At Tanglewood, a concerto for our times

07.13.17
Jennifer Koh
The Berkshire Eagle

Violinist Jennifer Koh remembers, as a child of 6 in the mid-1980s, being frightened by the beating death of a Chinese-American man near Detroit by a group of car factory workers.
It was a "huge awakening" for her and her family, she says, but also for the Asian-American community as a whole. It showed that Asians could be killed, "just based on the color of their skin."
Koh, the American-born daughter of Korean refugees, was growing up in Glen Ellyn, Ill., when the beating took place. She says the assailants mistook their victim, Vincent Chin, for Japanese and, in a time of Japanese economic power, accused him of stealing their jobs.
Vincent Chin is at the center of a new violin concerto by Vijay Iyer that Koh will bring to Tanglewood Thursday night on a program by The Knights, the Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra. The 25-minute work, titled "Trouble," is a co-commission by the Ojai Music Festival in California, where it had its premiere on June 8; Cal Performances at Berkeley, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (A BSO premiere has not been scheduled.)
"Trouble" is a product of the Trump era. In a telephone interview, Koh recalled that it grew out of discussions that she and Iyer, a Chinese-American and kind of musical polymath, had been having about the current political "rhetoric" and its implications for immigrants of the last two generations.
When she asked Iyer to write a concerto for her, she suggested that a movement be dedicated to Chin. So the third of the six movements is titled "For Vincent Chin."
The Knights is nothing if not eclectic. "Trouble" joins Purcell's "Fantasia upon One Note," John Adams' "Common Tones in Simple Time" and Mozart's Symphony No. 40 on the Ozawa Hall program.
"Trouble" is part of a "Mixtape" project in which Koh, now 40, commissions works to explore the form of the violin concerto and how it can interact with culture and current events. But, she said, the Iyer work is an artistic rather than political statement despite the political implications.     And though she regularly performs the standard repertoire as well as new works, she says she doesn't draw hard and fast distinctions between high and low culture, classical and popular.                                                                                     
"I don't quite believe in the idea of separation between the arts, or between genres," she said. "I do sincerely believe that you either have great music or you have bad music. You have great artists or your have bad artists."                                                                                                                                                                           Read the rest of the review here