A Chat with Stefan Jackiw

The official version of this post is on the blog of the Office for the Arts at Harvard and can be read here. Complete text follows. Enjoy! 

The self-conducted orchestra A Far Cry is playing a program that looks like a mini Harvard reunion of artists on Friday, Jan. 13 at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall. Featuring a major new work by composer Lembit Beecher ‘02, the concert was curated by Alex Fortes ‘07 and features soloist Stefan Jackiw ‘06 with Alexi Kenney in a pair of double concertos: the Bach Concerto for Two Violins (aka the “Bach Double”) and by Estonian composer Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt. Sarah Darling ‘02, another member of A Far Cry, talked with Jackiw about his training and the concert. An edited and condensed version of their conversation follows.

You'll be playing Bach and Pärt on this program. A heady pairing. 
The Bach is of course one of the most well-known pieces in the repertoire. And it's actually my first time playing the piece.

So you didn't play it when you were 3? 
No, I didn't play it when I was 3, and thankfully so. Even though I didn't study it as a kid, I still felt like I had to "unlearn" all these years of interpretations and varnish lacquered on to the piece, and really strip it away and go back to what Bach wrote. And there's so much there, such a pairing of song and dance. The second movement is one of the most songful, soaring, vocal pieces ever, and the outer movements are filled with visceral energy that I feel is connected to dance and the human body. So that's really fun to really dive into for the first time at age 31.

When you started physically playing the piece were there any "aha" moments? 
More in the dance realm, because there's this sort of innate physicality about dance, and the piece - the first movement - features a ton of string crossing that requires you to move your elbow back and forth to support the bow. And that kind of written-in physicality brings out a sense of down and up buoyancy and tension and release, which I think enhances the performance of it. So that was an interesting thing to experience, that the physicality of it actually enhances the content of the music. The Arvo Pärt is actually a piece that I've never heard before being asked to join AFC for these concerts. I find Pärt's music really soulful and touching and moving in a kind of Zen way. But it's not just peaceful Zen; there's also a kind of forlorn tragedy, something kind of sorrowful about it.

How do you see Pärt creating that sense in the music? 
There's a huge sense of space, both in terms of the temporal unfolding of the piece, but also in the range of pitches, often pairing a low note against some very high notes in the upper voices. And those two boundaries draw attention to the chasm in between. You know, this piece reminds me a little bit of some crazy NASA footage. Or like that movieGravity, where your attention is drawn to the fact hat you're just a speck in the cosmos, and the vastness — in that case, the visual universe, and in this case, the tonal/aural universe. I think this piece captures the same thing using different means.

You're originally from Boston. How does it feel to be playing here? 
I lived in Boston for the first 22 years of my life, growing up here and doing my undergrad at Harvard. And it's good to be back. I like performing in Boston because I grew up going to concerts in Jordan Hall, Symphony Hall, Sanders Theatre. There's a lot of personal history for me there, both as an audience member and as a performer. And also, there’s just something about coming home, bringing music that I have learned home. It feels nice. It feels warm. It's also fun to come back to Boston the city and experience it as an adult. When I was at Harvard, I was always on campus, and literally the day after my graduation I moved to New York. So I never explored the city as an adult. I mostly stayed where my family was, and where my school was. So it's great fun getting to know the city now with a different set of experiences.