CONCERT REVIEW: Alone but never alone : Respected, adventuresome violinist Jennifer Koh gave a powerful example of her ideas about the rare solo violin format Tuesday

05.19.11
Jennifer Koh
Santa Barbara News-Press

By Josef Woodard

For Tuesday night's musical fare at Hahn Hall, the stage was unusually bare, except for one lone, powerful musician, the respected violinist Jennifer Koh. She appeared in a bright red gown and, from her first sure phrases of Bach's Partita No. 3, we recognized in her a musical force to reckon with.

This was ostensibly the low-key final event in the Arts equation of the UCSB Arts & Lectures series, and there was a lower audience count than there should have been. Ms. Koh gave a command performance that felt more like a grand finale, and clearly one of the pinnacles of the classical music season now sighing to a close.

As she moved boldly through her inventive "Bach and Beyond" program, framed by the almighty Bach solo partitas, but woven through with pieces by the showpiece-maker Eugene Ysa?e, the living Finnish composers Kaija Saariaho and Esa-Pekka Salonen and great American centenarian Elliott Carter, she made nary a misstep or half-step. She is committed, to her instrument, to the composers' visions, and to the anchoring ideal behind her continuing solo violin saga.

Some might, in fact, question the appeal or evening-worthiness of a solo violin performance, but they probably have never encountered Ms. Koh, who has released a commanding and uncompromising album of contemporary solo works on the Cedille label. Ms. Koh, who will be the star soloist of next week's edition of the LA Phil's "Green Umbrella" program at Disney Hall, also fills the shoes of the usual musical work, and has appeared as soloist with the Santa Barbara Symphony in the past. But the solo violin cause may be her most exciting side project, moving ever closer to the center of her attentions.

Just in Santa Barbara, we've heard Christian Tetzlaff give a striking all-Bach solo violin recital in recent years, and Ms. Koh seconded that motion, and upped the game, in the sense of trying to find resonance and relevance between the Bach work and late-breaking new music. She does so, and brilliantly.

Her program here, which had its well-received New York premiere recently and is the first of three "Bach and Beyond" programs planned, was anything but a casual grab bag. She has taken great care to create logical yet inventive links between the pieces involved, and as she told the audience after intermission, "it's really about the exploration of Bach."

After her bracing performance of Bach's Partita No. 3 in E to open, she segued directly into Ysa?e's Sonata No. 2, which treats and radiates around materials from the Bach score. Between virtuosic bursts, the music contains a lovely lament section, played with folk-like charms.

From the "living composers" niche of the evening, neatly and tellingly placed in the center of the program, the Finns' music was more readily seductive on the ear, surrounding Carter's characteristic antic and angular internal monologue/dialoguing. In another programming design feature, Ms. Saariaho's spectral, textural poem "Nocturne — In Memory of W. Lutoslawski" pays homage to her late mentor and inspiration, while Carter's more rigorously chattering "Fantasy — Remembering Roger" nods to the late composer Roger Sessions.

Southern Californians have a special interest in Mr. Salonen, who dramatically upped the game and international reputation of the Los Angeles Philharmonic during his many years as Music Director there. But he's a fascinating composer as well, as heard in the solo violin piece "Lachen verlernt," one of the key works on Ms. Koh's album "Rhapsodic Musings: 21st Century Works for Solo Violin."

Salonen's music came equipped with a specially commissioned video art piece by Tal Rosner, on the "enhanced CD" and projected on a large screen at Hahn Hall, a linear abstraction that effectively connects with the cerebral but sinuous flow of Salonen's music.

Returning after intermission, Ms. Koh dug deep into the evening's best-known and -loved work, Bach's landmark Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Within that large structure, the pinnacle is clearly the famed Chaconne, and by the time the violinist reached that portion of the evening, we were utterly in thrall. A magical moment arrives as the intense minor mode urgings yield to a soft, fleeting major mode idyll. It's one of those quietly ecstatic moments in all of Western music that, when delivered with subtlety and assurance, make life worth living. It was, and it did.

All in all, Ms. Koh's performance here made for a masterful and full-bodied musical evening, in the playing, concept and aesthetic vision, still in progress.