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Jennifer Koh, violin @ EMPAC, 11/30/12

11.30.12
Jennifer Koh
Albany Times Union

By Joseph Dalton

TROY – Most everything of what we call Western music follows in the path of J.S. Bach, who perhaps more than any other composer codified harmony and form.  So what’s really all that special about Jennifer Koh’s series of concerts and recordings titled “Bach and Beyond”?

For starters, she plays beautifully and the EMPAC concert hall on Friday night showed off the full, rich body of her tone to near perfection.  She’s also as smart and adventuresome as she is talented. And that leads to the substance of “Bach and Beyond.”

As Koh states in the notes to her new disc on Cedille, “Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas have long been considered the definitive works written for solo violin… from where composers and violinists begin, and the pinnacle we strive to reach.”

Well, the reach was far on Friday.  Koh began with Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor and then jumped to the late 20th century for three more works, before ending the program with Bartok.  Nothing however surpassed the Bach in terms of sheer logic and coherence or in consistency and elegance in the playing.

The composition that went furthest a field came next, Kaija Saariaho’s “…de la Terre.”  It included an electronic soundtrack of whispered voices and rainfall and other sounds that were triggered by Koh’s own playing.  The effects wore out rather quickly.

Koh then proceeded without pause to Phil Kline’ Partita.  While paying homage to Baroque forms, the rising and falling melodies looped and repeated in a computer driven, post-minimalist manner.  It was also surprisingly consonant, except for some tight intervals in the double stops.

The first half ended with “Passagen” by John Zorn, the David Mamet of contemporary music.  At the start, he had the violin positively growling and cursing.  The attitude eased off a bit, but still largely overshadowed how darned demanding the writing was on the player.  Nevertheless it’s a powerhouse piece and Koh proved equal to the task in every way.

Some of that same anger and edginess showed up in Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin, which came after intermission.  This time the intensity seemed more Koh’s choice than the composer’s.  Soon enough though she moved back to a beautiful tone.

Like the Bach, Bartok’s Sonata is in a four-movement form that includes a fugue, which lent the concert a nice symmetry.  Koh’s playing in the Adagio was the most arresting of the night — haunting and ghostly, with a silvery glow.