The New York Times
By Anthony Tommasini
September 29, 2009
Word has gotten out about Lunchtime Concerts, the informal free performances
of chamber works at the intimate reading room in Philosophy Hall on the
Columbia University campus. The series, sponsored by the Miller Theater
and Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, opened on Monday
afternoon at 12:30 with the exciting young violinist Jennifer Koh playing
Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor. And people started arriving up to
45 minutes before the program began to get a seat.
About 200 people eventually crowded into the room, which is perfect for chamber music. Some sat atop desks lining the walls; others stood in the back. The programs are short, in keeping with the theme of enjoying some music during your lunch break, and only one substantial work is played. It was revealing to hear this astonishing Bach partita on its own. For all its greatness, the piece can get swamped when performed alongside the works for violin and piano typically played at a recital.
This was the first of six programs Ms. Koh will play presenting all of the Bach partitas. (The series will also offer Benjamin Hochman playing the Bach piano partitas and Alisa Weilerstein playing the Bach cello suites.) Following the Lunchtime Concerts tradition, she first spoke to the audience about the piece. Bach, who was working in Weimar when he completed his three partitas in 1720, was surely influenced by the Weimar violinist Johann Paul von Westhoff, who had already published a collection of solo violin partitas.
Ms. Koh played the opening measures of the Allemande, Courant and Sarabande from a Westhoff suite, alternating the excerpts with opening measures of the corresponding movements by Bach. Westhoff’s partitas fired Bach’s imagination about ways to write for the violin. Bach took it from there. And how.
The Partita in D minor has a curious structure. After four dance movements, which last 12 minutes together, the work ends with the monumental Chaconne, a set of rhapsodic variations on a stately triple-meter dance theme, totaling 15 minutes.
Ms. Koh conveyed the naturalness of the phrasing in the flowing Allemande and brought Baroque zest to the Courant. The gutsy way she played the chords in the Sarabande allowed the wistful melodic line to shine. And she balanced intensity and buoyancy in the fleet Giga.
Finally, she gave a deeply expressive account of the Chaconne, dispatching the challenges with such security that you did not notice the sheer virtuosity at work. The ovation was so ardent that Ms. Koh, who had been visibly engrossed in her performance, wiped away tears.
The next program in the series of Bach violin works is on Wednesday at Philosophy Hall, Columbia University, Broadway at 116th Street, Morningside Heights; (212) 854-7799, millertheater.com.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 1, 2009
A music review on Wednesday about the violinist Jennifer Koh’s performance of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, at Columbia University’s Philosophy Hall, misstated the number of partitas Bach wrote for solo violin. It is three, not six. (His six works for solo violin include three sonatas along with the partitas.)
© 2009 The New York Times