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A Lunch Break With a Bach Partita as the Main Course

09.29.09
Jennifer Koh
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

Word has gotten out about Lunchtime Concerts, the informal free performances of chamber works at the intimate reading room in Philosophy Hall on the Columbia University campus. The series, sponsored by the Miller Theater and Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, opened on Monday afternoon at 12:30 with the exciting young violinist Jennifer Koh playing Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor. And people started arriving up to 45 minutes before the program began to get a seat.

About 200 people eventually crowded into the room, which is perfect for chamber music. Some sat atop desks lining the walls; others stood in the back. The programs are short, in keeping with the theme of enjoying some music during your lunch break, and only one substantial work is played. It was revealing to hear this astonishing Bach partita on its own. For all its greatness, the piece can get swamped when performed alongside the works for violin and piano typically played at a recital.

This was the first of six programs Ms. Koh will play presenting all of the Bach partitas. (The series will also offer Benjamin Hochman playing the Bach piano partitas and Alisa Weilerstein playing the Bach cello suites.) Following the Lunchtime Concerts tradition, she first spoke to the audience about the piece. Bach, who was working in Weimar when he completed his six partitas in 1720, was surely influenced by the Weimar violinist Johann Paul von Westhoff, who had already published a collection of solo violin partitas.

Ms. Koh played the opening measures of the Allemande, Courant and Sarabande from a Westhoff suite, alternating the excerpts with opening measures of the corresponding movements by Bach. Westhoff’s partitas fired Bach’s imagination about ways to write for the violin. Bach took it from there. And how.

The Partita in D minor has a curious structure. After four dance movements, which last 12 minutes together, the work ends with the monumental Chaconne, a set of rhapsodic variations on a stately triple-meter dance theme, totaling 15 minutes.

Ms. Koh conveyed the naturalness of the phrasing in the flowing Allemande and brought Baroque zest to the Courant. The gutsy way she played the chords in the Sarabande allowed the wistful melodic line to shine. And she balanced intensity and buoyancy in the fleet Giga.

Finally, she gave a deeply expressive account of the Chaconne, dispatching the challenges with such security that you did not notice the sheer virtuosity at work. The ovation was so ardent that Ms. Koh, who had been visibly engrossed in her performance, wiped away tears.