Jennifer Koh's romance with Bach ... and Beyond

Jennifer Koh
Washington Examiner

By Emily Cary

Violinist Jennifer Koh bounds from one brilliant concert to another sharing her artistry and admiration for the teachers who groomed her and the composers who inspire her. No stranger to Washington, she completes her Bach and Beyond series for Strathmore's Music in the Mansion concerts this week and will continue her tribute to Bach two weeks hence at the Kennedy Center in "Two x Four" with violinist Jaime Laredo, her former teacher at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

The program they plan is built around four works for two solo violins. They will be joined by the current Curtis Chamber Orchestra. As graduates of Curtis, both Koh and Laredo are enthusiastic about the orchestra and its history of nurturing many of today's artists. The material presented in this Fortas Chamber Music Series concert will be recorded at a later date for future release by Cedille Records.

"Bach is the pinnacle of violin writing," Koh said. "The Partita No. 1 in B minor and the Sonata No. 1 in G minor that I'm playing at Strathmore are the first works he ever wrote for solo violins. I dedicated them to Joe Davis, my first teacher. The program also includes Bartok's Sonata for solo violin, the first he ever wrote and Phil Kline's Partita for solo violin, which I commissioned.

"My purpose in planning the Bach and Beyond series was to find a way of showing the beginning works with the modern ones to define who we have become. Phil Kline and I met six or seven years ago. He's done a lot of sound experimentation, such as a live performance of people carrying boom boxes playing 'Silent Night.' It's about really distilling an idea and putting it into one instrument. I played the premiere of his Partita at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Because contemporary composers do a lot of rewriting, I'm sure the Strathmore performance will also be a premiere."

The Kennedy Center program opens with Bach's Concerto for two violins before zooming into the present with Philip Glass' "Echorus" for two solo violins and a string orchestra, followed by two works Koh commissioned from exciting new composers, "Prince of Clouds" by Anna Clyne and "Seasons Lost" by David Ludwig. The program ends with Tchaikovsky's glorious "Serenade for Strings."

"I do a lot of research and when I came across Anna Clyne's music, I thought she was special," Koh said. "Certain aspects of her voice spoke to me, so I got together with her for coffee. Since I began thinking about the "Two x Four" program three or four years ago and decided to include her. I've seen how she has grown and changed with each new piece. She has gotten to know me as a person, so it was almost as if I knew her piece before I received it.

"David writes very well for strings. I've known him for years. He and I overlapped at Oberlin, but we didn't meet until the Marlboro Music Festival. We both attended Curtis and Jaime feels very close to his music, so he was a natural to include in this project and celebrate the idea of music passing from teacher to student."

Koh continually commissions new music. Works by John Harbison, Andrew Norman and another by Anna Clyne are involved in what she terms as the "long birthing process" that can take up to four years. She is excited about traveling to Paris in November to perform a new work that is being staged by Robert Wilson, who directed Glass' "Einstein on the Beach." No matter what she plays, she regards it as special.

"Going to a concert and being in a space sharing a collective experience is something beautiful," she said, "You feel strangely as if you are present in the same moment. I can hear the audience as they are listening. It's transformative."