Artist Interview: Stefan Jackiw, violin

By Erik Petersons on October 8, 2015

Having made a name for himself as a concerto soloist, violinist Stefan Jackiw is equally the master of the recital stage. Making his debut on PCMS’ Joseph and Marie Field String Recital Series, Stefan appears with pianist Jeremy Denk on November 19th at the Perelman Theater. Recently we spoke with him about his upcoming performance of Charles Ives’ complete works for violin and piano.

Erik Petersons: Tell us about your program and some of the compositional devices and themes Ives used. What are things that the audience can listen for?

Stefan Jackiw: At first listen, the four Ives violin/piano sonatas are most striking for their dense, thorny textures and complex rhythmic and tonal properties. They feature polytonalities, rhythmic modulation, multiple melodies sounding simultaneously, the two instruments playing in different metrics at the same time, etc. But, I think that to focus on the complexity of the music, although it is certainly fascinating and compositionally falls somewhere between virtuosic and mad, is ultimately to miss what is most magical about these pieces. At their core, I think these sonatas are about nostalgia, wistful longing, and the quiet beauty that sometimes sneaks, often unnoticed, into the chaos of our lives.

In each of the four sonatas, Ives incorporates snippets of hymns, folk tunes, nursery rhymes, and other American folk musics. In some cases, these quotations are preceded by a passage of increasing complexity and roiling of material, and so the arrival of the hymn, sometimes played in simple unison between the two instruments, comes as a sudden clearing of the musical landscape. Both to the listener and to the player, this feels like a breathtaking shock of beauty that wipes out the preceding chaos. Other times, Ives weaves the folk melody into the fabric of the music, sometimes so deftly that it takes some doing to tease out the hymn or tune. For me, this is even more profoundly beautiful. It serves as a musical reminder than even in the commotion of our lives, there are often germs of beauty and comfort hidden in our midst.

I’m particularly excited to be playing all four in one setting. Like the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, I think these four Ives sonatas contain an overarching narrative. To be painfully reductive, the first sonata is a work of searching, uncertainty, and moments of darkness and confusion. The second is far more joyful and upbeat. The third brings a return to darkness, with a feeling of mournfulness, and the fourth, “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting” is rowdy, fun, and hopeful. Taken as a set, there is a dynamic tension between a feeling of restlessness and uncertainty (perhaps of the future) and the optimism, and nostalgia of a simpler past.

These hymns, folk tunes, and nursery rhymes incorporated into the sonatas evoke feelings of earnestness, sincerity, innocence, childhood, playfulness, and hope.  Taken in the context of the sonatas, and given the fact that they are clearly a focal point, even an obsession for Ives in these works, I think that the ultimate “message” of these works is one of fond of remembrance and bittersweet wistfulness, made all the more poignant by the fleetingness and sometimes hazy appearances of these musical memories.

EP: Tell us about your relationship with Jeremy Denk and how your artistic collaboration came about. What is it like to work with him?

SJ: I first played with Jeremy in the summer of 2007 at a chamber music festival in Seattle. For me, it was musical love at first rehearsal. Jeremy makes music with an overwhelming emotional generosity. To play with him is to be inevitably swept up in the drama and vividness of his playing. And, what makes this all the more special is that his wild imagination and thrilling spontaneity are rooted in the deepest understanding of how the music is constructed. So, when hearing him play a phrase, I’m often surprised by his creativity but also, at that time, it seems like that’s the only possible way the phrase could be played.

I have learned so much working with Jeremy over the years, from how to open myself up emotionally to an audience, how to access some deep vulnerability inside myself, and to think about what the role of the performer/interpreter is in the symbiotic relationship with the composer and the listener.

EP: Tell me about your instrument.  What sort of violin do you play, and what do you love most about it?

SJ: I play a violin made in 1704 by Vincenzo Ruggieri of Cremona, Italy. What I love most about the instrument is its versatility and range of colors. It does not have the largest sound, and there are violins out there with a more intoxicatingly gorgeous intrinsic tone. But, I often feel that my own voice gets lost in the sometimes monochromatic beauty of other instruments. My violin is a flexible vessel for my own musical voice and personality, and I feel its range has helped me grow as a player and interpreter.

EP: You live in New York City.  Where do you go for artistic inspiration?

SJ: I love going to New York’s many, excellent museums. Most of the concerts I attend are smaller chamber music or contemporary music concerts featuring my friends. I enjoy seeing good movies and terrible movies. Just to give you an idea of my cinephilic tastes, the last two movies I saw were “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” and “The End of the Tour,” a very moving dramatization of a few days in the life of the writer David Foster Wallace as he was being interviewed for a piece in Rolling Stone. I also enjoy reading. Currently, I’m making my way through Book 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Proustian epic, “My Struggle.”

Stefan Jackiw performs with pianist Jeremy Denk on Thursday, November 19th at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.  For more information on Stefan you can visit his artist page.