Eric Jacobsen recently joined the Virginia Symphony as music director, replacing JoAnn Falletta. Eric brings joy, storytelling, and a touch of humor to what he describes as “musical conversations” that delight audiences around the world, including those who don’t traditionally attend classical music concerts. Let’s meet Eric and find out more about his musical journey.
TFP: Tell us about your childhood. How did you become interested in music growing up?
EJ: I was lucky enough to be born into a family of musicians who both worked professionally outside of the house but also brought the joy of music into the living room with parties and heated discussions about the importance and history of music and art. I grew to love gathering in similar types of parties during my teenage years, which gave me the same sense of community and camaraderie in chamber music which, of course, can and should translate into the orchestral stage.
TFP: Was the cello the first instrument you played? Why do you enjoy playing music?
EJ: Cello was the first instrument that I played, and it was given to me both because my older brother was a violinist and my parents didn’t want competition, and because I was about 4 inches taller than others around me, so the cello just fit in my hands better!
Music is not just another language, but it’s the language that begins when words stop, and through playing music with friends and colleagues and even acquaintances, it just brings people together more closely without even having to describe it with words. It’s also just really fun! I love working hard, and music also gives me a way to work hard even when there isn’t a complete answer, just small steps of progress along the way.
TFP: Did you always want to be a conductor?
EJ: I think I did always want to be a conductor! I’ve always loved the idea of symphonic music and leading it and being an empathetic accompanist with soloists. From the time of bringing people together for chamber music parties back when I was a teenager, I always liked gathering people together for music, and conducting seemed like the most obvious way to do that.
TFP: Why do you think music is important in a child’s education?
EJ: Creating an opportunity and fostering imagination, creativity, and bold thinking are some of the most important keys to a child’s success and continued growth. We’re lucky to live in a culture that supports and recognizes that music can be the greatest form of free speech.
TFP: What are some upcoming shows/events/initiatives you are looking forward to this season?
EJ: In my first year as music director of the VSO, I couldn’t think of a better way to be a part of the community than with one of the greatest works of the Western canon: the Ninth Symphony from Beethoven. I look forward to this for all of the reasons—performing with the Virginia Symphony Chorus, connecting with members of the community who have had previous relationships with this piece, getting to know the musicians more through the work, and maybe most of all, the opportunity and joy of possibly introducing this piece to members of the community who have yet to hear it. I love learning about what people’s interests are and what they are passionate about, and similarly I love to share the music I am passionate about.
TFP: Who are some of your musical heroes and/or mentors?
EJ: Coming off my first week as Music Director of the Virginia Symphony with Branford Marsalis, I feel like I continue to learn so much about music and how to communicate from that brilliant musician. He communicates so deeply with the saxophone that he’s almost able to give you the impression that he has no instrument in his hands; he somehow transcends the saxophone.
For the last 20 years I’ve been lucky enough to tour and perform both as a conductor and a cellist with Yo-Yo Ma. He’s been a great influence on me musically, specifically as a cellist, but in a greater way, the idea of communicating music with humans. Every time I work with him, new neuropathways are opened, and I feel a sense of fulfilment; however, I also walk away from every experience knowing I need to work harder, study more, be better, and affect change in a greater way.
TFP: Tell us about The Knights, the “adventurous” chamber orchestra you co-founded. What makes the ensemble unique?
EJ: Probably the most unique thing about the Knights is the rehearsal room. When we are all together, even though I am conducting, I try so hard to open the floor so that the dialogue amongst all musicians in the room is equal and open. This gives the possibility of ideas to come from every member of the symphony. My brother and I started the group about 20 years ago; he’s definitely one of my greatest influences as well and there is something intangible about working with him.
TFP: Your bio refers to storytelling and “musical conversations” you have with your audience. Why are these important?
EJ: Sometimes in classical music, we lose sight of the fact that all of these pieces that exist over the last 300 years are telling stories. Even if there isn’t an implicit one written by a composer, the creator of different works wants us all to feel something or have an emotional reaction, wants us all to look within while we are listening to the beauty on the outside. I think storytelling is one of the greatest ways to persuade someone to opening their heart and that’s all you need to listen to music.
TFP: What are some activities you enjoy when you aren’t playing or conducting music?
EJ: Ping-pong, gardening, and cooking!
TFP: Feel free to share anything else you would like our readers to know about you.
EJ: For some reason, I never thought I’d have a kid in my life, but my daughter was born 4 years ago and there is nothing that I like more than spending time with her. She is one-part monster, one-part angel, shaken, not stirred!
For more information, visit www.virginiasymphony.org.