The SunBreak
By Dana Wen
February 14, 2013
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Violinist Jennifer Koh Captivates Town Hall with Bach and Beyond

Jennifer Koh is a violinist on a mission. In 1994, she was thrust into the spotlight with her winning performance at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, the most prestigious contest in the classical music world. Since then, Koh has established a successful career as a touring soloist and recording artist. Now she’s busy establishing her reputation as an advocate of modern and contemporary classical music. Her current project, Bach and Beyond, explores the solo violin repertoire through a series of concerts and recordings. Each Bach and Beyond program juxtaposes selections from Bach’s violin Sonatas and Partitas with works composed in the past hundred years.

Last week, Koh visited Town Hall Seattle to perform Bach and Beyond: Part II, which features Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin and a newly commissioned work by Phil Kline. (Bach and Beyond: Part I included works by Eugène Ysaÿe and Elliott Carter, among others). Though a large crowd filled Town Hall for Thursday’s concert, Koh’s performance felt strikingly intimate and personal. Even when she’s blazing her way through impossibly fast passages, her playing has a meditative quality that’s both confident and reflective. This is a musician with the strength of an athlete and the focus and grace of a yogi.

Bach and Beyond: Part II treats listeners to two of Bach’s works for solo violin, the Sonata No. 1 in G Minor and the Partita No. 1 in B Minor. Like his renowned Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, Bach’s solo violin music is complex, combining dazzling virtuosic passages with contemplative moments. In line with this, Koh’s interpretations balance technical mastery and musical expression, avoiding showy gestures and overwrought emotions.

Koh opened the evening’s program with a performance of the Sonata that captivated the crowd, silencing even the sniffles and coughs that inevitably accompany winter concerts. Koh seems to disappear into herself when she plays, inviting listeners to follow her into her personal musical world. Her rendition of the Sonata was a prime example of this self-reflection. In particular, the fugue in the second movement highlighted Koh’s distinct musical voice while also showcasing her brilliant technique.

In contrast, Koh let loose in the Partita with a fiery performance of the second movement’s galloping Courante that drew applause from the audience. This was immediately followed by a return to introspection with a pensive Sarabande. Although the Courante was breathtaking, Koh’s playing is most poignant when she’s performing repertoire that gives her (and the audience) the time and space to immerse herself in her own sonic world.

Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin provided that perfect opportunity. Rough and raw, the work requires high-caliber technical chops as well as a strong musical personality. Here, Koh’s violin seemed to take on a life of its own, speaking with the versatility of a human voice. Her playing was rich with emotion and imagery, with plenty of technical firepower to boot. Grunts, growls, and squeals punctuated sections that recollected the sound of wind whistling through forested valleys — all summoned by Koh’s bow flying across the strings.

Phil Kline’s Partita for Solo Violin also touched on nature imagery, though in a more direct manner than the Bartók. Written after Hurricane Irene, which struck the East Coast in 2011, Kline’s work was inspired by birdcalls that he heard immediately following the storm. This birdsong was transformed into the chirps and tweets made by the violin in the first movement. The piece is full of moods and colors, including a plaintive folk tune, a rustic dirge, a lonely creaking that evokes the image of an abandoned boat stranded on the seashore.

Bach and Beyond draws fascinating connections between old and new, drawing an arc that traces the evolution of the violin from its rise in the Baroque era to its continued popularity today. Koh is a compelling tour guide, capable of weaving spellbinding performances with music of any era. Keep your ears open for Bach and Beyond: Part III, which promises music by Luciano Berio and a new commission by John Harbison. As well as Bach, of course.

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