Classical Voice of New England
By Patrick Valentino
November 1, 2009
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Violin Virtuoso Koh’s Astonishing CD of 21st Century Solo Works

Rhapsodic Musings – 21st Century Works for Solo Violin: Esa-Pekka Salonen, Lachen Verlernt; Elliot Carter, Four Lauds; Augusta Read Thomas, Pulsar; John Zorn, Goetia; Enhanced CD with video by Tal Rosner; Jennifer Koh; violin. Cedille CDR 90000 113, © 2009, 51.43, $16.00.

Releasing an entire CD consisting of only 21st Century music within the 1st decade of the century is an impressive accomplishment. At this point, in 2009, Jennifer Koh has just released her 2nd. Following a previous Cedille recording of violin and piano works (String Poetic, CDR 90000 103), Koh now presents to us an hour-long exploration of the modern voice of the solo violin.

Containing works by former L.A. Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, Elliot Carter, Augusta Read Thomas and John Zorn, the CD is varied and diverse but never boring. On the contrary, it’s one of the most exhilarating, visceral listening experiences I’ve ever had.

Koh is undoubtedly a master at her instrument as well as a deeply thoughtful and emotionally sensitive artist. She glides through these works, for which the term ‘virtuosic’ seems pale, with authority, grace, power, and imagination. There is so much to be praised here it seems necessary to make a list so as not to overlook anything:

Firstly, as mentioned, Koh’s playing is exceptional; her obvious technical talents combine with intense musicality to produce convincing interpretations of works which have not yet had the luxury of decades (or centuries!) of performance refinement. In breathing life into them with such care, attention, and nuance, Koh is creating these works as much as their composers have.

That being said, the composer roster represented on this CD is a veritable Who’s-Who of modern composition and artistic innovation. Elliot Carter is still writing prolifically in his 100th year, and has produced more music than most composers would create in 3 lifetimes. Thomas and Zorn approach their work with equal finesse and capacity, although often come at it from opposite aesthetic directions. Salonen, the only relative compositional lightweight, only gets that unfortunate distinction by being paired with such titans – his Lachen Verlernt which opens the CD is a masterful 10-minute oration which takes its point of departure from the Chaccone, yet is muscularly modern in voice and wildly confident in composition. Salonen is an accomplished and prolific composer in his own right, but his compositional life is still overshadowed by the podium in Los Angeles he so recently vacated. The quartet of composers is at once varied and unified – operating underneath the clear stylistic differences between Thomas and Zorn, or Carter and himself, is an underlying desire to display the world of modern violin repertoire, one wherein even a 10th birthday makes a piece too old.

The conception of the album is to be applauded, as is the engineering and mastering of the recording. One feels as if they are sitting inside Koh’s instrument, and at the same time inside her mind. The recording is in-your-face without being brash or distorted, and thus perfectly suits the music. What’s more, in keeping with the hyper-modern flair of the album, this is an enhanced CD – pop it in your computer, and Salonen’s piece is accompanied by a film by Tal Rosner, a seasoned creator of video exploring music of Thomas Adès, Stravinsky, Nancarrow, among others.

Finally, there comes the multifaceted nature of the recording itself, which allows it to be pertinent to a diverse audience. Modern music mavens will want to swim in the sounds of Carter and Zorn. Violin players and enthusiasts will flock to Koh’s masterful playing. Those intrigued by the interchange of artistic disciplines will be drawn into the video-music connection of Rosner’s film work. But on top of all that is, in Koh’s own words, the inspiration for the entire concept:

“The program for this recording was born out of my search for a sense of meaning in the days, months and years following the events of September 11, 2001. I believe that music begins when we cannot find the words to express what we feel. It offers us the gift of empathy, a way for us to collectively distill the experiences and events of the world in which we live. Music gives us a glimpse of the summit of who we hope we can be, while addressing the best and worst sides of who we are.”

This program, born after years of searching and growing from a cataclysmic event at the beginning of the 21st century, brings the best talents of composer and performer together to address and explore the very nature of art. The fact that there is no reference anywhere in the music to 9/11 is irrelevant – Jennifer Koh found these pieces while searching for something, and in turn wants to share them with others. It is an elegant and honest appraisal of why art exists and is so compelling to us, from one century to the next.

© 2009 Classical Voice of New England