Stefan Jackiw: The transformative experience of classical music
Stefan Jackiw is an astounding violinist, irreproachable and absorbing. What beauty and what elegance: his playing breathes and radiates. Light is everywhere. Impressively sound and mature, the young man has a broad knowledge and understanding of music and its traditions. At the same time, unafraid to go off the beaten path, he believes that interest in contemporary music is important for the growth of music. Seeing the writing of a piece and working with a living composer is a captivating process, especially if the composer is open to the musician’s input. “If a composer writes a piece for you there is a lot of him or her but also a little of you in that piece. If Joachim wasn’t interested in helping Brahms to write his violin concerto who knows there may not be the Brahms Violin Concerto and we would all be deplored for it”, points-out Jackiw.
Together with his enthusiasm for contemporary music, Jackiw’s other passion is his love for chamber music. In 2008, he joined the Ensemble Ditto. The ensemble was started a year earlier by the violist Richard O’Neill who noticed that chamber music was not nearly as popular as orchestra or solo repertoire in Korea. Not committed to any one type of setting, the musicians play duos, trios, quartets, piano quartets, piano quintets to introduce the Korean audience to chamber music. Although marketed and presented in a very young and hype way, they don’t compromise the product artistically and never play crossover or arrangement. “It’s actually to everyone’s benefit to play great music. People are not stupid. They know what they are hearing, if it’s good they will feel it”, comments Jackiw. The ensemble started out playing mainstream music like the classics of Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert’s chamber music repertoire. Later on, they became much more adventurous doing the Kodaly Duo, Messian’s Quartet For the End of Time or even a whole program of Steve Reich. “We developed a really big following in Korea”, says the violinist. “I remember one time we played the Schubert Trout Quintet twice in one day in Seoul. It was sold out for both the matinée and the evening. That day we played for 6 000 people. It’s an amazing thing, it just never happens with classical music!”
The best reward the musicians of Ensemble Ditto can get is to hear the positive feedback from people who come to the concert – some of whom have never heard classical music before but were drawn in by the marketing. “I think we open eyes to how transformative classical music can be. Sometimes I see on Facebook that these people, after coming to our concerts, will go to hear the Emerson Quartet when they come to Korea or some other ensemble, or would post that they are listening to such and such Schubert song. I think we are actually doing something!”
Ensemble Ditto also makes videos explaining the pieces and giving the audience a context for what they are hearing. “If you know nothing about a piece like the Quartet For The End of Time and you are hit with this hour long piece of post-apocalyptic desolation it can be a little bit puzzling and jarring”, explains Jackiw. “So we try to do things to open that door for people, giving hints of what to expect, what the piece is about and in which conditions the composer wrote it.” People talk about how classical music might be dying but the thing is that great art will be forever relevant. Because it expresses things that we all feel, across cultures from any part of the world; music or any art form will never become obsolete. We have to keep introducing it. If we remind the society it is important it will always be there.
In 2012, Stefan Jackiw fell while he was running and couldn’t play the violin at all for 2-3 months. We don’t miss something until it’s gone, we say. This excruciating experience made the young man realize how important music and playing the violin is in his life. Suddenly music took a whole new angle. In the long run the accident might even have been beneficial. “I spent so much time with the violin, so much time practicing, it’s easy to get boxed in to just violin stuff. Playing violin is so difficult that we often become obsessed with it. When it was taken away from me all of a sudden I saw the bigger picture of where the violin is in relation to music, art even the world. I am not saying I discovered all of that just in two months but it gave me a little bit of perspective.”
Speaking of vulnerability and selflessness, Jackiw emphasizes the importance for a performer to be moved by the music at that exact moment. Even though it’s a very dangerous place to be, you have to give yourself over to the piece and let it consume you. “The tension of doing this very difficult thing that is playing the violin while also being so vulnerable is a magical feeling!” For Jackiw a specific example of this revelation is the Sibelius Concerto. “That piece, I think, is about one individual – the violin and his struggle and agony caused by nature. The landscape, the harsh Finnish weather is represented by the orchestra, which is against the violin. It’s very thickly orchestrated; you have to fight to be heard. If you look at the score you have all these high notes in diminuendo when the standard virtuoso thing is to hit a high note and sweep it off. But everything is diminuendo because you are reaching but then you fail, you fail, you fail. The entire piece is a tremendous struggle and the orchestra always wins and is always covering you. There is a craggy cruelty in the orchestral part and in the Finnish landscape. And how can you play that completely in control? The whole piece is about losing control to nature and just being consumed and devoured by it.”
Published on Violinist.com on January 2014: