Type the name Jennifer Koh into YouTube, and you’ll be rewarded with a video of a teenage girl in a puffed-sleeve dress, competing in the violin portion of the 1994 International Tchaikovsky Competition. Her bow ricochets across the strings with lightning speed, her fingers nail every note as her bobbed hair flits across her face, and her mouth pinches in an expression of pure determination.
There was no first prize awarded that year; Koh tied for second with Anastasia Chebotareva, her place on the symphony stages of the world all but assured. Indeed, Koh has since carved out a solid solo career, with chestnuts like Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 and Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 in her touring repertoire.
But examine her concert schedule and incongruities pop up: there are pieces by contemporary composers Eric Moe, Lou Harrison, and Kaija Saariaho on her calendar; and tonight (November 27), at the Heritage Hall on Main Street, she performs a program of solo works by contemporaries Elliot Carter, György Kurtág, John Zorn, and Esa-Pekka Salonen—along with, seemingly counter-intuitively, Johann Sebastian Bach.
The New York-based Koh, now in her early 30s, has clearly chosen the path less travelled; neither a purely traditional musician nor a committed champion of the contemporary, she straddles both worlds with ease. But as she explains in a call from Portland, Oregon, where she’s performing the Brahms concerto with the Oregon Symphony, she thrills in dismantling conventions.
“It’s all about breaking down barriers,” she says of her Vancouver program. “It’s breaking down that barrier between what we would consider high art versus low art, which has always been, in my opinion, kind of an absurd term. It’s also about breaking down barriers between what was considered uptown, downtown, west coast, east coast, European versus American composition, and also old versus new.”
That blurring of boundaries goes way back in her career; even while basking in the glow of her Tchaikovsky Competition win, she recalls, she was delving into new music. “The pieces I was being asked to play were kind of big romantic pieces, but still within that same time period I found this cool Finnish composer called Uuno Klami, and I premiered his work….It kind of progressed from there.”
Now she’s at the point where composers are writing pieces for her—including Zorn’s Goetia, which appears on tonight’s program.
“What I find really exciting is the collaboration that occurs and the closeness to the creative process,” she says of working with living composers. “I actually find it liberating in terms of playing, whether it’s Brahms or Bach or Beethoven. I find that the process of having worked with composers has liberated me in other kind of works.”
Which is why tonight’s audience will get a dose of the baroque thrown into the mix of 21st-century music. “I wanted to create a program that would kind of make a journey for the audience,” she explains. If it’s anything like the journey Koh has been on, it’s going to be a wild ride.