By Paul Horsley
Violinist Stefan Jackiw’s official bio and press clippings read pretty much like those of any young musician these days. He is “one of his generation’s most significant artists” who possesses “talent that’s off the scale” (Washington Post) with playing that is “striking for its intelligence and sensitivity” (Boston Globe). Like their biographies, sometimes the artistry of these musicians seems to “run together,” too, one sounding pretty much like the next. But from the first time I heard Stefan play a decade ago I had an undeniable feeling that something was different here. His appearances on the Harriman-Jewell Series – including a Tchaikovsky Concerto and a solo recital – utterly captivated me in ways that I’ve rarely experienced with a violinist. Subsequent experiences with Stefan, including recordings and youtube and his most recent appearance here with the Kansas City Symphony October 4th-6th, have continued to bolster my conviction that Stefan Jackiw is destined to become one of the violinists we will remember for a very long time.
His performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto in Helzberg Hall included all the specificity of phrasing, agogics and articulation that first impressed me, and presented an even more highly developed sensitivity toward “teasing out” the inner core of meaning from every phrase – searching for every fresh nuance but without making the music sound fussy. His tone, though not huge, is tough and emphatic, his legato well-seasoned; his intonation accurate to the point where you don’t really think about it. The sentimentality is contained: not eschewed but controlled, like a quiet tear appearing in the corner of the eye that might cause a sniffle but not a bout of sobbing. If it’s a fat, Dorothy DeLay sound you’re seeking, look elsewhere. Stefan has found “his” sound, demure and almost chaste at times, with the help of his unusually flexible 1704 Vincenzo Ruggieri violin. Granted, his hushed tone at times required the orchestra, under Michael Stern’s direction, to “hold back” more than usual, and his theatrical knee-dips during harmonically complex passages sometimes actually seemed to alter the tone production. But of the dozens of violinists at work today – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there is none I’d rather listen to than Stefan. He reminds me of the violinists of old, with a Milstein-like honesty, a Heifetzian sense of gesture and rhetoric.
Stefan, who took the classical world by a storm at 12 and is now 28, made the lugubrious Mendelssohn sound fresh, even cheerful: Gone were the gloomy Sunday afternoons that Saul Bellow once commented the concerto reminded him of. In fact Stefan was even a bit quick on the draw at times in the first movement, pushing tempos in his eagerness to bring sunshine. His Andante was characterized by a sort of open simplicity, thought-out rather than over-thought. He again pushed the tempo in the finale, though his willful dash did not prevent the flutes from staying with him, displaying impressive accuracy themselves.
The program had opened with a tribute to Russell Patterson, the recently deceased founder of the Lyric Opera of KC and cofounder of the Symphony, in the form of a sweet, steady performance of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma V ariations. Dvorak’s Scherzo capriccioso opened the program proper on a jubilant note, and showed off the Symphony’s ever-improving polish and vigor. The winds sounded especially brilliantine, though the horns’ sonority at the outset seemed a bit fuzzy. The orchestra and Michael struck a nice balance of whimsy and schmaltz in the big waltz tune, and several fine wind solos stood out.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances have always struck me as Hollywood-ish, but they sounded wonderful under Michael’s direction despite an imbalance between the “present” brass and winds and the proficient but underwhelming string sound. The saxophone solo was exceptional here, as was the series of wind solos in the Andante con moto, which were natural, honest and quite beautiful. The madcap waltz in the slow movement and the final Allegro vivace were so full of rhythmic energy that one felt wistful that the great Michel Fokine, who originally intended to set this piece to choreography, never lived to complete the task.
The Symphony performs works of Stucky, Liszt and Tchaikovsky (the Second Piano Concerto, with Alon Goldstein) Oct. 25th-27th and music of Schumann, Strauss and Tchaikovsky, and Saint-Saëns (the Second Concerto, with pianist Behzod Abduraimov) Nov. 1st-3rd. Call 816-471-0400 or visit kcsymphony.org.