WHRB Classical Interviews Violinist Stefan Jackiw

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By Allison Pao


WHRB Classical Producer Allison Pao had the opportunity recently to speak to violinist, Bostonian, and Harvard graduate Stefan Jackiw. Jackiw attended Harvard University and the New England Conservatory and received degrees from both schools in 2007. Though he currently lives in New York City, he’s coming back to his hometown Boston to perform in the Boston Celebrity Series. He’ll be playing the complete Violin Sonatas of Charles Ives with pianist Jeremy Denk on January 26th at 8 pm in Jordan Hall. After discussing Jackiw’s time at Harvard, we asked Jackiw about his opinion on Ives, his musical philosophy, his upcoming projects, and more. Read on for a preview, or listen to the entire interview above.

Pao: Were you involved in any music-making at Harvard? Any student groups or favorite classes?

Jackiw: I was involved in some student groups on campus at Harvard! I performed as soloist my freshman year and my senior year with the Bach Society Orchestra and in my sophomore and junior years, I played as soloist with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. I also took Robert Levin’s chamber music seminar Music 180 for six semesters. I think that was really some of the most important time in my development as a musician. Attending his lectures, seeing him approach music from all different time periods in the classical world; he’s just a great musical mind, a great musical thinker, a great instrumentalist and a great musical coach. But I would say also equally if not more importantly in my development as a musician were the non-instrumental classes I took at Harvard; the music history classes, the music theory classes (he mentions later that his favorite class at Harvard was Music 51, an advanced music theory class). Because up until that point, I was someone who was good at my instrument but didn’t have a solid intellectual and theoretical foundation underpinning my work on the violin.

P: Why was your time at Harvard so integral to your development as a musician?

J: As a performing musician, our job is really to bring the composer’s thoughts and wishes to life. Knowing how the music is put together, what the conventions were at the time, interesting ways in which composers deviated from conventions in specific pieces are kind of the core of the trajectory of how classical music developed. What made Beethoven so special? In what ways did he break with tradition? So that’s the big-scale stuff. But also, not going solely by instinct just because it sounds like a phrase should go a certain way, but understanding why it sounds that way, is a very important tool to have when you’re working with other musicians, so that you can argue your case convincingly. Having that backbone is really important, I think that one can only go so far on instinct alone.

A: Was it challenging learning the Ives?

J: I began learning all of them at once, which was a really immersive experience. It was like learning another language, because I had spent my entire life playing kind of refined art music and Ives’s music is totally reminiscent of the kind of unschooled earnestness of community music, specifically in New England. So people sitting around a campfire singing folk tunes, soldiers singing military tunes as they march off to war, and of course, churchgoers singing hymns in church. So there’s a kind of real earthiness, of the “peopleness”, to his music. Specific to the violin, there’s also a lot of fiddle influence. So capturing that world was the biggest challenge.

P: What’s so special about Ives?

J: What really makes Ives special is that he has this reputation as being a curmudgeon-y New Englander who wrote thorny music which was difficult to play and difficult to listen to and all of that is true, but I think all of that misses what Ives is really about – Ives is all about nostalgia, and holding onto the most precious memories of his youth through musical remembrances. It’s kind of this Proustian obsession of recapturing the sweetness, the tenderness of youth. So amidst all the kind of madness in his music, there are these musical quotations of musical songs and hymns which he grew up listening to, some of which are still familiar to audiences today. Sometimes these tunes are front and center in the musical texture and you can really hear them without question, but sometimes they’re fogged over by all the musical chaos that Ives inserts into the mix, so you kind of have to tease out these familiar tunes and hymns. When you are able to tease them out, it’s almost like when you walk by someone in a crowded street, and that person is wearing a perfume that you smelled a lot when you were a kid. And suddenly it brings you back to that moment decades ago, and it’s just like no time at all has passed and it’s so vivid. It’s a similar experience listening to Ives. So, although he’s a thorny modernist, he’s really the ultimate romantic humanist, all about the nostalgia and community aspect of music, how music brings people together and bonds people. It’s actually profoundly touching emotional music.

P: Why have you asked the vocal group Hudson Shad to sing in your concert?

J: Even for the hymns and tunes that are still familiar to audiences, because they are clouded by all the other stuff that’s going on, they can be easy to miss. To have them in your ear before you hear the sonata, I think really draws you to them. And for the ones that are no longer familiar, I think hearing them sung in the way Ives heard them, Ives is all about creating a world - recreating this world of growing up in New England at the beginning of the century. Hearing them in this context helps the listeners and performers enter into this world.

P: Would you consider this format for future concerts?

J: A dream that I have for the next time we do this project would be rather than only having a vocal group sing the tunes and hymns from the stage, my dream would be for everyone in the audience to have the sheet music placed on their seat before they come in, and for everyone to sign the tunes and hymns together, like we’re all in a barn at some sort of folk dance or in a church, at a service. To make it an interactive experience, where we’re singing, and then we’re listening to how Ives treats the music. Because, you know, one doesn’t have to be a trained musician to sing these songs, they’re songs that the everyday people of Connecticut sang. I think that would be particularly special - to not just listen, but to take part in the music-making, in order to recreate that special communal experience.

Allison Pao is a Producer for WHRB Classical. You can hear Stefan Jackiw live in Boston on January 26th at 8 pm in Jordan Hall. Tickets can be purchased here: http://www.celebrityseries.org/denkjackiw/index.htm. You can hear classical music on WHRB on Mondays - Fridays 1pm - 10 pm, Saturdays 1pm - 9pm, and Sundays 2pm - midnight.