Santa Fe New Mexican
By James M. Keller
July 29th, 2016
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Building bridges: Violinist Jennifer Koh

Two words kept coming up during a recent phone conversation with the violinist Jennifer Koh: “bridge” and “community.” That inclusive phrasing was surprising since the topic was the pair of recitals she performs at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival on Friday, July 29, and Saturday, July 30, both of which are solitary affairs, made up entirely of works for unaccompanied violin. But Koh wasn’t all that interested in talking about herself, and questions crafted to draw her out kept eliciting responses that dealt instead with her circles of colleagues, her relationship with her audiences, and projects in which she was just one of the players.

Her résumé includes plenty that speaks to her accomplishments as an individual. She grew up in a Korean-American household in a Chicago suburb, started playing violin in a Suzuki program only because all the spots were filled for the instruments she thought she preferred (cello and piano), made her debut as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony at the age of eleven, and headed off to college at Oberlin. There she enrolled in both the school’s conservatory and its college of arts and sciences, but during her junior year, she dropped her enrollment in the conservatory so she could focus on the courses she really wanted to take as an English major. The conservatory ended up giving her a performance diploma anyway; she had, after all, made quite a splash at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994, at the end of her freshman year. In fact, she was the obvious audience favorite at that competition, but the judging that year was rocked by charges of favoritism and bribery. The New York Times reported from the front lines: “Tonight, several judges in the violin competition boycotted the awards ceremony. So did the 17-year-old American violinist Jennifer Koh, who shared second prize with a Russian, Anastasia Chebotareva. Ms. Koh was so incensed by the slight that she left Moscow the morning after the finals. When her name was announced at the final ceremony, the audience cheered and began rythmically clapping, preventing the jury chairman, the violinist Viktor Tretyakov, from moving on.”

The experience certainly didn’t prevent Koh from moving on. After immersing herself in the study of poetry at Oberlin, she headed to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to focus still further on the violin, working extensively with Jaime Laredo and Felix Galimir. After Curtis, she was eagerly embraced on the concert circuit, winning acclaim as an exponent of classic repertoire and as a champion of contemporary music. Projects started to swirl around her, sometimes involving multi-disciplinary adventures, often exploring ways to shed new light on familiar repertoire by performing it cheek-by-jowl with new compositions. For her “Bach and Beyond” incentive, unveiled in 2009, she constructed three programs that explored the history of unaccompanied violin music, pairing Bach’s solo partitas and sonatas with later solo-violin classics (by Ysaÿe, Bartók, Berio, and Carter) and a passel of newly commissioned works from living notables that included Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen. “Almost all my projects are about bridging distance, shortening the length of the gap,” she said. “ ‘Bach and Beyond’ was about traversing time: newly commissioned pieces in conversation with Bach’s solo works.” It was an interim stop in Koh’s grappling with Bach’s unaccompanied works. In the 2018 season, she is planning to perform all six of his solo pieces in a recital staged by the director Robert Wilson, with whom she collaborated a couple of years ago when she played the solo violin role in Wilson’s new production of Philip Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach.

Her 2012 project “Two x Four” celebrated the teacher-student relationship, and particularly her artistic involvement with her Curtis professor Laredo. One of the fruits of that project was the commissioning, performance, and recording of Anna Clyne’s double concerto Prince of Clouds, which Santa Fe audiences heard at a Santa Fe Pro Musica concert this past November. During the 2015-16 season, Koh has been touring with the pianist Shai Wosner in their project called “Bridge to Beethoven,” a four-recital series that pairs Beethoven’s violin sonatas with companion works by four contemporary composers, three of them being commissioned expressly for the project. “Recently,” she said, “I have been thinking about fully immersive experiences. ... Partly it’s about bridging the distance between composer and performer. Historically, there was a time when that was the same person, but over time the roles became specialized and became separated into two people.”

Some of her projects are now taking place under the banner of Arco Collaborative, an artist-driven nonprofit organization she founded to encourage the joint efforts of composers, musicians, directors, choreographers, visual artists, and educators. One upcoming project is derived from her own experiences recovering from a serious concussion sustained in 2014. She grew fascinated with how the brain works, and when, some while later, she spent time at Duke University as an artist-in-residence, she arranged for neuroscientists to set up a functional MRI to track her differing brain activities when she listened to, read, and imagined music. She expects that some of Arco Collaborative’s activities will look further into that area. “We’re hoping to do experiments with functional MRI machines about whether performers and composers have the same shared brain function while experiencing music.” By now she has been the catalyst for so many intriguing musical incentives that the publication Musical America named her its 2016 Instrumentalist of the Year, a remarkable honor for a musician who is still on the shy side of forty.

The first of Koh’s Santa Fe recitals offers a look at her newest project, “Shared Madness,” which had its first airing in late May under the auspices of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial. It is a collection of 32 new works for unaccompanied violin that, as Koh explains it, “tells the story of an amazing and generous community of fellow artists and friends who came to my aid at a time when I desperately needed their support and help.” Koh had been performing on an instrument loaned to her by “an owner-patron who was transitioning out of that situation,” so she set about searching for another violin and building up the funds that would enable her to acquire it when it crossed her path, a process that stretched across more than eight years. Fine violins do not come cheap, of course. By the time her dream instrument surfaced, Koh was able to manage a down payment, but beyond that she was carrying a loan package that severely overextended her financial fitness.

At that point, new patrons fortuitously entered the picture: Elizabeth (a.k.a. Helen) and Justus Schlichting, a couple devoted to commissioning new musical compositions. “They offered a loan that would enable me to buy the new violin,” Koh explained, “but I told them that I was pretty sure I would never be able to pay back that amount in my lifetime. And they were kind enough to do it in exchange for commissions. I think their main pleasure is enabling art to come into the world. That’s why their focus is what it is. A great part of commissioning new music is that the works created will stay in the world past all our lifetimes.” The plan was that Koh would try to line up composers to donate new works for solo violin; and the Schlichtings agreed that what they would have paid the composers under standard commissioning agreements they would instead pay toward reducing the loans Koh had amassed for her violin purchase. Koh sprung into action. “A lot of my composer friends knew that this was happening. I reached out to my community of musicians, my family of composers, and asked them for their help. I assumed most would say no. Artists should be compensated for their work; they know I believe that. But it was such an extreme situation. Almost everyone said yes. All 32 of these composers donated their work in exchange for paying off my loans. I am so grateful — really overwhelmed by their generosity and hope.” In the end, the patrons served as the munificent organizing medium through which Koh got to keep her violin, thanks to the generosity of her composer-friends.

Koh’s idea was that the new works might stand as a modern counterpart to Paganini’s Caprices, which pretty much defined the state of violin virtuosity in their day — which is to say, about 1805. That was a very different era, to be sure. “When Paganini wrote his Caprices,” Koh said, “it was long before there was recording, television, CDs, the Internet. Actual musical instruments were the centerpieces for people’s entertainment in their homes. The composers found compelling the idea that the tactile relationship to the instrument has changed, and also the relationship between the audience and the instrument. Many of their pieces ended up exploring these tactile relationships.”

She did not try to steer the composers in any more specific direction. “I like composers to explore their concept completely freely,” she said. “I hope we have some interesting kernel, some inspiration point that the composer finds compelling. We did have some communication about whether a certain section is playable or not; that always happens — that sort of technical consultation between the performer and the composer. But all of these composers already knew my personality. I had worked with all of them in one capacity or another and had played their music before, so their general languages were familiar. It’s about how we can become closer, about how we can share a concept of what virtuosity is, about the shared creative space of the composer and the performer, and how those two people become melded into one. Ultimately, that is why we called it ‘Shared Madness.’ ”

Stylistically, the collection covers a broad territory. It includes entries by such senior composers as Saariaho, John Harbison, Julia Wolfe, and Marc Neikrug, but most of the emphasis is on the youngish composers who are defining the future of American music, including (in the first program alone) Sean Shepherd, Matthew Aucoin, Andrew Norman, Gabriel Kahane, and Vijay Iyer. “As a performer who does a lot of new music,” she observed, “I find that this is a great way to hear the palette and the diversity of musical voices in our time period. I remember I used to hear people say, ‘Oh, I really don’t like modern music. I heard a piece once, and I really hated it.’ And I remember thinking that was funny, because if I go to a movie theater and I don’t like the movie, I never say, ‘Oh, movies; I just don’t like any movies made now.’ I love Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean I don’t read contemporary writers. This program is a way for people to experience the diversity of voices and musical languages that are happening right now.”

The pressure was on as the premiere dates at the biennial approached, and Koh began assembling the 32 pieces into two separate programs. “It was incredibly difficult going in,” she said, “because half the pieces hadn’t been finished yet. Probably 50 percent were delivered less than seven days before the premiere. As they arrived, I saw different relationships between the pieces. I knew I wanted to pair certain ones next to each other. Gradually, I decided to build the two programs in different ways.” The first program, which is the one she will perform in Santa Fe, she describes as “more conceptually around this idea of violin virtuosity.” It is constructed to emphasize brilliance and movement. “There’s an arc, an arrival point in the first program,” she said, “whereas the second program is more about moving from silence and bringing in an audience and creating an arc — and finally, in the last piece, creating an arc with electronics. There’s more of a crescendo in that program. Some of the interesting aspects people will hear in the first program involve extended techniques, different shadings on the violin, finding a new kind of musical language on an acoustic instrument.” And how did the premiere performances go? “Amazing,” she said. “I keep using the word ‘community.’ The only way I can thank these composers is by premiering and performing their pieces with as much dedication as they gave those works.”

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