By James Reel
JENNIFER KOH’S NEW CD takes its title from a work Jennifer Higdon wrote especially for her: String Poetic, which aptly describes Koh’s play-ing style, even when a score gets a bit rough. Not that there’s anything too turbulent in this program, which is subtitled American Works: a 21st-Century Perspective. Although Carl Ruggles’ Mood is atonal and one movement of Lou Harrison’s Grand Duo employs tone clusters, everything here is immediately communicative, thanks not only to the composers’ styles, but also to the finesse of Koh and pianist Reiko Uchida.
Higdon’s String Poetic, from 2006, is a five-movement, 20-minute work that makes good use of some mainstream “special effects,” primarily mutes, sul ponticello in the outer movements, and haunting employment of pizzicato at the end of the central movement. Although it begins and ends in agitation, much of the score is quite lyrical.
Mood (1918) is one of Ruggles’ least craggy works, singing eerily through its short atonal journey. Harrison’s Grand Duo, from 1988, is a half-hour suite inspired by Baroque and Renaissance dance formats, but updated. Thus, an estampie becomes a “stampede,” and the final movement is a jaunty polka. Much of this composition initially seems almost dour by the standards of Harrison’s joyful gamelan-inspired pieces, but before long “dour” becomes soulful.
John Adams’ quarter-hour Road Movies, written in 1998, first recorded in 2004 by Leila Josefowicz, and already a contemporary classic, is an imaginary car trip partly fueled by popular-music rhythms. The work allows Koh and Uchida to explore what has become an early 21st-century American musical mindset, which embraces motoric and pop rhythms, multicultural influences, and a willingness to use melody and extended tonality to their full effect. None of this is done with a postmodern smirk; it’s sincere and artful and communicative. Even in the jauntiest pieces, Koh finds a singing line.
Koh plays a Strad that once belonged to Arthur Grumiaux, which is appropriate; even in the Adams, her playing is elegant and aristocratic, like Grumiaux’s would have been if he were a contemporary American.