there is a clearing and you hear and recognize a theme that had begun indistinctly in the background.”

Jackiw refers to the ambitious First Violin Sonata (1914) as “the most poignant and tragically heartbreaking” of the four sonatas. The fact that these works are “not my native musical language” only makes the challenge more alluring. “They are certainly difficult to play and difficult to put together with the piano, because Ives is a very precise composer, but you don’t want to sound calculated. We violinists spend so much time buffing our sound to a refined sheen, but Ives’ music is not about that. At times he’s evoking an unschooled folk violinist who is playing wild hometown or fiddle music. To unlock that sound and find that voice took some time and searching.”

In spite of the plaudits he has earned for his poetically engaged accounts of core repertoire classics—a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra when he was in his mid-teens was reviewed on the London Times’ front page—Jackiw is too open-minded and artistically curious to allow himself to settle into a rut. Chamber music, as you might expect, ranks among his keenest loves.

“Many composers wrote their best works in the chamber-music genre,” he says. “There’s incredible joy and fulfillment in playing that repertoire. And from the social point of view, it’s fun to play with friends. That really is the way I improve and learn to see how other musicians work—from how they troubleshoot a small passage to how they think about the composer and work as a whole, or the role of the performer. In my solo work with orchestra, I try to capture that same atmosphere onstage. For me that is the most rewarding type of solo playing: when it feels like you are the first violinist in a quartet even when you’re the soloist in a Mozart concerto.”

Jackiw cites Beethoven’s Triple Concerto as a work that integrates the best of both worlds—chamber and orchestral. Having recorded it last September with Inon Barnatan and Alisa Weilerstein and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields led by Alan Gilbert, he says it puzzles him that “for some reason it gets dismissed, but I love that piece. It’s not Beethoven at his most fist-shaking, but the slow movement is to die for, and it has so much good-natured joy.”

Along with the Ives project, another recent result of Jackiw’s passion for chamber music is his collaboration with two likewise deeply thoughtful musicians from his generation: pianist and composer Conrad Tao and the cellist Jay Campbell, who have recently joined together in a piano trio still in search of a name. (For the time being, they’ve been using “JCT,” pronouncing their acronym “junction.”) “I fell in love with Jay’s playing and was fascinated by the route through which he became exposed to classical music, starting from rock and pop,” Jackiw says. “And Conrad is just one of the most outrageously intelligent people I know, with incredibly broad interests. He uses that sharp mind to probe and dig deep into the role of music in society.”

The three met up to read through Mendelssohn’s D minor Trio, and “it just clicked. We each bring something special to the group. Last season was our first tour, but I love the rehearsal process even more.” This summer JCT will play at the Aspen Festival, and Jackiw is planning a duo tour with Tao next season.

Tao says he especially admires “a remarkable purity to Stefan’s music-making. He gets at essences so well. For me obvious examples are his interpretations of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and the Korngold Concerto—both of which are very beautiful pieces that can sound very goopy and high cholesterol in other hands. I was a little bit of a Scottish Fantasy skeptic and then was convinced by Stefan’s playing.” Jackiw makes an ideal chamber-music partner, he continues, because “he’s someone who is not only fluent in the language and can play it but can play with it, and I am free to respond.”

Both Tao and Campbell, who is also cellist in the JACK Quartet, are known for their adventurous new-music focus, and the very different spheres they inhabit in their individual careers are a strength of the Trio, according to Campbell. “It’s not about being the sum of the parts but something different from the sum of the parts,” he says. “Even though Stefan is not as focused on contemporary music, he has a way of living with music. He finds the subtexts to the notes on the page and creates a compelling narrative so that his performances don’t sound calculated. It’s almost like a Method actor, like Daniel Day Lewis, where you don’t recognize him because he so fully embodies the role. Whether we are playing Ives or Mozart, it’s about expressing something and getting that character across, and he plays those roles so compellingly.”

It’s been only slightly over a decade since Jackiw graduated from the New England Conservatory following Harvard, but in 2016 he completed a chapter of his career: his work with the enormously popular Korean chamber group, Ensemble DITTO. This was another collaboration that began by chance. Along with Denk, Jackiw met the violist Richard O’Neill, DITTO’s founder, during his first summer at the Seattle Chamber Music Society Summer Festival. “Richard and I were both into running and would go for long jogs. He had just come back from season one of Ensemble DITTO and invited me to begin playing with them. I was intrigued, since my mom is from South Korea and I wanted to explore my roots. [Jackiw’s maternal grandfather was the poet Pi Chun-deuk.] So I ended up playing each summer with DITTO from 2008 to 2016.”


Photo by by Sophie Zhai

To get an impression of this singular phenomenon—a Beatlemania-like response to classical chamber rep—it’s best to look for a YouTube video of one of Ensemble DITTO’s performances. “We would fill Seoul’s equivalent of Carnegie Hall, with 3,000 young concertgoers going nuts over Schubert’s Trout Quintet,” he remembers. “Most of the people who came had never been to a classical-music concert before. The recipe for this success was that we did not present watered-down classical music, but the programs were marketed toward a younger audience. I felt I had reached an amazing personal peak with that group and wanted to go out on a high feeling about where we were. And it’s important also that these groups get fresh blood.”

Jackiw’s choice of instrument—a Vincenzo Rugeri made in 1704, which he has been playing since he was 16—mirrors his musical values. “What I love most about it is not necessarily the intrinsic beauty of the sound but its versatility. Other violins have a more glorious sound, but I love that I’m able to get such a huge range of sounds from it—from almost operatic lines in Mozart to much more gritty sounds in Ives or Shostakovich. There have been times when I have been intoxicated by the beauty of the first note I play on a violin but I find my personal voice can get lost in that beauty.”

The Rugeri’s versatility is in keeping with its owner’s open-eared curiosity. “My interests cannot be labeled in terms of time periods of music. I love playing any music that somehow speaks to me about the human condition,” he says. Among contemporary composers, Jackiw has become a champion of the American David Fulmer, whose Violin Concerto No. 2 (2014) was commissioned for him by the Heidelberg Festival with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie.

“David’s music has a fragility that feels somehow personal. The music I’m drawn to could be written in the 1600s or in the 21st century. I do feel it is the responsibility of performers not to just play the Mendelssohn Concerto over and over, no matter how much you love it. Otherwise we would get stuck and not grow—and so would the art form.”