Chronicle Music Critic
By Joshua Kosman
September 23, 2010
Most instrumental soloists find that one concerto on an orchestral program is plenty of work for one night, thank you very much. Jennifer Koh isn't most soloists.
The brilliant and inventive violinist appears tonight to open the Berkeley Symphony's season with Music Director Joana Carneiro. It looks like such a beautiful night for a concerto that they decided to play two: Beethoven's on the first half and John Adams' after intermission.
It's not such an unusual undertaking for Koh, 33, who has an omnivorous interest in old and new music alike, and has made a habit of dotting her career with challenging projects that catch her fancy. On her last visit to the Bay Area, in March, she held the stage of Herbst Theatre for a full program of unaccompanied violin music.
She recently spoke by phone with The Chronicle from her home in New York.
Q: Two heavy-duty concertos in one evening - are you mad? Whose idea was this, anyway?
A: It was a joint decision, really. Joana and I met up over breakfast in New York, and we were going over fantasy programs that we've always wanted to do, and that made sense artistically. And this idea of seeing the progression of violin repertoire appealed to both of us.
Q: You're not daunted by the sheer size of the assignment?
A: Well, of course I find all these things terrifying - it's terrifying to play all six of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas on a single program. But it always feels worth it to me. It might be months and years of work ahead of time, but the projects I find most terrifying are often the ones I find most rewarding in the end.
Q: Is there a particular connection between these two concertos, aside from the simple fact that one is old and one is new?
A: I feel a very strong connection between Beethoven and Adams. The amazing thing about the Beethoven is that he builds the concerto just out of scales and arpeggios, and yet there's something so transparent and human about it.
And John does something similar in his concerto - it's all about scales, and the layers of sound that he builds out of them. It feels to me like the great-great-grandchild of the Beethoven concerto.
Q: It's also a very dense piece, one that has the soloist playing nearly nonstop.
A: Yes, although after a lot of work on the piece I've begun to hear the transparency as well. What strikes me is the amazing structure of the music.
With the Bach Chaconne, for example, there's incredible symmetry to the music, and John's music has structure without symmetry. It's like a brick building, or a mosaic - if you step back it looks symmetrical, but when you look closely, there are all these little corners with surprising details that change slightly.
Q: You grew up in Chicago and studied at Oberlin College and then the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Were you one of these violinists who know from the beginning that this is their path?
A: Not at all. My parents were refugees from the Korean War - my mother and her family literally walked the entire length of the Korean Peninsula to escape the North - and when they came to this country, the only way they saw to get ahead was through academics. I began playing violin at age 3, but they also started me on ice skating and ballet and swimming and gymnastics - every kind of activity for a young girl.
I always knew I wanted music in my life, but I never thought of this as a career. I got an English degree at Oberlin. I almost feel as though the career is a side note to the act of studying to be a musician. The work process is what I love most, and performance is just a part of that process.
Q: You're returning to San Francisco in May as part of a chamber trio with two Finnish musicians, pianist-composer Magnus Lindberg and cellist Anssi Karttunen. How did that collaboration come about?
A: Anssi and I opened Zankel Hall in New York together, with John (Adams) conducting, and from there I got to know other Finnish musicians like Esa-Pekka Salonen and the composer Kaija Saariaho.
We all get along well, because like them, I'm also very shy and quiet. We have dinner together and it's OK to just sit quietly and say nothing.
This article appeared on page F - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle
© 2010 Chronicle Music Critic