By Benjamin Ivry
Audiophile Voice
Volume 12, Issue 3

Jennifer Koh: Portraits

THE DAYS OF AUDIOPHILES limiting themselves to demonstration discs of hackneyed works like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture or “The Anvil Chorus” from Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore is definitely over. The lure of the familiar is as strong as ever in shopping for new CDs, but there is a way to combine the delight of the unexpected with the pleasures of tradition. The three composers represented on this superbly recorded new CD from Cedille, a small audio-conscious label based in Chicago, wrote melodic, emotional, and graceful music, yet they also expressed the fact that they lived in the 20th century.

Karol Szymanowski (1882 – 1937) was a gay Polish aristocrat who wrote the violin concerto heard on this disc for a beloved friend, the violinist Pawel Kochanski. Any kind of love is a good basis for composing music, as opposed to the rightly loathed contemporary composers who seem to be inspired only by mathematical equations, writing works that sound like they generated by a computer for an audience of computers. Szymanowski’s discreet shiftings of mood and nuance, as well as his shimmering sounds, are beautifully captured by the brilliant young Glen Ellyn, Illinois, born violinist Jennifer Koh. Szymanowski also wrote an opera, Król Roger (1926), about a medieval Sicilian King who was a closet queen; as might be presumed, Szymanowski’s music expresses feelings just below the surface, and aristocratic refinement. The Grant Park Orchestra led by Carlos Kalmar provides supple, understanding accompaniment.

The talented Grant Park Orchestra is the resident orchestra of Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival, ( a 10-week annual spree which is America’s only free, municipally funded outdoor classical music series. It says something about the culture of U.S. cities that only Chicago has this sort of humane institution to inspire and delight its residents. These performances are concert recordings from the Festivals of 2004 - 2005 at Millennium Park ( The recording producer James Ginsburg and sound engineers Eric Arunas and Bill Maylone deserve special mention for capturing the free-flowing feeling of a live concert.

The Festival’s music director is Carlos Kalmar (b. 1958), a conductor born in Uruguay of Austrian descent, who studied in Vienna with the noted pedagogue Karl Österreicher (1923 - 1995), and now also serves as Music Director of the Oregon Symphony. This middle-European background doubtless helped in the powerful wartime concerto written expressly by the Bohemian-born composer Bohuslav Martinü (1890 – 1959) for the American violinist Mischa Elman. According to Allan Kozinn’s entertaining book about Elman, when the soloist asked the composer to describe or explain the work, Martinü replied with one word, “Violin.” While it is true that digital daringdo is an element of Martinü’s Violin Concerto No. 2, the work is more about the alternating expressions of rage and joy, fear and relief, of an experienced refugee (Martinü was obliged to flee both Communist and Fascist dictatorships during his eventful life).

By contrast, Two Portraits by the great Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945), entitled “Idealistic” and “Distorted,” are warmly reminiscent of the folk melodies which Bartók adored and collected. Notably, the final half is for orchestra alone, without solo violin. For a violinist as talented as Jennifer Koh to bow out of the grand finale of her CD in this modest and self-abnegating way is possible unprecedented in the history of violin records. Talented solo violinists with major concert careers may come in all shapes and sizes, but few are remarkably retiring. For Koh to choose a piece of music which has a finale in which the soloist does not come first and foremost is further proof, if it were needed, of her rare and splendid artistry. Wellmeaning but typically ignorant critics have praised her as a “high-octane player” – as if she were an expensive kind of gasoline; Koh would be better described as belonging to a spectacular new generation of young violinists who are able to communicate the shifting emotions of a musical score through their well-honed skills and heart’s understanding. In this sense, Koh stands beside her sterling fellow Cedille artist Rachel Barton Pine, and the dazzling EMI Classics artists Sarah Chang and Lisa Batiashvili. On her personal website, Koh describes her outreach activities in schools, including her original education program, “’Jennifer Koh’s Music Messenger,‘ which introduces children to music and encourages music-making as a means of selfexpression that can transcend boundaries of culture, language, race, and socio-economic background.” The program – which sounds admirable – might better be titled “Jennifer Koh IS a Music Messenger.” That would convey the extraordinary importance of this unusual young talent. Audiophiles should find themselves bewitched by this new CD.

© 2007 Audiophile Voice