Violinist Jackiw drives TSO’s brilliant Mendelssohn concerto

11.03.11
Stefan Jackiw
Globe and Mail

By Colin Eatock

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra

  • Stefan Jackiw, violin
  • Chistoph Konig, conductor
  • At Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Wednesday

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s program on Wednesday evening was an “Afterworks” program, so it contained just two works: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7.

To be sure, this wasn’t the sort of concert that is usually described as “challenging.” That word is generally reserved for music that’s new, unusual or especially difficult in some way.

And yet this innocent looking concert did come with a few challenges.

For one thing, expectations run high whenever an orchestra plays music that the audience knows and loves.

For another, this concert featured two guest artists – American violinist Stefan Jackiw and German conductor Christoph Konig – who didn’t know the TSO, or even each other, especially well. This sort of mixing and matching is not uncommon in the orchestral world, and the results can be highly variable.

But the opening measures of the Mendelssohn washed these concerns away: Jackiw, Konig and the TSO were all on the same page where this concerto was concerned.

Jackiw, a Wunderkind who made his professional debut at the age of 12, is now a young man of 26 years. Clad in black from head to toe, there was a Paganini-like intensity to his stage presence. Sometimes, as he played, he seemed to stare fixedly at an empty seat in the third row, at other times he looked upwards and squinted in the bright lights overhead.

Musically, he brought substance and drama to Mendelssohn’s only mature violin concerto. Throughout, his tone was bright and full-bodied – his 1704 Ruggieri violin is strong in all registers – and his intonation was impeccable. Using every inch of his bow, Jackiw produced a sound that soared in Roy Thomson Hall. Even when playing very softly he could be clearly heard.

In the first movement of the concerto, Jackiw and Konig favoured a romantic approach. Both worked together to shape dynamics and tempos in ways that were sometimes surprising but always convincing. Jackiw’s cadenza was a tour de force of agility and precision.

The second movement gave Jackiw the opportunity to display his legato phrasing. He rose to the occasion with a performance that was fluid and lyrical – yet also with a bittersweet quality that retained something of the drama established earlier.

The finale was a Mendelssohnian romp, and Jackiw’s nimble tempos at times challenged Konig and the TSO to keep up. But in the closing measures, soloist, conductor and orchestra became as one, as the concerto was driven to a brilliant, unified conclusion.

However, when Jackiw left the stage, musical relationships shifted noticeably. The bond between the guest conductor and his orchestra-du-jour seemed to dissipate: it was as though they had become strangers. Turning to Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7, Konig and the TSO gave a performance that never reached the heights of the Mendelssohn.

In the first movement, the big, architectural structures were well mapped out by Konig. But the devil was in the details: foregrounds and the backgrounds weren’t always well differentiated, resulting in opaque textures.

The second movement was the most successful: pleasant and charming, with an endearing ebb and flow to it. Here, as the movement’s ending died away, the orchestra’s sound glowed like warm embers.

Alas, this was followed by a Scherzo that might have been lilting and danceable, but was strict and chunky. The last movement certainly had plenty of power – yet it was a raw kind of power that would have benefited from refinement.