By Hazel Davis
Described in these pages as a musical risk-taker and high-octane player, American violinist Jennifer Koh has carved a name for herself as a champion of contemporary music. But, she says, it's all part of a larger crusade. ‘I have always felt that new music is a tie to the past. Every day that passes is a day away from Bach's time. Contemporary music creates an umbilical cord.’
With this in mind, Koh will be playing as part of the 2010 festival Bach and Beyond, which is bookended with Bach partitas and crammed with newly commissioned music. ‘How you listen to modern music is shaped by the music that's come before,’ she says, ‘and sometimes in a Schubert sonata or something by Mendelssohn you can hear subconscious connections to the future.’
She puts her success in part down to her commitment to an ego-free playing style. ‘How one approaches music is a metaphor for how one lives one's life,’ she explains. ‘When I play I really don't believe it's all about the performance. It's about living the music and being part of something greater than yourself. In fact 99 per cent of it is about interacting with the world. Not understanding this is like having a conversation with someone and not really listening.’
Koh makes her BBC Proms debut next month with the UK premiere of Augusta Read Thomas's Violin Concerto no.3 ‘Juggler in Paradise’. Koh says, ‘It's a really interesting piece. I have known her music for some time and it has such a strong sense of self.’ Of her Proms debut she explains, ‘It's just one of those things you dream about.’ Another Read Thomas piece, Pulsar, appears on Koh's new disc, to be released in the autumn, alongside music by Elliott Carter, Esa-Pekka Salonen and John Zorn.
January 2010 sees a new recording collaboration with composer Jennifer Higdon (whose work String Poetic earned Koh a Grammy nomination this year). Singing Rooms, for solo violin, SATB chorus and orchestra, was written for Koh and, she explains, ‘It was a way to integrate my relationships with poetry and music. It had a long birthing process and was terrifying for Jennifer. People keep asking how we classify it and whether it's a traditional concerto as it integrates all the different forces. I love that we've blurred those boundaries.’
Copyright 2009 The Strad