Richmond, VA – In September of 2021, Richmond Symphony Orchestra (RSO), our local orchestra, approached me to photograph their first in-person full orchestral performance since the start of COVID. Flattered, I said yes (obviously) and was determined to give them the full rock star treatment. My enlightenment started before the first note. While doing a walk through with one of the RSO employees, I was told that my go to camera was waaaaay too loud to photograph the performance. It was at that moment my inner Dorothy said, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not at Wacken anymore”. My inner me reflected on whether Wacken, often considered the Mecca of symphonic metal, would even exist as it is today if it were not for music as I was seeing for the first time through a lens. I had to look deeper into the genre that was (and still is) the foundation for one of the largest musical gatherings in the world today.
Enter Stefan Jackiw, a world renowned violinist who performed with RSO in January 2022 for their “Violin Virtuosity” program. Going into this project I had some, but limited exposure to classical music (most through my daughter’s involvement in various music programs). I was thrilled when not only did the RSO team invite me to cover the performance, they opened the door of knowledge and gave me access to conductor Valentina Peleggi; guest violinist, Stefan Jackiw; Concertmaster Daisuke Yamamoto; and Dominic Rotella on horn.
Stefan’s life with the violin started at the age of 4 when his parents gave him a used violin from a friend. At 5, they moved to New York and he connected with a new teacher, Mr. Mendoza, whom Stefan says was the first person who turned him on to the violin as, until that time he “had never heard the violin played so beautifully up close”. Mr. Mendoza was also very funny and made Stefan really want to play the violin (very fortunate for us!). After moving back to Boston his mother (who Stefan says is a great researcher, which makes sense because she is physicist) found a top teacher in Boston. When he started with her at 6 he could play a “couple songs” and by the time he was 12 he was playing “complete concertos”. He says he is where he is today in large part because of this teacher, Mrs. Gilels. During his senior year of high school he was invited to fill in for someone who was to perform solo with the Boston Symphony. He did and other invitations followed, including Chicago Symphony. He was contacted by an agency that he signed with and is with to this day.
My learning continued as, before the performance began, conductor Valentina Peleggi and Stefan Jackiw, had a sit down and talked about the upcoming performance. During the conversation a few things came to light. Stefan was playing a very special 18th century violin for this performance. As the conversation continued, we learned every instrument has a unique personality and often delivers a special tone for specific pieces. This violin was chosen because the tone fit Stefan’s vision of the piece (Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major). I admit, up until this point I had never considered the uniqueness of a specific instrument’s tone or personality to a classical piece, however, in hindsight, why would it be any different than a guitarist having multiple instruments to deliver a specific feel or emotion to a specific song? The epiphany came when I looked back at the previous conversation I had with Stefan where he told me, while the performance (small or large groups) does rely on the music (which has been scripted for years), it is more of a conversation where the musicians speak through the music. Tone is very important in any conversation, so of course the tonal (and other) qualities of the voice make the conversation unique and special.
When Stefan left to prepare, Valentina talked a little about the opening piece, Roxanna Panufnik’s original piece, “Alma’s Songs Without Words”. The piece was written to commemorate Alma Schindler Mahler’s works, who, at 22, married Gustav Mahler and agreed to give up her composer ambitions to be a loving and understanding partner. Prior to his death Mahler did publish five of her early works but she was never able to gain acclaim for the work. Panufnik was commissioned by Peleggi to adapt three of Alma’s pieces for voice and piano to orchestra. This special performance was the world premiere of the work and Panufnik was watching the stream live.
Shortly after Valentina left the stage, members of the orchestra made their way out to the Dominion Energy Center stage. The setup of the stage itself was, to some degree, a work of art as each member had different needs. In my limited experience with orchestra I was used to paper music adorning the stands and watching musicians turn pages throughout the performance. While there were no noticeable electronic instruments (as was the expectation), I did notice several using iPads or equivalent to display the music and various tools to help ‘turn the page’ without hands. It was a very orchestral use for technology!
The fun was about to begin. As the entrance of Concertmaster, Daisuke Yamamoto, was announced, silence fell over the stage and audience. Daisuke, who joined RSO in 2013 and was brought in as the Concertmaster bowed to the applause of the waiting audience. Turning to the orchestra, as is one of the roles of the Concertmaster, he ensured that all were in tune and ready to perform.
Once Daisuke took his seat to the left of the conductor’s platform, he looked to the stage entrance and Valentina entered. The audience applauded, the orchestra stood and welcomed her with open arms. After a traditional fist bump with Daisuke, Valentina provided another brief history of the piece and announced that this was indeed the world premiere of Alma’s Songs to the joy of the Saturday night crowd.
The first thing we heard was the harp and and a soft spoken cello, while other strings joined in with their unique ‘vocal’ tones filling the air. The rest of the orchestra joined in, thus starting the wonderous instrumental vocals. The tones make it easy to close your eyes and take in the music and yet I felt the need to listen with my eyes as well.
As I watched Valentina speak the music through motion, something we talked about in the pre-performance interview became more apparent. Her body and gestures to the orchestra were conveying the emotion and story at the time but her mind was moving ahead, anticipating the next gesture needed to fully encompass the emotion and passion of the next passage or phrase. It made me realize, that music very much reflects life. It is easy to get caught up in the moment, but is also important to know, understand, and prepare for the next phase (or in the case of music, next phrase or passage).
If I had just closed my eyes, I would have missed another fascinating element of the performance, the choreography of the bows. The bows danced gracefully throughout the piece. As I learned from Daisuke, this choreography is a main role of the Concertmaster and it added a subtle yet powerful aspect to any piece. Throughout the passages the unspoken emotion and direction was clear to the eye and fit well to the title of the work… “Songs Without Words”… no words yet powerful and emotional in tone and movement. Bravo!
The three parts to the piece did a wonderful job of of giving voice to different instruments, cello for Hymn 1, oboes and English horn for Hymn 2, and brass and horn for Hymn 3. The piece came to full orchestral conclusion with all instruments adding to the feeling. Without uttering a word, Valentina praised and acknowledged the soloists and all the musicians for a wonderful performance of this world premiere piece. It was quite powerful. With that, Valentina exited the stage, followed by the violin section, and saw a shuffle of some of the other musicians. The stage crew emerged from backstage and made a few changes in preparation for Stefan’s entrance.
At this point my inner Dorothy was rethinking her Wacken reference. I mean we had seen a sound check, a grand entrance to the applause and joy of the awaiting audience, a dynamic leader, a well choreographed performance, awesome music with phenomenal solos and harmonic passages. And now we had just seen a very skilled stage crew making rapid changes to set up for the next part of the concert.
Alma’s Songs and Stefan Jackiw Gallery
After another quick tuning (sound) check, Jackiw, followed by Peleggi, made their entrance, again to the delight of those awaiting to hear Jackiw’s performance of Erich Korngold’s “Violin Concerto“. Erich Korgold was famous for his devotion to film music. He is known to have committed music for Hollywood, in part to feed his family, until Hitler was defeated. Upon the end of WWII, Korngold returned to more traditional composing with the first being his “Violin Concerto in D Major“. As the first piece of this evening was a recent commemoration of Alma Mahler’s works, this piece was Korngold’s commemoration to her as well.
Jackiw took a strong stance to Peleggi’s left. From the opening bow draw you could see the violin was indeed an extension of Stefan, his facial expressions echoing the heavenly tones. As I listened with my eyes, it was clear that the musical conversation Stefan had talked about earlier was taking place. This was not just a 2 person conversation, each member of the orchestra took a role. When Jackiw’s violin was doing the talking, Peleggi would listen intently, periodically glancing Stefan’s way. When the point was made Valentina would prompt the orchestra for input to this wonderful work. The conversation was amazing, Valentina using her body language to guide the orchestral conversation as Stefan allowed his violin to be his voice.
For those of us born at a time when the movies that are now considered classics (and aired quite often on Turner Classic Movies) were still relatively well know, it was easy to see the cinematic influence in this piece. Throughout the first two movements Jackiw’s interpretation of the piece conveyed a feeling of the intimate adoration Korngold must have felt for Alma in a way that only Hollywood music could portray. In the final movement, which was more upbeat, I could feel a sense of exhilaration in Korngold’s devotion to the widow of his late mentor (Gustav Mahler). The conclusion had the tone of a very Hollywood ending. WOW!
The standing ovation that followed gave my inner Dorothy more reason to rethink her initial assessment. As Jackiw reappeared to take a second and even third bow the crowd’s applause added another element to the conversation he had taken part in during the performance. As his encore, he performed the Largo from Bach’s “Sonata in C Major”. This was a very special conversation as it was only between Jackiw, the violin, and the audience. With every draw of the bow, you could see and hear the emotion ripple from the vibrations of the strings to the language of his body and the expressions on his face. It was beautiful! Another standing ovation followed and Stefan reappeared taking his final bow.
After a short intermission, where the stage crew once again arranged the set to accommodate the changes for the second half of the show, RSO once again took to the stage. I felt the second half of the performance was somewhat more intense than the first half. A different type of conversation was taking place. Peleggi’s body language drew out very intense tones. The intensity was not only portrayed in body language and instrument intonation, but also in the choreographed bow movements. Perhaps because of the higher tempo the required anticipation in Valentina’s style was more evident.
The second half of performance brought out the power and diversity within the genre. Filled with energy and joy for the most part, there were calming passages as well. This was Brahm’s first symphony and he had been accused of ‘borrowing’ elements from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy“. This was interesting because I have asked several in the classical realm whether they preferred traditionalist or more modern interpretations of music. I have received a variety of answers but most insinuated that it is important to let the music speak through the artist. The most insightful response I received said people have been interpreting music of the past (and of others) and adapting it to a modern ear since the beginning of music. The Brahms / Beethoven / “Ode to Joy” connection was the perfect example.
After the final note and one final fist bump, the show was over. Valentina and the orchestra stood, took their deep bows as the audience applauded with delight. Words cannot do the performance justice, if you could only hear what I saw.
Brahms Symphony No 1 in C Minor Photo Gallery
That evening my inner Dorothy and myself had a long conversation. First off, it turns out, Dorothy had never been to Wacken and no matter how hard she clicked her heels, getting there would still require a long plane trip and a little luck. We have, however, experienced many performances that cover a very wide genre spectrum. It is safe to say that while each genre is different, they are more alike than we think. The arts, and music in general, are not just about the tones and playing notes on paper, it is about the emotion, feeling, and the tonal conversations we have with ourselves and each other that makes it a wonderful experience. My evening with Stefan Jackiw and Richmond Symphony, as I listened with the lens, gave me a deeper look into the evolution of how the conversation started and has made me look forward to many more in the future.
One final RSO note that needs to be talked about is their involvement in the community and their passion for bringing the arts to the people. Through programs such as Youth Concert Orchestra they take music education to a level beyond public education. In addition to his performance on stage, Stefan conducted a Master Class with students at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Music and also met with members of the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra. “It was a such a pleasure meeting and discussing music with these young musicians during my stay in Richmond,” he said. “These talented, thoughtful, serious young instrumentalists are an inspiring example of the next generation of musicians.” (quote courtesy of RSO).
Education in the arts is very important in the schools. As an engineer I can say that my education in the arts (both in school and in life) has given me the ability to look at many engineering problems in a whole new light. Performing arts not only teach a skill but also help work individually and as a team to deliver beautiful sights and sounds to the masses. Even as I am typing this, my inner Dorothy is reminding me that without education and the arts, Wacken and other stage events would be just a distant memory. Support the arts!
A very special thank you to Stefan, Valentina, Daisuke, Dominic, Brent and the rest of the RSO team! This article would have not been possible without your insights.
Want to see more? Check out this piece by Stefan Jackiw!