Cleveland Orchestra Violist Mark Jackobs Discusses Orchestral Life and Engaging Audiences with New Classical Music

This post is the second in our “Music Career Profiles” series which provides a behind-the-scenes-look at life as a musician. The Cleveland Orchestra will be performing at Chicago’s Symphony Center on February 2, so I thought this would be the perfect time to share my interview with Cleveland Orchestra violist Mark Jackobs.

Mark has been the fourth chair viola of The Cleveland Orchestra since 1993 where he holds the Jean Walt Bennett Chair. He previously served for three years as fourth chair viola in the Pittsburgh Symphony. Mark has given recital and chamber music performances in the Reinberger Chamber Music Series at Severance Hall; with the Myriad Ensemble; and at summer festivals including Aspen, Edinburg, Mainly Mozart, and American Heidelberg Schlosspeile. Mark has been a faculty member at The Cleveland Institute of Music since 1994 and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the Oberlin Conservatory. He has given master classes at the Peabody Conservatory, Oberlin Conservatory, University of Colorado at Boulder, the Music Institute of Chicago, Rocky Mountain Viola Society, Ohio Viola Society and the Interlochen Arts Camp.

I was fortunate enough to study with Mark during my undergraduate and graduate years at The Cleveland Institute of Music. Mr. J has been an inspiration to me both as a person and as a musician. Special thanks to him for speaking with me.

Viola da Voce: What inspired you to become an orchestral musician? Was there a particular moment/incident that sparked your interest?

Mark Jackobs (MJ): It wasn’t a moment, but I was at Eastman and we had a quartet together for three years.  We were serious and competing.  We spent all the summers together and doing recitals. We were trying to go the professional quartet route.  I think at one point it just kind of hit me, at least with that particular group, it wasn’t going to work as a long-term professional quartet.  So I went to grad school with the idea that I wanted to take auditions and go the orchestra route.  I went to CIM with that as a specific goal and just devoted two years to that and I haven’t looked back.

It was kind of a process of playing with the quartet and spending a serious amount of time trying to do that and it just wasn’t for me. It’s been great being in the orchestra and being able to play chamber music and do a massive variety of contemporary music, mixed ensembles, chamber music, rock and different genres.  There has just been a wider variety I’ve been able to do.

VV: What are the rewards and challenges associated with being a professional orchestral performer?

MJ: The rewards are many.  Just recently, being able to perform with [pianist] Mitsuko [Uchida] in a chamber setting in her home country is a huge joy.

VV: So you are speaking about the Cleveland orchestra’s recent tour of Japan and Korea?

MJ: Yeah, being on tour with her in Japan and being able to work with great artists, great soloists, great conductors….  Maybe the biggest reward, something that is great about this orchestra is that there are so many people that work so hard year after year and maintain the quality, work ethic and work for keeping the standards of the orchestra.  It’s just a joy being about to play with these people.  It’s funny that Stan [Konopka] and I, my stand partner, I announced that we just celebrated 28 years together. We’ve been together since high school.

VV: And you went to Interlochen Arts Academy for high school, correct?

Yeah, we both started there and then we both went to the Cleveland Institute of Music. We then played in the Pittsburgh Orchestra together.  Stan then came to the Cleveland Orchestra and I came three years later. So I can’t shake him [laughs].

I think some of the challenges are the schedule and touring.  We are touring more and more.  But on the flip side our tours are unique among American orchestras because most of our touring has been restructured as residencies.  So we have a long-term tour for weeks in a particular town or a festival.  So we have residencies in Miami, which this year marks ten years, where we spend three weeks a year in Miami spread out over January, February and March. We have residencies at Carnegie and a new one is at Lincoln Center. So we will be going to Lincoln Center during the summers and starting the residency with four Bruckner symphonies this July in a week.  We also have a residency at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland. We are doing Vienna.  So when we do these tours, it’s a regular schedule every year or every other year.  With Miami it’s every year; with Carnegie there are regular appearances and longer stays when we are there.  As far as touring goes, it’s better than spending two weeks in five countries.

The most recent tour was two weeks in Japan and Korea, so there is a little bit of running around and that was a bit of a challenge.  It’s definitely a stressful schedule.  So that’s probably the biggest challenge, a lot of travel.

VV: Orchestral programming tends to include standard works such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 which are repeated from year to year. How do you keep the music fresh?

MJ: We don’t tend to have the big warhorse programming, which is good and bad.  We keep it fresh by doing adventurous pieces and we do things like an entire concert of new, contemporary music for free for the city of Cleveland. We do things on the fringe of classical performances; but we know to keep the art alive, we have to do standard repertoire.  It is fresh when you do really genius programming.  That is why I said, one of the benefits of playing is being able to work with these colleagues because it doesn’t matter.  I mean, if we are doing Beethoven 5 with Franz [Welser-Most], our conductor, or a packed house, it’s going to be a charged performance.   It’s going to be energetic, it’s going to be fresh, that’s what this orchestra does.  That’s why I think it’s a real attribute for this group.  We are doing standard rep and it’s a challenge. Beethoven 5 is not easy and there are some tricky parts to it. And if you aren’t really on, it’s not going to sound good.  Even with the standard rep we’ve done a hundred times, every time you do it, it’s a challenge.  If everyone is working in a forward direction, then we are working harder at it and that makes it more difficult to be precise and that energetic. We work hard. Beethoven 5 is a fun piece.  Beethoven 9 is a great piece. All of these standard orchestra favorites are fun to play. Mozart 40 is tough.   It never really gets easy. We know it well, and we know it from memory, but that doesn’t mean we stop working at it.

VV: What composers/pieces have your heard that you wish orchestras would perform more regularly?

MJ: I think that has to go towards new orchestral music.  We did a concert with Mateas Pintscher, doing some of his works.  He is a great young German composer.  I think his music along with Mark Andre Balbavie, a French composer.  Andrei Staub is another.  These are the guys that are changing the language of orchestral writing and creating sounds that haven’t been played by orchestras. It’s exciting to hear that. A lot of orchestras won’t program things like these because Pintcher’s orchestral works vary and wildly run that gamut of every single instrument you can play, whether it’s a contra clarinet to a massive array of percussion.  So it’s logistically very difficult to pull off as well as his writing is incredibly difficult. So I think that’s a deterrent from a lot of people playing it. I think we are lucky that this orchestra has dedicated time and resources for new music.

VV: What is the most unusual experience you’ve had in a performance?

It could be the Interlochen Arts Academy orchestra upper peninsula tour, as if that isn’t remote enough, during a performance of Tchaik 4 in a high school after a long six to eight hour bus ride. One of the cellists decided to puke on the floor in the gymnasium during the performance.  It was a glorious moment. [Both laugh.] After 21 years of playing professionally that still stands out.

VV: You once competed in the Iron Man Triathlon. Did you find any similarities between mental and physical training for the triathlon and preparing for an audition or concert?

MJ: Yeah, there are.  Discipline is number one.  And that’s all encompassing. It’s mental. It’s physical. It’s dedication.  I mean, anything that is extreme and, unfortunately, Iron Man fits within that.  And so do orchestral auditions.  Orchestral auditions are extreme.  You have to be ready for anything and that could be seven rounds of competition within three days.  That could be sight reading. It could be the conductor in an audition asking you to play while he is conducting, alone on the stage.  I think getting ready for those things, getting ready for the unexpected as well as what you know as for as preparation.  They are very similar.  I mean the Iron Man is a whole heck of a lot less fun, and there is no payoff at the end. I did it once and it went it well. I can file that under the “don’t do it again” folder.

VV: What is your advice for aspiring orchestral musicians? What should they think about when preparing for an audition?

MJ: That’s a difficult, difficult question.  I think the number one thing, especially now, and it’s so competitive that the training has to be right.  You need the right instruction. You need the right types of performances leading up to auditions. If you want an orchestral job, you have to have the right information.  You have to know exactly what to do for each excerpt.  There is a specific way to prepare that wins jobs and it works.  That’s proven by working on these things with my students and people getting jobs.  You realize there is very little room for error, not just in performance, but the overall presentation has to be right – style, articulation – and these are things that go beyond just knowing the notes.  It goes beyond just having each excerpt prepared well. It has to be with the great sound, intonation has to be right, style and articulation. I think it’s just become increasingly more and more difficult to get jobs. So you really need to know how to prepare and perform specific excerpts. I think training is number one.

VV: Many music industry analysts have expressed concern over the declining popularity of classical music. What can orchestral musicians do to attract a broader audience?

MJ: One of the big things we do in the Cleveland Orchestra is that we have a new center for developing young audiences.  It’s just formally been organized this year with a $20 million gift from the Maltz family, which is local family that is amazingly philanthropic and sees the need for developing new audiences. We are doing a broad variety of performances.  One of which was the concert I just mentioned of contemporary new music concert with Pintscher conducting and we did four new works, separated by the Cleveland Orchestra’s Rock Band doing Louis Andreissen’s Worker’s Union.  That’s a piece you should look up.  He’s probably in his seventies now.

We had these four big new orchestral works with that big intermission in between.  It was kind of like two big concerts with a half an hour intermission of things going on in the hall.  What we did was five of us in the orchestra put this band together and performed this piece that’s an improvisational [piece] but with tutti rhythm.

The way he wrote the piece was one line was the staff and that’s the middle of your instrument, and the notes go above or below that.  So you just play above or below the line in that rhythm in the range or below the line.  So it gives complete freedom of what you want to play as long as you play the rhythm. It’s in tutti rhythm, and it’s incredibly fast.  It comes out sounding like an incredible, almost pop/rock/heavy metal.

The reviewer said we were like heavy metal but heavier, which was pretty funny.  I mean, it really gets the audience involved and it’s kind of abstract to talk about. You really have to hear it.  It’s pieces like that that draw the audience in and sort of allow them to say, “Oh, there‘s really interesting things that don’t sound like traditional classical music”. And I think there were pretty surprised to hear that.  We had pretty full audiences for five new pieces.  We gave out free tickets and they came out to Severance Hall and heard about two-and-half hours of music for free.   So we are doing a lot to get people to come in.

We are doing outreach concerts in the city.  We take the orchestra into schools in the city across every economic level in high schools all over the city.  We do that in Miami also.  And Franz will conduct. He had a group of kids come up from the City of Cleveland and dance to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring finale. [He laughs]  These kids just came out from the audience and danced in front of all their friends to the Rite of Spring.  I think we are doing things that are a little unusual that is engaging audiences.

The genre is not dead.

VV: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MJ: You know, I think your last question is interesting. I know a lot of classical music observers or see it as a kind of waning art form. It’s anything but, here.  We are doing so many things that you see people coming out for the orchestra who have never stepped foot in a concert hall before, and I think they are really surprised. And they know from those experiences that it doesn’t have to be a dressed up evening out at a high cultural event.  It can be relaxed and fun and interesting and engaging.  I think that is surprising and that’s not just keeping it alive but thriving as well. Things are going well. It takes a lot of work. We do a lot of things that are outside popular classical music. It’s tough. It’s really hard because you have to step out of your comfort zone to do something like this Louis Andreissen piece; it took an enormous amount of work for the five of us to do this. But I think it came off really well.  I think it’s one of the first times in Severance Hall when during the piece when we landed in this definite Metallica riff that we had people yelling during the performance.  Things like that really surprise people.

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3 comments on “Cleveland Orchestra Violist Mark Jackobs Discusses Orchestral Life and Engaging Audiences with New Classical Music
  1. Hi Miguel!

    Thanks very much for the Pingback! A former member of the Cleveland Orchestra, recently retired, is one of my sources for my blog post!

    This is a great interview. I enjoyed reading it.


  2. Pingback: Fun evening with friend « Run4joy59's Blog

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