Violinist Stefan Jackiw shows astonishing ability to communicate with listeners

Stefan Jackiw
San Jose Mercury News

By Richard Scheinin


The 24-year-old violinist Stefan Jackiw was greeted with hurrahs from the balcony when he stepped on stage Friday at Zellerbach Hall to play Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with the Russian National Orchestra. After he had dispensed with the first movement — a sumptuous and astonishing performance — half the audience stood up and cheered.

That violation of classical music protocol — making even a peep between movements is generally deemed a felony — was a tipoff to this player's rare ability to communicate with listeners.

Like many young soloists, he owns a turbo-technique that allows him to cleanly mow down the most demanding passages. Unlike most soloists in any age group, Jackiw — a 2007 Harvard graduate whose parents are physicists — seems tapped into the very source from which the music flows. It sure rushed through his Tchaikovsky, which was roomy and full of fireworks, the height of Romance.

Driving to the concert, just to get in the mood, I had listened to an old recording of the piece by violinist Nathan Milstein, who was a protégé of Leopold Auer, Tchaikovsky's original candidate to premiere the D-major concerto. (Auer famously turned him down). It's not a good idea to listen to Milstein before hearing Jackiw, I thought. How can anyone today possibly summon up that type of authenticity? It's like listening to Muddy Waters play the blues.

Yet from the work's  opening moments, Jackiw turned phrases with remarkable honesty and sweetness, like a fiddler of old. Conductor Mikhail Pletnev let him do his thing, and Jackiw put his personal stamp all over the performance, slowing down the big melodies, letting them turn like crystal chandeliers.


It was flamboyant. But, face it, this concerto is a schmaltz fest and milking it isn't a bad idea, especially when the soloist can draw out long bowfulls of notes that run dark as molasses on the low strings, or sing like a flute up high. The orchestra was an expert partner, too, sounding lush, yet muscular and trim throughout the performance, which was presented by Cal Performances.

Even Jackiw's mistakes, of which there were few, were instructive to see. Launching into the finale, he pushed the tempo, momentarily falling out of sync with portions of the orchestra. So, he turned toward his colleagues on his right, and then on his left, re-establishing uniformity of tempo with his body language as he kept on playing, then moved ahead with confidence.

Lanky and handsome, Jackiw (pronounced jack-EEV) has performed in recent years with the major orchestras in London, San Francisco, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Boston and elsewhere. Increasingly, he would seem to be a marketer's dream; one wonders when someone will pair him up with, say, Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel, another incendiary young hotshot.

More importantly, one wonders where he will take all this talent, how he will grow it, what type of repertory he will establish beyond the tried and true. Friday, as an encore, he played some Bach — the Largo of the C-Major sonata for solo violin — with clarity and focused intention, imbuing even the quietest notes with marked intensity.