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Music review: Stage brims with Koh's vitality

03.11.10
Jennifer Koh
San Francisco Chronicle

BY JOSHUA KOSMAN

It takes a certain amount of courage and caginess for a violinist to hold a stage unaccompanied for the length of a full concert program. Jennifer Koh's splendid recital in Herbst Theatre on Tuesday night confirmed - not for the first time - that she is equipped with both qualities.

Appearing under the aegis of San Francisco Performances, Koh assembled a thoughtful and engaging program that didn't merely mix old and new music; it mixed media as well, with the inclusion of a film using live accompaniment. And her execution was so dynamic and so dramatically alive that the absence of anyone else onstage with her quickly came to seem no more than an irrelevancy.

In recent years, Koh has established herself as a virtuoso with quirky and wonderful ideas about how to pursue that sort of career. She can and does play the standard violin literature, generally with precision and panache, but programs like Tuesday's, which challenge and re-examine the concert tradition, are more her trademark.

She began the evening with Bach's E-Major Partita and continued with barely a pause for breath into the Sonata No. 2 of Ysaÿe, which opens with a direct quotation of the beginning of the Bach.

The effect was to present these pieces as a sort of diptych, a musical text followed by commentary on it. And although her reading of the Bach was somewhat deliberative in character - a bit more grace in the dance rhythms would have been welcome - the Ysaÿe sounded superb.

Bach's work is the starting point in this sonata, a musical portrait of the French violinist Jacques Thibaud, but the recurrent theme is the "Dies Irae," that reliable icon of death and doom. Koh's performance, marked by fierce energy and gritty textural depth, captured the piece's nature perfectly.

Music of more recent vintage came in the form of two brief memorials for fellow composers.

Kaija Saariaho's "Nocturne, in Memory of Witold Lutoslawski" beautifully turned Lutoslawski's acerbic harmonic language into a chordal elegy, while "Fantasy: Remembering Roger," Elliott Carter's tribute to Roger Sessions, abounded in ferocious, angular counterpoint. Koh shaped both pieces as heartfelt homages.
For Esa-Pekka Salonen's "Lachen verlernt," a vivacious and often thrilling solo piece, Koh shared the stage with a film commissioned from Tal Rosner. This was an abstract dance of straight lines, suggestive of the instrument's strings, occasionally intercut with round squiggles and a nocturnal cityscape.

This sort of project always seems worthier in theory than in practice; the actual combination of sights and sounds generally devolves into a dogfight for one's attention. Still, there was no denying the elegant simplicity of Rosner's choreography, and Koh's performance of the music lent it the necessary kinetic charge.

Yet nothing quite prepared a listener for the eloquence and majestic power of the second half, devoted to Bach's D-Minor Partita. Even more than in the opening selection, Koh mined Bach's writing for its inventiveness and rhetorical force, and the culminating account of the great Chaconne boasted a welcome combination of expansiveness and finesse.