By Carl Hoover
November 6, 2014
When violinist Jennifer Koh stands on stage, she often has her feet firmly planted in the past and the future, linking the two with the music she plays in the present.
The New York-based Koh, who performs with the Waco Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday night, says it’s her way of keeping the music she loves alive.
“I think the way I approach music is kind of the way I approach everything else,” she said in a recent phone interview. “I grew up in a time when classical music was declared dead, so I’ve had to explain why it’s vital to me and a vital art form. . . . I enjoy creating a dialogue from the present to the past. The music being composed today really connects us to the past.”
She does that and more in such projects as “Bach and Beyond,” which pairs each of Bach’s partitas and sonatas to a contemporary work, and “Two X Four,” in which she and her violin mentor Jaime Laredo (the “Two”) perform four works in recital.
Koh, 38, also works to inform both young musicians and audiences on her world of music in addition to her string teaching at New York University. Her YouTube music video series “Off Stage On Record” answers questions she had as a child performer, touching on topics like injury and health, collaboration with other performers and creativity. She fit a stage role in her busy schedule, playing the solo violin role of Einstein in last year’s Los Angeles production of Philip Glass’ opera “Einstein on the Beach,” directed by Waco native and theater visionary Robert Wilson.
Wilson’s drive and work ethic impressed her.
“He was probably in the theater longer than anybody else, and he’s no spring chicken,” she said.
That led to her latest artistic collaboration. Wilson offered to stage and choreograph her performances of the six Bach partitas, to which she readily agreed.
“He has such a clear vision. We connected so profoundly,” said the Chicago-born violinist. “I think this Bach project is happening because he’s so determined to make it work.”
The piece she’ll perform Tuesday night isn’t as contemporary — Jean Sibelius’ 1903 Violin Concerto — but, like much of Koh’s repertory, picked for what she sees in it rather than a tacit acceptance of standard violin repertory.
“I love this concerto. There’s great color in the work and an emotional tone to it,” she explained.
While the Finnish composer wrote at the close of classical music’s Romantic Era, his work stood apart in its rhythmic sense and sonority.
“There’s just a beauty in that energy, the cragginess of it,” she said of the concerto. “I don’t see him as a Romantic at all. I see him as a revolutionary, distinct voice.”
Koh’s performance with the WSO will close out a concert that, given its Veterans Day date, uses music to honor the past, specifically those who fought, and in some cases died, for America. The alignment of Veterans Day with the centennial year of World War I’s start made an acknowledgement of veterans’ sacrifice a fitting one, WSO Music Director Stephen Heyde said.
“The whole concert is about appreciation and commemoration. We enjoy a beautiful and bountiful life and we so take it for granted,” he said. “Even the fact we can argue about politics is indicative of the great blessings we have.”
The concert will begin with the orchestra accompanying the Baylor A Cappella Choir in “In Paradisium” from Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, which the ensemble sang last spring in the French composer’s home church in Paris. The orchestra will follow that with Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Death and Transfiguration,” a work that closes not in a musical suggestion of death, but a transformative change to life beyond the grave.
Both the Durufle and Strauss works prove contemplative and inspiring rather than sad and somber, the conductor said.
“It’s not a macabre concert at all,” he said.
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