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Violinist Koh strikes sparks with Kalmar, Grant Park Orchestra

08.04.11
Jennifer Koh
Chicago Classical Review

By Wynne Delacoma

Jennifer Koh has had a fan base in Chicago since the days when the violinist was a fiercely gifted prodigy in puffed-sleeves dresses winning local music prizes. A good portion of that base was on hand Wednesday night at the Pritzker Pavilion to hear the Chicago-born Koh, now a willowy woman with a gamin haircut in her mid-30s, as soloist in Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto with the Grant Park Symphony and Carlos Kalmar. The combination of effortless virtuosity and thoughtful risk-taking that marked her playing decades ago has blossomed into expansive, mature artistry.

Now based in New York, Koh has built a remarkably rich career for herself. She isn’t a virtuoso trotting the world with a suitcase full of the usual concerto blockbusters. Her specialty is exploring unexpected connections, between composers and between eras. Earlier this year in New York she presented a solo program titled “Bach and Beyond” that linked Bach partitas with works by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kaija Saariaho and Elliot Carter. Her recordings, including one nominated for a 2008 Grammy, range from Schumann sonatas to assorted 20th century pieces for violin and orchestra with the Grant Park Symphony.

The intellectual curiosity and willingness to trust her own passions that has shaped Koh’s career were readily apparent in her performance of Britten’s darkly restless concerto Wednesday night. In the opening pages, the sweet yet forceful melody floated like a mysterious, exotic presence against the brooding, rustling orchestra. When Britten’s mood turned edgy, Koh sawed away, her fast phrases raw-edged and tensile.

The concerto was written in the late 1930s, and often the rambunctious orchestra offered hints of Shostakovich-like sarcasm while Koh leaned into her violin melodies with a jazzy languor. In the fast-paced second movement, the interplay between soloist and orchestra was mercurial. Koh hurled her jumpy, faintly dissonant phrases at the orchestra like a taunting child, repeating herself daring them to catch her as she darted back and forth. In the final movement, with its passacaglia and variations, soloist and orchestra pressed forward as if against an implacable fate, their slow, even scales conveying a sense of profound longing and sorrow.

The concert closed with a nobly paced performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. Especially in the opening movement, Kalmar emphasized the breadth and soaring sweep of Brahms’ musical ideas. The third movement sounded slightly bland, but in general, Kalmar’s refusal to milk the symphony for drama gave Brahms’ expressive melodies and intricate rhythms room to breath. Kalmar’s steady, resolute tempos never turned into mere plodding, and it was a pleasure not to feel rushed in the symphony’s final, whirlwind pages. The orchestra sounded crisp and intensely focused, its satiny woodwinds and golden-toned brass turning the finale’s chorale-like theme into something luminous and moving.