El Paso Times
By Doug Pullen
September 19, 2009
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In El Paso Concerts, Violinist Jennifer Koh Returns to the Work That First Won Her Acclaim

Jennifer Koh was 17 when she won Moscow's International Tchaikovsky Competition by playing one of the Russian composer's most popular -- and difficult -- violin concertos.

But then she took "a long break" from the violin concerto in D major, Op. 35. She returned to the three-movement, half-hour, 18th-century piece only a couple of years ago.

It was "like renewing an old love," Koh said.

She'll wrap her arms around that old love again Friday and Saturday when Koh performs it with conductor Sarah Ioannides and the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, which will begin its 79th season with a concert titled "Russian Spectacular."

"I learned it when I was quite young," Koh said from her New York apartment. "When I returned to it, (I) found all these amazing things in the piece. I began to understand why it's so beloved, and also, my interpretation changed a great deal when I revisited it."

She wondered, for example, if the elements that resonated with her as a girl still meant something to her as a married woman in her early 30s.

"It was fascinating returning to it. It was like seeing an old friend," the Chicago native said. "Some things you absolutely love as a 14-year-old, you look back on now and say, 'Oh, my God, (I saw) it as a wonderful, beautiful thing.' That happened when I was 14.

"But you've recognized a great distance that's passed with that particular piece. ... When I returned to the Tchaikovsky, there was a real valid connection there."

Ioannides, now entering her fifth season with the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, certainly hopes so.

"She's an incredibly powerful violinist. We need someone like her to play it," the conductor said. "The orchestra hasn't played it since 2002. It's one of those big, epic pieces that's so much loved. It makes a nice pairing with the Prokofiev Symphony Number 5."

That's the other half of the "Russian Spectacular" concert, the first of six programs this season.

The Prokofiev -- Symphony No. 5 in B flat major -- was written near the end of World War II as the Allies were bearing down on the Axis powers.

"It's a massive celebratory piece, a big, big work, with just so many musical ideas in it," Ioannides said. "And it was one of the pieces Stalin did not ban."

The 40-minute piece will follow the intermission. But Koh, who's playing in the first half, could be a tough act to follow. She's often singled out by critics for her passion and intensity, lauded by fans for her love of new and old music, and praised by those who've worked with her, including a contemporary American composer, Jennifer Higdon.

"Jennifer is an impeccable musician, with incredible energy in her playing and a real sensitivity to whatever style she is playing in," Higdon told Strings magazine. "I love her open sense of handling everything from an atonal work, to the most lush, romantic piece, to a jazz-based piece; there's real skill there and the pieces all sound like they fit perfectly in the world in which they've been written."

Koh prides herself on making connections between new and old, composer and musicians, audience and performer.

"I do a lot of new music," said Koh, whose new album, "Rhapsodic Musings," is a collection of recent compositions. "For me, new music is really a link from today's society to the past.

"I think ... the function of art is to create and connect the future to the present and the past."

Koh was accomplished at an early age, performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by 11. She won the Tchaikovsky competition six years later, but passed on touring to get a degree in English literature from Ohio's Oberlin College. She said she always knew she would make music for a living, but didn't really refocus on music until she went to the Oberlin Conservatory, where Koh got her performance diploma. She also graduated from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music in 2002.

She admits being "kind of shy" offstage, but onstage she becomes transported by the music she plays.

"With music -- at least for me -- I try to express what I believe is written on the page," she said, "so in a sense I'm like a vessel."

Koh, who made her debut at the BBC Proms last month, is also honoring the coming 325th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach with "Bach and Beyond," a series of performances designed to connect the past, present and future. She'll follow her El Paso performances with "Bach: 6 Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin" Sept. 28-30 at Columbia University in New York.

"As classical musicians, we play music that was written a month ago -- or at least I do -- and also 325 years ago," she said. "There are always these subtle shifts that happen. I think what's significant about classical music is, it's still relevant, it still speaks to people today."

Even though she studied at the Curtis Institute when Ioannides was there, the two have never worked together. Koh is glad that's about to change.

"I'm looking forward to it. I knew her as an incredible instructor and intelligent musician from school," the violinist said. "But I never had the opportunity to play together with her before."

"I've been watching her for a while," the maestra noted, "waiting for an opportunity like this to do the Tchaikovsky and bring her out to play."

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