Friday, March 25, 2016

Violinist Stefan Jackiw – “music connects you with humanity”

I am reconnecting with the slender, young looking 31 years old violinist, Stefan Jackiw, who impressed me deeply when I had heard him perform several years ago, at the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church. Home of the Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players - just a block from Lincoln Center – less frequently performed repertoire is presented here in an accessible way, by musicians belonging to the former orchestral ensemble led by the late Jens Nygaard and upcoming talents of the New York classical music scene.
Already then, Jackiw came across as being an artist with an inimitably searching character and an utterly engaging musician with a maturity well beyond his years. He clearly dominated the stage in a literal sense, since there was not even a stage actually; Jupiter players just stand in front of their audience, which makes for a much simpler and more direct display of their skill. It also makes it more difficult for some performers to stand there in such proximity, rather intimately exposed, without the sanctification of the pedestal effect of a stage.
This was clearly not the case for Jackiw, who embraced the closeness with every one of his nimble movements and a soaring tone projection, pulling the audience into his music making with an almost uncanny optimism; not of the naively joyful kind, but rather a deep felt response of life affirming buoyancy with an emotional depth, only gained through some serious soul searching.
Since then, the highly accomplished violinist’s career has taken off to even new heights. When we meet at Indies, a café, often frequented by musicians thanks to its lighter fare and proximity to Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School, he had just made his debut at Carnegie Hall, performing Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto with Mikhail Pletnev, kick starting a tour with the Russian National Orchestra. He also completed a tour, performing Ives Violin Sonatas with the brilliant pianist Jeremy Denk, which included a well received performance at the 92Y. The New York Times called their collaboration an arresting account and a model of how performers can both inform and entertain an audience with a challenging program (Anthony Tommasini) photo Shiro Yuki NY Times
Jackiw had first collaborated with Denk in 2007, at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, and they had “clicked” from the get go:”Besides being a greatly informed and learned pianist with immense insights into the historical context and how to make strikingly clear, how a piece is put together, for me his playing is so special because of its emotional generosity. When he plays, he is the opposite of academic; filled with spirit, life and joy, he makes you fall in love with music all over again,” says Jackiw. They continued their spirited affiliation, performing several times over the years and their relationship has deepened into a strong partnership, further evolving their similar musical values, personal temperaments and ideas on interpretation. When it came to Charles Ives, a project Denk had mentioned to Jackiw a while back, Jackiw started learning all four Sonatas at once, for their shared performance. While Denk had been closely involved with the composer’s work for quite some time, Jackiw had only been somewhat familiar with some of his chamber music already, while the Sonatas were rather new territory for him. That’s why he hopes to repeat their Ives tour in the near future:”I feel the first time around, after you learn new repertoire, you have to put it away for a while. The second time you perform it, there is a very different understanding, and that’s especially true with a composer you don’t perform all that often. It is different when you play, say Brahms, whom you play all your life. Even if it’s a new or lesser played piece, its informed by how you play Brahms’ other works…I already look forward to revisiting Ives.” While much admired by Jackiw, Denk, is also a prolific writer on his thoughts on music – he is currently writing a book, built on a selection of entries of his successful blog “Think Denk,” a consummate and often witty outlook from his perspective as a musician – Jackiw, who is an excellent communicator himself, says he is rather shy when it comes to writing about music; though he did write the program notes for his Carnegie Hall debut. “It is important for me, to write down my thoughts that go into building a certain program, and my thoughts about a performance. Writing forces me to articulate my thoughts about music, deepening my own understanding and informs my commitment to then crystallize my thoughts in my playing and vice versa, “he says.
Jackiw often attends others’ concerts and likes to think about the experience, but also about his own role, as a performer. Photo credit: Sophie Zhai
“I believe that we (as performers) are re-creating a composer’s work, like an actor re-creates Shakespeare… and in that sense we are servants to the composer’s score. But within that, one could argue if it is our job to guide the audience in a controlled way, pointing out the path through the piece; or rather go on the journey with the audience together, in real time. As a listener, I find it always more compelling, when the performer and the audience are “taking communion” together, when there is this togetherness of experiencing the music. While giving yourself up to the music may be risky, and the willingness to relinquish control may be dangerous, this is – for me – the place, where music takes flight. It sounds a little indulgent, but the great, late Hanoncourt expressed it so eloquent:”Beauty exists at the edge of catastrophe.” Pushing to that edge, being in the presence of all that is expressed in the score, the torment, the joy, the emotional extremes….being vulnerable to all that opens you up to an experience, bigger than oneself and that connects the performer with the audience. As a performer you cannot keep the audience at an arm length. It may be more comfortable, you would be less naked, but that’s not what it is about. An actor like Daniel Day Lewis, for example, is totally amerced into his characters. He becomes the character, he is portraying, every time. “
Jackiw is inspired by other performers, who radiate this total commitment and honesty in their playing; some of his all time idols includes violinist Christian Tetzlaff, whose concerts he always aims to attend. The other one is Gidon Kremer, with whom he performed chamber music in Korea, last year. “It would be a dream to play together with him again,” he says. “Already in the rehearsals, this is an artist who is so inspiring with utter commitment and always so different in each performance. “
“After all, why do we go to museums, read literature and want to get a perspective on history,” exclaims the former Harvard psychology major, if not to connect with beauty, but also with the emotions expressed by others. I find it deeply comforting to discover that others felt like I feel. “One of the major conventions in psychology is “normalization,” which means to show empathy to a patient, by showing that whatever mental ailment patients are plagued by, they are not alone; there are others that have suffered this before and are now. And music really shows that too, through the works of composers, who have lived and suffered and lived seeking joy and beauty. It is difficult to go on stage as a performer, it takes some self-reflection and thinking about what matters and why we are here, as a musician, dedicated to express all that, it forces you to look inward too, and that’s what keeps us grounded and in our most blissful moments, connected to humanity.
In the following months, Jackiw is looking forward to several orchestral performances in Europe, including his Berlin Konzerthaus debut, as well as reconnecting with his Korea based ensemble “Ditto.”
For more info about the artist: www. stefanjackiw.com

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust – shtetl buoyancy re-invented

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Soulful violist and composer/arranger Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin was featured in Ljova and the Kontraband’s Sunday afternoon concert at Brooklyn’s new home for the all-inclusive new music scene, National Sawdust. Going by ‘Ljova,’ the kindred version of his traditional Russian-Hebrew name, Lev, the artist and his Kontraband filled the room, which had been arranged cabaret-style, with tuneful energy. Folksy tango tunes with virtuosic viola passages next to Yiddish folk songs performed with great gusto by Ljova’s wife, singer Inna Barmash, pulled young and old alike into ethnic rhythmic soundscapes.
Says Barmash: “If you’ve been here in Brooklyn long enough, you have certainly heard Yiddish spoken by many of its Jewish, Eastern European inhabitants.” But while songs were sung in Yiddish, and some of the tango arrangements, especially those for accordion (virtuosic accordionist Julian Labro was sitting in for the band’s member Patrick Farrell), were reminiscent of Piazzolla, there was also something very different present in the compositions, giving the music a unique artistic characteristic of its own. As the program promised: “You will think you have heard it, but didn’t…at least not quite like this.
Quite far removed from the repertoire of his traditional classical music training, Ljova’s music stays alive through its own magic, fostered by intense rhythms of klezmer, tango, jazz, gypsy music and soaring melodic structures, many of which seem to originate in the eastern shtetl, rather than in Schubert.
The son of Russian Jewish émigrés famed Moscow composer Alexander Zhurbin, most renowned for his 1975 rock opera “Orpheus and Eurydice,” and poet Irena Ginzburg, Ljova always managed to stay closely connected to the nurturing roots of his heritage without being stuck in the generational gap.
Born into a Russian musician’s home, violin lessons with the renowned Galina Turchaninova, teacher to talents like Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin, were part of Ljova’s Moscow routine from age four on. He left this part of his life behind when he immigrated in 1990 at age 11 to New York, along with his parents. It may have been the influence of his uncle, Yuri Gandelsman, former principal violist of the Moscow Virtuosi and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra that caused Ljova to choose to enroll at Juilliard, where he became a student of the eminent Samuel Rhodes, violist of the Juilliard String Quartet. Ljova might have continued to follow this road if it had not been for his curiosity and willingness to try on other musical hats. Making music within “the other” non-classical world of music, whether at jazz gigs at nightclubs, weddings, or folk festivals, taught Ljova to improvise and compose, and opened a different worldview for him to absorb, first reluctantly, then eagerly, eventually making it his own.
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Ljova’s first solo recording, World on Four Strings, released in 2006 on his own Kapustnik label, features the viola dominantly, yet with atmospheric multi-tracked recorded viola parts, gracefully departs from the classical genre.
An array of musical arrangements for artists like Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, Brooklyn Rider, The Knights, the Kronos Quartet and artists as diverse as rapper Jay-Z and Alondra de la Parra, among others, added greatly to Ljova’s exposure and experience. Composing for his beloved viola or his Kontraband or an entire Orchestra, Ljova has developed a varied and consistently unique voice of deeply felt, personal perception of musical delight. He came to realize that there are only two kinds of music, good – and bad.
Ljova’s musical ideas are flowing from a space within his very “normal life.” His persona does not present extravagancy, or any romantic ideal of an artist that seeks the stardom of a celebrated idol; his Viola strapped on his back, Ljova travels mostly by bike from his Upper West Side neighborhood. On occasion, he will leave himself a message on his cell phone with a reminder of a new musical idea that just came to him in that moment. His warm, unpretentious personality comes across as genuine to a fault: whether on stage or a broadcasted talk show, of which he has done several, or as a family man, a good neighbor and friend, he manages to stay relevant, doing whatever it takes to live a life that includes music on a daily basis.
Ljova is in high demand as a film composer. Some of his recent credits include scores to “Finding Babel”, a documentary about the Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish writer Isaak Babel and “Datuna: Portrait of America”, about the Georgian artist David Datuna, which just won a prize at Raindance Film Festival. Ljova has also composed music for documentaries produced by the BBC, and contributed music to documentaries by NHK and HBO. He has also scored nearly three dozen short-subject films.
Ljova also collaborates extensively with choreographers, including two ballets with Aszure Barton & Artists, as well as commissions from Parsons Dance, Ballet Hispanico, New Dialect and others.
The connections that Ljova makes with people are lasting and meaningful; his relationship with Brooklyn Rider goes back to 2008, when he shared the bill with the group at Joe’s Pub. It was the highly successful string quartet’s first year in existence, with violinist Johnny Gandelsman, violist Nicholas Cords and the two Jacobsen brothers, Eric on cello and Colin on violin. It was Ljova’s second year performing with the Kontraband. The lines between Ljova’s collaboration and friendship with the Brooklyn-based quartet, inspired by the “Blue Rider,” were blurred from the beginning. At their first performance, Brooklyn Rider performed several of Ljova’s pieces, including “Plume,” “Crosstown” and “Budget Bulgar.” The quartet also went with Ljova’s arrangement for Silk Road Ensemble, “Brîu,” a tune form the repertoire of Taraf de Haïdouks, originally composed for the project. “Plume” and “Crosstown” also appeared on the group’s debut recording Passport.
Eric Jacobsen says: “I can’t help but be inspired by Ljova. His imagination is fascinating and endless. He is one of those people, that when I see an opportunity for collaboration, I immediately think of him. He is true to his nature and creative spirit, however incredibly able to adapt to all situations and relationships.” One of Ljova’s new works in the making is a commission by Eric Jacobsen, who is currently starting to serve as conductor for the Orlando Philharmonic and the Bridgeport Symphony.
It is unsurprising that the afternoon at Sawdust had the intimacy of a family affair. Ljova aims for personal connection, as he laments: “Everyone has moved on into different neighborhoods. Even when planning concerts, it has become difficult to find an era that works for everyone..." it was therefore an important gesture that children were admitted to Sunday's concert for free. Ljova's cousin, Johnny Gandelsman - violinist of Brooklyn Rider, which had just performed at Sawdust the previous week, was in attendance with his animated kids.
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But beyond the literal family connections - Ljova is of course married to his "Kontraband"'s vocalist - the familiarity with which the performers demonstrated their instruments, percussionist Mathias Kűnzli most intricately, or talked about their music, held an informal objective, whcih created an intimate, family-friendly milieu.

The artists, belonging to a generation of New York musicians who are grown up with families of their own, look to swap the musician’s ideal of the hip nightlife performance venue into one that allows their friends and fans to bring their kids. “So many performances I give cannot be frequented by many of my colleagues and friends, since they don’t have babysitting available,” he says.
The practical answer for Ljova is to perform in spaces conducive to bringing people together, uniting young and old and making the community grow a little closer together. Remarkably, this is exactly what his performance proved to represent. If smaller performance venues typically fill with the artists’ following to begin with, why not make it possible to include all of them? This is a valid question to which Ljova answers with low-key performances with communal character. Already, Ljova’s shtick has gained traction with new audiences, and major concert venues like Lincoln Center seem to be following suit. While composer and Artistic Director of Sawdust, Paola Prestini, has, in her own words, aimed to create a forward-thinking laboratory to explore unknown artistic territory, she has in the process established a communal hub that satisfies a popular demand and community need.