Jennifer Koh: Connecting Composers Across Centuries

Jennifer Koh
San Francisco Classical Voice

By Jeff Kaliss

She drew global attention to her win in Moscow in the International Tchaikovsky Competition 15 years ago, but violinist Jennifer Koh has since developed a reputation as a standard bearer for the nonstandard repertoire. A closer look at her performance programming reveals her conviction that there’s a vital link between past and present. On September 23, with Joana Carneiro conducting the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, she’ll play two violin concertos by composers separated by a couple of centuries: Ludwig van Beethoven and John Coolidge Adams. From New York City, where she shares a home with pianist, husband, and sometime collaborator Benjamin Hochman (and will celebrate her 34th birthday in two weeks), Koh talks about her choices.

Do the new and old hit you in different ways?

I think I can’t imagine my life without one or the other. ... I grew up in a generation where everyone was declaring that classical music was dead or dying, and I had to really, in a sense, validate why it was I loved this art form that people were declaring dead. And why it was still so relevant to me. I think that New Music is really a thread to the past. So I think it’s important to program in that kind of thread, like we’re doing with the Berkeley Symphony.

Why Adams and Beethoven?

I think it’s particularly wonderful to be able to do the Adams in Berkeley, because that’s where John lives. And I think there’s a very strong connection between those concertos. The [D major] Beethoven is literally built out of scales and arpeggios. And in his own way, John does the same thing. ... The very opening of his concerto starts in the strings, and it’s all scales [chuckling]. Not your standard major/minor scales, but a modern perspective on the scales, with interesting textures and rhythmic motifs. And people forget how revolutionary Beethoven was — harmonically, structurally, rhythmically. What’s interesting about this pairing is that you hear the revolutionary nature of both composers.

The media picture you as very physical. Is that how you see yourself?

I have no idea, because I find listening to or watching my performances to be the most painful, terrible thing ever. Sometimes it actually surprises me, because I don’t really think about how I look while I’m playing.

Is there particular conditioning you’d recommend to aspiring violinists?

I’m probably the most inconsistent exerciser, but I did swim a great deal as a kid, and I still enjoy swimming.

Touring must be a good workout.

It’s always fun to tour with orchestras, ’cause there’s a kind of camaraderie that happens. In the sort of [recital] work I do, I don’t usually get to see the same people every single day, so it’s nice to, for a while.

Do you find differences around the globe?

One thing I can say about Russia — I did the premiere of the Ligeti concerto there [in 2008], with Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra — and I’d have to say that was pretty amazing. The audience was so dedicated and so fervent and so passionate about it.

For your “Bach and Beyond” series of recitals, you’ve come up with some other fascinating programs.

Listen to the Music

I’ve been pairing the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin with newer works for solo violin. For example, I’m doing the E-major Partita by Bach, and then the second sonata by Eugène Ysaÿe, which has parts of the Bach in it. Then there’s two memorials, one by Carter and one by Saariaho, for different composer-mentors [Sessions and Lutoslawski]. And with the Ysaÿe, the main motif is the Dies Irae, which is of course related to the Christian death Mass. There’s a piece by Esa-Pekka [Salonen] called Lachen Verlernt, and that’s written in the form of a chaconne. And the second half of that program is the Bach B-minor Partita, which of course has a great chaconne in it. So that gives you an idea of the kind of programs I like to do.

Are you using the same instrument [the 1727 ex-Grumiaux, ex-General DuPont Stradivarius] for all this?

Yes! And sometimes I think that Strad would be totally shocked when I do the Ligeti concerto or Saariaho. I bet he never imagined that this kind of sound could come out of his instrument. (Though he probably would have thought about that with Beethoven, as well, so I can’t say it’s only Ligeti.)

The Strad is performing more modern stuff on your latest recording [Rhapsodic Musings, on Cedille Records].

That was really about encapsulating a moment in history [9/11]. For me, it was literally trying to understand who we were as a society, as a people, and who we will become. But it’s also kind of a celebration of one’s relationship with one’s instrument, because it’s all solo violin. So it was a very intimate process.

What’s next?

There’s a new recording coming out on Telarc at the end of this month, called Singing Rooms, which is a piece that was written for me by Jennifer Higdon, for chorus and orchestra.

And you’ve been reaching out to kids.

I call [my program] Music Messenger. I started it because there’s so many public schools that don’t have music and arts programs. Music has obviously changed my life and shaped who I am and how I live, and it was something that I wanted to bring to members of the community who didn’t already know about music. Essentially what I do is dissect different pieces I play. I’ll play different lines; if there’s a fugue I’ll play different thematic material and then combine it. Because the most important thing about being a musician is your capacity to listen. So it’s really about showing them all the different ways to listen: There’s rhythmic impulse, there’s harmonic things, different articulations and dynamics. And then I put it all together in this minirecital at the end.

How has it been working?

There were some public schools that already had music appreciation, but after Music Messenger, the programs expanded a great deal.

Have you had feedback from the kids?

Everything they say sticks with me, ’cause they’re so amazing. These open, amazing human beings — they remind me of what life is all about.