Les Violons du Roy
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Young violinist is simply magical
Anyone who was at the Eugene Symphony concert on Thursday in the Hult Center's Silva Concert Hall will understand when I say that 22-year-old violinist Stefan Jackiw is the real deal.
His performance of the Samuel Barber violin concerto - with its knuckle-busting pyrotechnics and achingly beautiful phrases - will go down as one of the greatest in a hall that has hosted Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Joshua Bell, Yehudi Menuhin and Vladimir Spivakov.
A friend once asked me what separates people like me - who perform concertos and chamber music, as well as orchestral fare - from people like him, who seem to come from another planet. This is my attempt to answer that question.
If you run into Jackiw in the hallway before a rehearsal, you could mistake him for anyone's polite little brother. His blue jeans have that lived-in look that comes not just from wearing them every day, but from always keeping his wallet in the same back pocket. He is so skinny that you fear the next gust of wind might blow him away.
But put him on stage with an orchestra and you get not just jaw-dropping facility but emotional depths that prodigies sometimes never reach.
Part of the explanation is that, in fact, he was a prodigy, starting lessons at 4 and debuting with the Boston Philharmonic at age 11.
Yet prodigies don't always become great musicians. Their burnout rate is legendary. Jackiw has somehow avoided that fate. In between appearances at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, tours of Japan with the Baltimore Symphony and a Paris recital at the Louvre, he managed to graduate from Harvard. He seems to have a life beyond playing violin.
It seems also that the little boy he left behind not that long ago has not completely vanished.
In rehearsal for the last movement of the Barber concerto - which is a perpetual motion of devilish difficulty for both soloist and orchestra - he took off like a bat, then glanced up at conductor Giancarlo Guerrero just long enough to crack a smile that said, "Are you having fun, too?"
The effortlessness of his dash though the thicket of fast notes up and down the fingerboard, bending and teasing his way, was hypnotic. In the concert itself, this display brought the audience to its feet.
It was the slow movement, though, that showed us that the prodigy had grown up. Here he gave voice to music that cuts to the heart, almost despairing in its sadness. You have to wonder how any 22-year-old can be capable of such darkness.
The surprise of the performance was the encore, the Largo from Johann Sebastian Bach's Third Sonata in C Major, which required a complete shift in gears. Moments before, Jackiw was busy producing a sound that could soar above the brass, winds, strings and percussion of a full symphony orchestra. Now it was just him, his violin and Bach.
Everyone's interpretation of Bach is (or at least should be) different. So it was with Jackiw. There was the same impeccable intonation, sweetness and purity we had heard with the Barber. But it was as if the day had turned warm, and now he took off his sweater. He shed the intense vibrato that had helped him power through the concerto.
He lightened the weight on his bow arm, no longer needed to cut through the mass of sound on stage. He indulged in silky chords, spontaneous rhythms and whispers of sound that the music seemed to call for at this particular, fleeting moment.
The musicians on stage, no longer distracted by their role as performers, got to join the audience in the hall for an experience as intimate as conversation after dinner.
I suppose I haven't directly answered my friend's question about what makes a musician like Stefan Jackiw so special. I can only say that it's obvious when you witness it, and that's what we got to do on Thursday.
It was his third appearance with the Eugene Symphony. We have to hope it will not be his last.