SF Classical Music Examiner
By Stephen Smoliar
March 10, 2010
The metaphor of an entire concert serving as a single journey seemed particularly appropriate for the program of unaccompanied violin compositions that Jennifer Koh prepared for her fourth San Francisco Performances recital last night at Herbst Theatre. Her path followed a rather conventional Aristotelian arc, beginning in bright light, descending into darkness, and rising to conclude, once again, in that same bright light. Furthermore, in an elegant gesture of symmetry, the source of her light, so to speak, was Johann Sebastian Bach, whose unaccompanied violin partitas both began and concluded the evening.
The light was dazzlingly established by the BWV 1006 E major partita and its Preludio, which consists almost entirely of a steady drive of sixteenth notes working across all four strings to demonstrate just how much counterpoint can emerge from a single violin. This was followed by a series of dance movements, each of which maintained that sense of counterpoint, while also emphasizing specific harmonic progressions through multiple-stop technique. Finally, a Gigue concluded the dance movements (and the partita) by returning to the single stream of sixteenth notes from which both counterpoint and harmony implicitly emerged.
After only a slight pause we again heard the opening passage of the Preludio. However, this was not Koh's decision to perform the partita by concluding as she had begun. Rather, it was the beginning of the second sonata for unaccompanied violin in A minor from the Opus 27 collection composed by the virtuoso Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, subtitled "Obsession." The key "obsession" that permeates the four movements of this sonata is with death, particularly with the recurring statements of the opening phrase of the plainchant "Dies Irae" section from the Mass for the Dead. However, the sonata begins by appropriating the BWV 1006 Preludio, using it to create the sense of a violinist contending with interruptions and distractions while trying to work through its stream of sixteenth notes. The ultimate distraction is the intrusion of the "Dies Irae" theme in one of the contrapuntal voices; and from that moment the fate of the violinist is sealed. The chant phrase continues to intrude upon each of the remaining movements in a manner reminiscent of the idée fixe "theme of the beloved" from the Opus 14 Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz (who used that same "Dies Irae" material in this symphony's final movement).
Ysaÿe's "obsession" with death grew darker when his sonata was followed by two memorial pieces, a nocturne by Kaija Saariaho, written in reaction to and almost immediately after the death of Witold Lutoslawski, followed (with only a brief pause) by "Fantasy: Remembering Roger," Elliott Carter's 1999 reflection on his former colleague, Roger Sessions. Each of these works evoked memories of the deceased subject through the channel of the composer's voice. Saariaho's decision to remember Lutoslawski through an unaccompanied violin was particularly interesting, since the only piece Lutoslawski wrote for a solo instrument was his very early (1934) piano sonata. However, the side of Lutoslawski that Saariaho chose to honor involved the interest she shared with him in the "raw material" of basic sounds. Through that interest, Saariaho found a new path to elicit counterpoint and harmony from a solo violin, continuing the traditions of both Bach and Ysaÿe but taking them in a new direction. That direction led to exploration of the natural harmonic series, realized through the discovery that bringing the bow closer to the bridge tends to suppress the lower harmonics (including the fundamental), leaving only many of the upper harmonics that do not "fit" in the equal-tempered twelve-note chromatic scale. Through skillful bowing, one can "play" those harmonics; and that technique figured significantly in Saariaho's brief composition. Koh's mastery of the demands of that technique could not have brought more honor to Saariaho or to her honoring of Lutoslawski.
Carter's memorial composition, on the other hand, tended to deal more with the angular character of so much of Sessions' melodic material. In this case Sessions did compose his own solo violin sonata (in 1953). Having never heard this work, I cannot say whether or not Carter invoked memories of it. However, his own composition was definitely evocative of my few experiences of listening to Sessions; and I may even have detected a few allusions to the sort of music Carter was composing at the time that Sessions was completing that violin sonata. Again, the composition was brief but very effective.
The journey back to the light began with "Lachen Verlernt" (laughing unlearned), a chaconne composed by Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2002 for which Koh, Çedille Records, and Oberlin Conservatory commissioned a visual interpretation by Tal Rosner, which was projected behind Koh's performance. Rosner's video explored the metaphorical relationship between violin strings and power cables, ultimately developing parallels between the cyclic acoustic energy of the chaconne form and visual manifestations of energy, culminating in a panorama of a city's night lights. This visual strategy was both imaginative and impressive. The challenge, however, was that Salonen's music was highly compelling, particularly since he was taking on a genre that had been so firmly staked out by Bach. For me, at least, Salonen's command of my attention almost always seem to win out over Rosner's; and my saying this implies that the relationship between the two media was more one of competition than of cooperation. The video might have been more effective had I been more familiar with the music; but, in this particular performance, the music prevailed.
By performing Salonen's chaconne, Koh prepared us for the final leg of the journey leading us back to the light, the D minor BWV 1004 partita, which concludes with Bach's monumental chaconne. Considered simply from a durational point of view, this movement takes approximately the same span of time as the four dance movements that precede it; and it breaks down into its own structural architecture of three sections, marked by shifts from minor to major and back to minor. Each section, in turn, has its own "ascent" of increasing energy; and in each section we encounter one of Bach's favorite rhetorical devices. This is what I call the "and another thing" technique: just when you thought that Bach has taken you as far as you can go in elaborating the chaconne theme, he comes up with another idea that he cannot resist withholding from you. This is the same device that ultimately secured John Coltrane's place in the world of jazz improvisation; and, while Bach employed this technique frequently, he was at the top of his game when he applied it to the BWV 1004 chaconne movement.
Throughout this extended journey the music was always Koh's primary focus. That focus reflects the confidence of one who knows that we are there for the performance, rather than the performer; and it is clear that this confidence sustains her to maintain a repertoire that extends all the way from the seventeenth century to the present day. There will, of course, be those who will question the virtues of hearing Bach played on an instrument more suited to the demands of the later repertoire; but I see this more as a challenge to the performer to honor the music even when the instrument provides affordances that the composer could not have considered. This is another example of how any performance comes down to "finding the right balance between getting what you want and wanting what you get." In other words performance is less a matter of execution and more one of negotiation with one's materials. Koh seems to appreciate this distinction, and the results of her negotiations are always fascinating. Perhaps this is why she can do justice to such a broad scope of repertoire.