Strings Prodigy

Violinist Stefan Jackiw mixed concert tours and college life.

Stefan Jackiw performing a Saint-Sans violin concerto with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra in Sanders TheatrePhotograph by Julie Y. Zhou / Harvard Crimson

Musical debuts rarely create front-page news anymore. But when violinist Stefan Jackiw ’07 made his first appearance in London, playing the Mendelssohn Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra back in 2000, there he was, his picture on the front page of the Times. The review inside compared Jackiw to the legendary violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin—inevitable, no doubt, because although Jackiw was only 14, he was already a seasoned professional.

Jackiw (jack-eev) appears headed toward the most prominent performing career of any Harvard string virtuoso since Yo-Yo Ma ’76, D.Mus. ’91. Already he is playing about 35 concerts a year with important orchestras and conductors across America and abroad.

Boston-based conductor Benjamin Zander, a regular guest with the Philharmonia, knew Jackiw from the New England Conservatory (NEC) Youth Philharmonic and took the young violinist to London. “The Philharmonia is not in the habit of presenting child prodigies and [its] administration was very wary of the idea when I presented it,” Zander said recently. “But after the one rehearsal, a woman who had been playing in the orchestra for 25 years came up to me and said this was the most beautiful Mendelssohn Concerto she had ever heard. In Stefan’s playing there is a burning honesty, an authenticity, that is very rare; his playing is natural and informed by directness and simplicity, yet at the same time it is noble and aristocratic.”

At 21, Jackiw still looks like a teenager. His appearance is striking—his father is of Central European origin, his mother Korean. His manner is friendly, candid, and unassuming, casual but also marked by a certain reserve. It is clear that an internal compass directs him, and that an internal gyroscope keeps him steady on the journey.

“I started playing the violin when I was four,’’ he said over a recent lunch in Harvard Square. “Family friends gave me a small instrument that their child had outgrown. I started with Suzuki lessons at the Longy School of Music here in Cambridge, and I simply kept at it. There was no watershed moment when I decided that I wanted to be a musician. Instead, it was a gradual thing. The better I got at playing the violin, the more interesting it all became.’’

Jackiw worked with Zenaida Gilels at NEC until he was 12, when he started studying with the great French violinist Michle Auclair. Gilels gave Jackiw a secure technical foundation; Auclair “was picky and demanding,’’ Jackiw recalls, adding, “but that was what I needed then.’’ For the last few years, he has studied with Donald Weilerstein, former first violin of the Cleveland Quartet. “Mr. Weilerstein doesn’t listen to my tudes. Instead he understands what I want to express and we work on trying to make it clearer, more convincing, more personal.”

In high school, Jackiw played in the Youth Philharmonic under Zander’s direction and appeared as soloist with the orchestra on tour, but he didn’t covet the role of concertmaster. “That was his own decision,’’ Zander recalls. “He wanted to learn more about music and to meet other young musicians. They realized that something was going on here that was in another league, but didn’t resent him—they loved him for it. The minute he would finish rehearsing for one of his concertos he would immediately go and sit in his chair in the orchestra—for him, playing a Brahms Symphony was no different from playing a concerto.”

Jackiw’s first professional appearance came with the Boston Pops in 1997, in the Second Concerto by Henryk Wieniawski. He had just turned 12, but his physicist parents (Roman Jackiw teaches at MIT, So-Young Pi at Boston University) did not push him forward as a prodigy, he says. He played a restricted number of concerts, gradually enlarging his repertoire. Most of his current performances are with orchestras, but he also plays recitals and chamber music. This season, he performs nine different concertos; he has tried to add one a year to his repertoire—Beethoven, for example, is new. He plays an instrument by Vincenzo Ruggieri crafted in 1704 in Cremona, the center of Italian violin-making. As he describes its characteristics, he seems to be describing his own: “The sound is pure and clear. It isn’t aggressive, but it is full of colors.”


It wasn’t easy for Jackiw to align his schedule with the requirements of academic life. For one thing, he practices six hours a day, his “number-one priority. I plan my academic schedule around my practice sessions,” he explains. “I do my most productive practicing early in the day and usually tried not to take classes that met in the morning. And then I practice before dinner—and afterwards!”

He began as a psychology concentrator, but switched to music. “I ran into difficulties with the psychology department because I had to miss a midterm exam [to play] a concert that had been scheduled before I became a student,” he explains. “The bottom line was that [the professor wasn’t] that understanding, and couldn’t do anything for me, so I got a zero on that midterm.”

Stefan Jackiw

Photograph by Don Hustein

Stefan Jackiw

The difficulties did not entirely cease when he transferred to music, because Harvard’s music department is not performance-oriented. “I took Robert Levin’s chamber-music seminar four times,” Jackiw says. “Some of the music faculty have been very excited about my career, others not. Some gave me extensions, others argued that other students were not missing classes and there was no reason to make an exception for me. There have been some tricky moments, but I have managed to combine the academic work with what I want to do, which is to practice and perform. I am also grateful for the support and interest of the master of Leverett House, [Mallinckrodt professor of physics] Howard Georgi, who is a physicist, like my parents, and also very interested in music.

“I took my schoolwork on the road with me and faxed or e-mailed my assignments in,” he explains. “My experiences at Roxbury Latin School prepared me for intense academic experiences, and I feel I got a good education here [at Harvard]. Some of it has come from my fellow students, who are motivated and interesting and passionately doing their own thing the way I am doing mine. I would have been immersed entirely in music in a conservatory and not exposed to so many different things, so I am glad I made the decision to come to Harvard—and I was able to do everything I wanted to do musically.’’

After graduation, Jackiw moved to New York, where he will pursue musical goals that come from listening to violinists of the past—in particular, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Arthur Grumiaux, and Nathan Milstein. “They all had strong personalities and always did something personal with the music, but never [distorted] it, [tried] to do something different just for the sake of being different. You hear a record of Heifetz and you know immediately who is playing, but if you follow him with the score it is astonishing how exactly he follows the composer’s indications. There is a delicate balance between conveying what you believe the composer wanted to convey and expressing your own interpretation, your own emotion. You have to be straightforward and sincere, true to the composer’s desires and your own personal stance.” 


Richard Dyer, A.M. ’64, wrote about classical music for the Boston Globe for 33 years.

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