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Jennifer Koh Goes Bach and Beyond
Santa Barbara Independent
By Joseph Miller
Though she treads a busy global schedule of concerto performances and musical projects, since 2009, violinist Jennifer Koh has been on a quest to discover and demonstrate the connecting nerves of unaccompanied violin works old and new. All inevitably stand in the shadow of J.S. Bach’s three sonatas and three partitas, at least by comparison, if not by direct influence. Each recital of Koh’s three-part Bach and Beyond series rests on two of these six foundational works, complemented by contemporary pieces — some commissioned by, or written especially for, Koh. The juxtapositions have been hailed as brilliantly insightful programming, while the demanding and daring performances showcase the dynamic, even athletic, fiddling of an artist at the top of her game. UCSB Arts & Lectures first brought Koh to the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall for Bach and Beyond Part I in May 2011. Part II came in April 2013. This week, they present Part III, featuring Bach’s Sonatas No. 2 and No. 3, Sequenza VIII by Luciano Berio, and Passagen by John Zorn. Koh’s penetrating eye seems to have a playful regard for allusions and symmetries, most of which lurk beneath the surface. The order, for example, of Bach’s works through all three programs forms the sequence 3, 2; 1, 1; 2, 3, a palindrome and a principle of symmetry used by Bach. Below, we speak to Koh about her looming return to Santa Barbara.
So, you are now five years into the Bach and Beyond project. Yes. I made three different programs for this project, and I had it fall over six seasons so that each one would be tour-able for two seasons. Now we’ve finally arrived at Bach and Beyond III.
But your website calendar also shows you are still playing Part I and Part II. Yes, by special request. The main thing is trying to introduce new works for each part, so Bach and Beyond III is the priority for this and the next season. But there are some presenters that want all three. Some of them just came in and were excited about the idea when I did Part II, so then I returned to do Part I. I’m not exactly sure how it will continue its life after the scheduled six years. I have a feeling it will continue, mostly because I have been given these wonderful gifts by composers who have come to different Bach and Beyond programs. So, John Zorn came to Part I, and then gave me this gift of a piece called Passagen, which I will be playing in Santa Barbara. And then Kaija Saariaho came to Part II last year, and gave me this gift, which I just premiered in New York, called Frises for violin and electronics.
You have said that the current program conveys the idea of development, whereas Part II was all about beginnings. I’ve done all six sonatas and partitas in marathon concerts, and for me, especially when I play them consecutively, it’s really about the birth and development of Bach as an artist. He wrote these works over a 17-year period, and they were not commissioned. He wrote them out of a pure creative need to express himself in that way. It almost seems like a musical diary of his life. In the First Sonata and the First Partita, he was working within forms which had been created before. Even though he already started moving toward a new form by creating the double movements in the First Partita, the second Sonata is where I feel he really starts to become his own. He starts breaking the prior structures that had been completed before. So for example, in the First Sonata, you always return to the tonic at the end of each movement, [but] in the second Sonata, you end on the dominant at the end of the first movement. So it almost continues into the fugue. It’s never completed; it’s never like you return home. Even the fugue itself — in the First Sonata, it’s quite “fugu-ey” and easy to layer; the second Sonata is not easy material to build into a fugue. For me, the third movement is almost symbolic; there are underlying bass eighth notes that return. It’s like the beginning of his creative heartbeat. So this program is all about the idea of becoming, the idea of evolving and developing who you are as an individual artist. That heartbeat really begins in the Second Sonata for me.
How do the program’s two contemporary works fit in? The Berio, interestingly enough, was inspired by the Bach Chaconne (from Partita No. 2). The idea that started in Bach and Beyond Part I, an emotional arc, was something that I wanted to create in the program, but with a more contemporary idea — the idea of yearning and spiritual reaching beyond oneself. I hope I’m still able to create that within the program with the Sequenza anchoring before intermission. As for the Zorn, he did write it after he heard Bach and Beyond Part I, and I do believe it’s quite influenced by sonata form. In my mind, I also hear a lot of Bartók.