By Greg Stepanich
November 14, 2010
When violinist Jennifer Koh comes to town Monday night with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra to kick off the John S. and James L. Knight Masterworks Series at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, she will play Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, a venerable Romantic work from 1868 that’s been an audience favorite for generations.
But Koh has not made her career solely with music of the past.
“To be truthful, I can’t imagine being a musician without playing new music,” Koh says from New York where she lives with her husband, pianist Benjamin Hochman.
“For example, I can’t imagine only reading newspapers that were written 100 years ago. … It’s actually a fascinating kind of situation to me. It’s something I’m curious about. It really feels like a dialogue, an artistic dialogue. That’s an important and relevant part of being an artist today.”
Koh, who grew up the only child of Korean immigrants in the western suburbs of Chicago, has an extensive discography that includes a healthy share of contemporary classical music. On her two discs for Chicago’s Cedille label are pieces by Elliott Carter and Carl Ruggles; John Zorn, Augusta Read Thomas and Esa-Pekka Salonen; Jennifer Higdon, John Adams and Lou Harrison.
Her concerto recordings are as varied, with works by Menotti, Martinu, Szymanowski and Finland’s Uuno Klami. Most recently, she has recorded The Singing Rooms, a concerto for violin, chorus and orchestra by Higdon, who this year won the Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto and a Grammy for her Percussion Concerto. Higdon says Koh had a lot to do with bringing some of this music into existence.
“My . . . String Poetic and the large, genre-bending The Singing Rooms, would not exist without Ms. Koh’s working to commission them,” Higdon writes by e-mail. “And the fact that she came up with the unusual combination of The Singing Rooms [violin, full chorus, orchestra] shows real imagination and guts.”
And, Higdon adds, Koh “is more likely to bring young people into the concerts. It’s what we want in the classical world.”
Koh, 34, has been playing the violin for most of her life. She began by chance, taking the instrument in a Suzuki-method program near her home, only because spaces for cello and piano instruction had been filled. By 11, she had soloed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and four years later she won the CSO-sponsored Illinois Young Performers Competition.
Koh continued her studies at Oberlin College before heading to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. There she studied with violinists Felix Galimir, a standout of the older 20th century tradition, and Jaime Laredo, the violinist and conductor best known for his trio performances with his wife, cellist Sharon Robinson, and pianist Joseph Kalichstein.
Galimir, who died in 1999, “had literally worked with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern,” Koh says. “He had even played for Ravel. So it was a wonderful passing of tradition, and it was a wonderful opportunity to see how important it is to work with composers of your time and how it can shape us as musicians.”
Education is vital to Koh. A continuing enthusiasm is Music Messenger, a project that takes her into schools.
“I wanted to reach out to children, because there’s something so liberating about being in the arts and choosing how one decides to live their life,” she says. “For me, music is really a metaphor for how I want to live my life. . . . A lot of times, the kids ask me, ‘How long do you practice?’ and I always tell them being a musician is about being a musician 24 hours a day. It’s how you distill every moment of your life.”
At the Arsht Center, Koh will appear with another violinist by training, Pavel Kogan, a Russian who has conducted the Moscow State Symphony since 1989. The son of Soviet violinist Leonid Kogan and nephew of legendary pianist Emil Gilels, Kogan took over the orchestra when perestroika started to change the country.
“It was a time when the orchestra could choose its new music director with voting,” Kogan says from a stop in South Bend. “I hadn’t been nominated by the authorities. I received 99 percent of the vote. It was really something new.”
Kogan, 58, has expanded the orchestra’s once Russian-heavy repertoire, adding complete cycles of the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert and Mahler and the orchestral works of Berlioz and Richard Strauss. The orchestra has 111 members, though Miami audiences here will see a slightly smaller version.
Kogan says the Bruch concerto for which Koh will join the orchestra “really shows all the [most] violinistic qualities — the sound, the type of phrasing, the technical equipment. That’s why it’s still so popular.”
For Koh, past and present forms a continuum. J.S. Bach’s music, for instance, is three centuries old, yet “it still speaks to us in such a relevant way,” she says. “It serves to remind us that . . . human essence transcends the boundaries of time.”
© 2010 Miami Herald