Violinist Jennifer Koh follows daring solo paths at Oberlin College

10.30.09
Jennifer Koh
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Donald Rosenberg

In the beginning, there was Bach. Well, not quite, but Jennifer Koh makes a grand case for the Baroque composer's supremacy and influence in the realm of unaccompanied violin repertoire.

Koh, a 1997 graduate of Oberlin College who has developed a thriving solo career, advanced her cause in concert Thursday at Oberlin's Finney Chapel as part of the college's Artist Recital Series. The violinist opened and closed with partitas by Bach. In between, she played works from the 20th and 21st centuries that draw inspiration from the master.

An entire evening of solo violin music might appear too unvaried in tonal color to keep the ears engaged. But Koh's program was a daring and intelligent thematic menu played with uncommon taste, flair and expressive acuity.

Not all of the interest was purely sonic. In Esa-Pekka Salonen's "Lachen verlernt" ("Laughing Unlearnt"), Koh collaborated with a video by Tal Rosner that mirrors the changing moods and rhythms in this evocative score.

The Bach influence here is the form, a chaconne, whose repeated harmonic pattern and melodic variations Salonen treats with dramatic cogency. The violin travels through dark and poetic terrain, spanning its vast range while conveying the angst at the music's core.

Thursday's performance of the 2002 Salonen piece was the world premiere with Rosner's video. The score surely can stand on its own, but the green and black dancing lines, nightscapes and sparks that accompany the violin add beguiling images to the narrative.

Koh was as fearless in Salonen's challenges as she was sensitive and bold in the night's other works. She opened with Bach's Partita No. 3 in E major, which benefited from tonal suavity, clarity of texture and nuanced phrasing. The dance rhythms had lilt or gravity, as needed.

Without pause, Koh plunged into Eugene Ysaye's Sonata No. 2 in A minor, which opens with a quote from the Bach partita she had just finished. The four movements are haunted by the "Dies irae" theme and the Belgian composer-violinist's diabolical technical demands. Koh brought requisite ferocity and mystery to this engrossing creation.

Bach's spirit also hovers over recent scores by major composers paying tribute to cherished colleagues. Elliott Carter's "Fantasy – Remembering Roger" is a fit of nerve endings, replete with spiky pizzicato and tremolo passages, that salutes Roger Sessions. The aura in Kaija Saariaho's "Nocturne – In Memory of Witold Lutoslawski" is disembodied, full of grinding bridge effects and radiant wisps of sound.

Koh reserved her most formidable assignment for last, Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor, which ends with the towering Chaconne that tests a violinist's instrumental and interpretive skills. Each variation received intense consideration as Koh shaded phrases and caressed details along a glorious journey.