San Francisco Chronicle
By Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
January 15, 2007
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Koh's vigor, energy shine at concert

Many a performer includes a piece or two of contemporary repertoire in a concert program, whether out of genuine commitment or some vaguely defined sense of obligation. But it's rarer for a musician to put her entire heart and soul into it, as violinist Jennifer Koh did during a mostly splendid recital in Herbst Theatre on Saturday night.

Appearing under the auspices of San Francisco Performances, Koh and pianist Reiko Uchida unveiled a new work by Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon, whose appealingly nimble creations are showing up with increasing frequency on concert programs. And after intermission, Koh appeared solo to play five excerpts from György Kurtág's "Signs, Games and Messages."

There were other rewards to be had during this well-packed program, including elegant, shapely accounts of music by Schubert and Schumann. But it was the contemporary music that brought out Koh's most invigorating performances, and marked her as a musician with a distinctive contribution to make in this arena.
Higdon's "String Poetic," a consortium commission by San Francisco Performances and six other organizations, is a five-movement suite marked by rhetorical clarity and dexterous interplay between the two instruments.

Like much of Higdon's music, it tends to fall prey to easy emotionalism, particularly in the schmaltzy "Nocturne." But where Higdon's spirits run high, the effects are crisp and venturesome. In the matched pair of outer movements, piano notes on muted strings play chase-me-Charlie with violin pizzicatos; another movement, "Maze Mechanical" (which Koh suggested was inspired by John Adams' "Road Movies"), is still wittier and more breathless.

Even more exciting than the piece itself, though, was the sense of urgency and commitment that the two musicians brought to it. Uchida's capacious but focused keyboard style made a perfect match for Koh's pristine string tone and command of theatrics.

Those qualities returned in the Kurtág selections, highly compressed essays in enigmatic brilliance. Kurtág is the great miniaturist of contemporary music, and Koh addressed each short nugget with a combination of tenderness and vigor.
Her readings were so persuasive, in fact, that to hear only five tiny pieces amounted to something of a tease. I would gladly have sacrificed something else on the program -- perhaps the tentative, undercooked opening rendition of Janácek's Violin Sonata that was the evening's lone misstep -- for the chance to hear more.

In more traditional fare, Koh and Uchida proved a stellar team, thinking along similar lines and balancing one another's complementary instincts for extroversion and restraint. Schubert's Sonatina in D Major, D. 384, got off to a small scale start, with playing so polished and careful that the piece sounded like something out of a music box, but the finale, all gaiety and light, brought out a richer vein.

Richer still was the rendition of Schumann's Second Violin Sonata that concluded the evening. Here all of the recital's earlier strands -- the tonal beauty of the Schubert, the playful plainspokenness of the Higdon and the uncompromising ferocity of the Kurtág -- came together in a performance of eloquence and power.

© 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

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