By Elaine Schmidt
January 29, 2016
One might expect a world-renowned classical violinist to be more than a little absorbed in her own musical life.
Violinist Jennifer Koh, the Tchaikovsky Competition winner and Chicago native, is absorbed in music all right, but not just in the music she personally is performing. Her touring schedule brings her to the Marcus Center's Uihlein Hall to play the Bartok Violin Concert No. 2 with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Feb. 5 and 6.
Speaking by phone recently, Koh explained that she is fascinated by music as a shared experience and absolutely devoted to making sure children have exposure to the classics and an opportunity to study music.
For Koh, making music means asking some tough questions, such as "How do we serve our communities?" and "Why is culture important?"
The two questions share an answer for her. "I really believe that we as musicians have the potential to change lives," she said.
"Music gives you an opportunity to experience things you don't experience on a daily basis," she said. "It gives us a visceral, emotional experience and it teaches us empathy — that it's possible to understand something outside of our daily existence."
She also believes that there is tremendous power in the "shared communal experience" of hearing or playing a concert.
Koh's is acutely aware of just how fortunate she is to have the life and career she has, and is determined to give back.
"I am lucky enough to be doing something I really believe in and truly love," she said. "I am doing things I didn't even dream of in college."
Part of the reason for that is the fact that she did not come from a musical family and earned her undergraduate degree in English.
Koh said she owes her exposure to music to her mother, who was a refugee from North Korea and had to beg for food on the streets at one point.
"She came to the U.S., worked as a nanny and eventually got her PhD," Koh said. "Then she gave me every opportunity she never had."
Koh said her mother enrolled her in ballet, gymnastics, diving and swim team, but none of them really held her interest. "I think I'm just not that coordinated," she said.
But her violin lessons were a different story. She said that her early teacher, who she still refers to as "Mrs. Davis" and with whom she is still quite close, really believed in her. When Koh was ready for a more advanced teacher, it was Jo Davis who impressed on Koh's parents that their daughter had something special and went so far as to drive the young violinist across town for her lessons with a different teacher.
She got a lot of help and guidance from later teachers as well, but she said, "If Mrs. Davis hadn't gone out of her way to help, I wouldn't be where I am."
So Koh gives back. She plays for schoolchildren, giving them a chance to experience live classical music, and she has founded a nonprofit, MusicBridge, to "foster and promote collaborations between artists of diverse disciplines and styles."
An education component of MusicBridge, currently in its early stages, pairs music students from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds for "a shared creative experience."
Koh calls the Bartok that she will play with the MSO "an incredible piece."
"Partly it's the coloration in the orchestra, and the rhythmic impulse and of course the structure — it's everything," she said.
"I know it sounds weird, but I really consider both the Bartok and Berg concertos as part of the standard repertoire," she said, explaining that she feels that way about those pieces because she first learned them during her high school years. "I'm not saying I played them well then," she added.
The Bartok remains a favorite piece of hers. "It has everything that for me makes a piece of music great," she said. "It's innovative, beautiful and passionate."
Jennifer Koh performs 8 p.m. Feb. 5 and 6 with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at the Marcus Center's Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. For tickets, visit mso.org or call (414) 291-7605.
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