Musical America
By Daniel Stephen Johnson
June 6, 2016

Jennifer Koh Eloquently Tames 32 Musical Beasts

One of the New York Philharmonic Biennial's most alluring facets, as the event heads into its second summer, has been the presentation of satellite concerts curated by well-chosen new-music proponents and presenters at venues around the city. This has the effect of shining the orchestra's high-profile spotlight on a genre that doesn't often get one. Among the beneficiaries was a program entitled Shared Madness, in which Jennifer Koh unveiled a series of 32 new miniatures for unaccompanied violin over two consecutive Tuesdays at National Sawdust in Williamsburg. 

The program, it should be noted, was not a commissioning project in the usual sense of the word. The story is a little more complicated, and even a little heartwarming: Koh did not pay for any of these pieces - her generous composer friends donated them. She in turn, used them as a way to pay back patrons Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting for helping her repay the massive loans she had taken out to purchase her violin.

Listeners dropping in on the second of these recitals, May 31, were treated to an array of different musical styles, by 16 composers ranging from established figures Philip Glass and Augusta Read Thomas to rising musicians Samuel Adams and Zosha Di Castri. The boundlessly charismatic singer/actor Helga Davis - whose exquisite performance in BAM's recent revival of Glass's Einstein on the Beach shared the stage with Koh's startlingly lively portrayal of the titular role - introduced the program and led a rapid-fire question-and-answer with the composers afterwards. The pieces were performed without breaks for introduction or applause, their titles and composers' names projected on the upstage wall. 

The challenge of writing a brief (circa three minutes) work for unaccompanied violin, inspired by Paganini's virtuosic Caprices, brought out the best in some of these composers. Glass's recent explorations of unaccompanied violin are among his most splendid works; one could happily trade an entire Glass symphony for a single movement as elegant as his Sarabande in Common Time. Missy Mazzoli's Kinski Paganini apples her usual cool, sympathetic critique of Romanticism to the hot-blooded storm and stress of the mad virtuoso myth personified by both Niccolo Paganini and Klaus Kinski, the gonzo actor who portrayed the violinist/composer in the 1989 film Paganini. Her work, along with many of the evening's most satisfying miniatures, tapped straight into the spirit of the Paganini's great showpieces, calling for Koh's right arm to rock the bow furiously across all four strings while the left hand climbed up and up the fingerboard. Only occasionally did she spin out moments of melodramatic melody before the piece returned to frenetic worrying.

Michael Gordon and David Lang, composers of often astringent process-driven works, contributed a pair of understated studies. They also offered some of the funniest explanations of their work in the post-concert Q&A: "This is the first I'm hearing about virtuosity! My piece is all in first position!" said Gordon, whose kwerk recalled the most ingenuous and melodic works in his oeuvre. "I wanted to write a piece that was really quiet and short" was the entirety of Lang's quiet and short answer regarding the inspiration for his quiet and short low resolution, which labored earnestly away at repetitive, syncopated figures.

Many of the works drew from previous ones. Samuel Adams, son of the Nixon in China Adams, explained that he had extracted the atmospheric for jenny - a violin playing harmonic double-stops over the sound of a tiny speaker droning into the top of a snare drum head - from an earlier piece. Vocalist and composer Lisa Bielawa, who sang in Einstein with Davis and Koh, offered a relentless unfolding of Tartini-esque double-stopped trills developed from her serial video opera Vireo. And Timo Andres's Winding Stair explored different harmonic permutations of material from a piano concerto called The Blind Banister. But each piece had its own integrity, brought out by Koh's performance. Adams's was a mind-clearing meditation in its own right. Bielawa's, like so many of her works for violin, explited the physicality of the instrument in its approach to virtuosity, and in Andres's, Koh clearly drew out the genuinely singing moments from the merely graceful.

Koh's playing is not flawless. Her bow changes especially can seem willfully rough. But an excess of vigor was as much of an asset here as her versatility, guaranteeing that even the softest or most abstract pieces on the program were bold, fully realized musical beasts.

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