Vancouver Sun
By Lloyd Dykk
November 26, 2008
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Violinist Jennifer Koh sees Bach as link to modern music

Jennifer Koh is a new breed of violinist, a modern one, who looks for the commonalities of music in the programs she plays. In looking back, she looks forward and in looking forward, she looks back.

That is, she doesn't just play the Franck sonata, the big Brahms D minor, the Ravel and the Beethoven Kreuzer: wonderful pieces for sure but so overplayed that you can scarcely hear them anymore. Aside from commissioning new works, she puts together programs that you'd almost never hear in a recital, pairing up such strange things as Lou Harrison, Elliot Carter, Carl Ruggles, John Zorn and György Kurtag.

She's reminiscent of an interesting local composer, Bradshaw Pack, who "curates" thought-provoking programs of music, one of which, a year ago, threaded through Stravinsky and Pärt back to Bach. One composition, his own, was based on a contraption invented by Galileo to visually demonstrate the laws of gravity. It made you reflect on the music of the spheres and the laws of music itself, which proceed from them. This violinist does much the same thing: She gives things a context.

Koh is in her "early 30s" and an American who was brought up in Chicago, who has lived in New York since 2002 and whose parents are Korean. She's performed with orchestras all over the world and been celebrated for, as The New York Times said, her "fiery, rhapsodic and meltingly beautiful" playing. I spoke with her by telephone from Portland, where she was playing the Brahms Violin Concerto over four nights with the local orchestra.

But when she plays solo, as she'll be doing here, she's partly on a crusade to democratize music. Speaking about the historic Heritage Hall with its 150 seats, she says, "Conceptually, I like the idea that I'll be playing in a different kind of place," one amenable to the "breaking down of barriers between performer and audience."
Six years ago she started a program called Music Messenger, going into schools that had no music education programs. It's still running in the U.S. and has grown. It ties in with these programs of solo violin music, which try to reflect the whole history of music for the instrument. The "bastion," as she puts it is Bach, "the musician musicians always return to."

She's playing the D Minor Partita, the one with the great and very difficult chaconne movement. Everything else on the program kind of reflects it: the piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen is also in the form of a chaconne; a work by Kurtag is an hommage to Bach; a piece by Elliot Carter has a lot of Bachian counterpoint, and so on. "It's a contemporary way of filtering Bach," she says.

She has nothing but respect for the big warhorse pieces that everybody plays. "What's important for me is how to program them, what to play around them. I try to create a musical journey." Except for the Bach, everything on the program was written within the last 10 years.

She believes the arts are "always a direct reflection of the society we live in," whether it's hip hop or Bach.

"We're constantly hearing that classical music is a dying art form. That thought's always at the back of my mind. I'm always looking for a way to find its validation," and many composers, classical or not, have taken Bach to be what she calls "the umbilical cord."

© Jennifer Koh, All Rights Reserved. Photography by Juergen Frank. Site by ycArt design studio