Violinist Stefan Jackiw is in a league of his own

Stefan Jackiw
The Kansas City Star

By Paul Horsley

You'd have to go back several generations to find a violinist to compare to Stefan Jackiw, because there's almost no one today who is in his league.

His Harriman-Jewell recital Saturday at the Folly Theater brought to mind the great players of past eras, which is not to say that he sounds like Heifetz or Milstein but that he embraces the same honesty, purity, and directness. He makes music in a way that is wholly his own.

If anyone was wondering whether Jackiw's unspeakably beautiful Tchaikovsky Concerto here last season was a fluke, this recital exploded that idea. I've heard hundreds of violinists in my lifetime, and presently there is not one I would rather listen to than this Boston-born 22-year-old.

True, he's in the early part of his career, and it will take him years to digest the violin repertoire, if that's what he chooses to do. But he already has what he needs: the drive to ask questions, to look for what's behind the music.

Let's pray the music industry doesn't try to squeeze him into a matinee-idol mold, which truthfully he's cut out for physically. Slender, square-shouldered and with sharp features chiseled almost paradoxically into a cherubic face, he wore close-fitting black pants and a dark, loose shirt left untucked Josh Bell-style. When he entered the stage, I thought I'd walked into a Proust novel. A shock of thick black hair hung halfway over his eyes, which he tossed back with an impetuous hand from time to time.

But Jackiw doesn't play for shtick or glamour. He's the real deal. When he drew his bow for the Gavotta of Stravinsky's "Suite Italienne" (an arrangement of "Pulcinella"), it was as if he were speaking to us - not just the gorgeous tone and the dead-on pitch, but the rhetorical sense that an idea is being expressed.

It's the feeling you get listening to Heifetz sometimes, where you catch yourself glancing at the stereo: "What did you say?"

Jackiw's technical command is complete, but his ferocious need to communicate makes that almost irrelevant. I was so taken by the operatic quality of the first movement of the Strauss Sonata that I began pondering Renee Fleming and "Der Rosenkavalier" and before I knew it, I was so deeply engaged in a musical dialogue that I literally forgot where I was.

Jackiw and his accompanist, the fluid Max Levinson, played Beethoven's C-minor Sonata (Op. 30, No. 2) with clarity and control, asking the right questions and not worrying much (in the slow movement, for example) whether the answers were there. There were some harsh sounds from both players in the Scherzo, whose fortissimos should be impetuous but not crass, and the finale's insipid theme could have used more variation in the repetition.

But the Stravinsky opener was a coup, in which Jackiw built excitement from the sheer joy of sonority. The single encore, Chopin's melancholy Nocturne in C-sharp minor, was like a subtle statement from the young musician: Let others dazzle you with Kreisler and Sarasate, I just feel like having a good cry.