Jennifer Koh highlights Bach’s influence

Jennifer Koh
San Francisco Chronicle

The connections between Bach and his followers were on display Sunday afternoon during a largely gripping solo recital by Jennifer Koh, presented by Cal Performances in Berkeley’s Hertz Hall. By placing two of Bach’s Sonatas as frames for more recent works by Luciano Berio and John Harbison, Koh gave a demonstration of both the innate brilliance of Bach’s own writing and the far-reaching influence he has had.


The program was the third and final installment in Koh’s multiyear project “Bach and Beyond,” and the centerpiece this time was “For Violin Alone,” an alluring new score by John Harbison. Harbison is a composer for whom the tradition is always a living presence, and this new score, a co-commission by Cal Performances and two other presenters, shows the legacy of Bach at every turn.

Yet “For Violin Alone,” which runs about 20 minutes, is far from an act of mimicry or historical recapitulation. Harbison’s voice is distinctively contemporary throughout, particularly in the opening movement, “Ground,” which charts a series of variations on an intriguingly flexible harmonic theme. Koh’s performance was a marvel — tender, strong-limbed and full of tonal variety.


She made an equally potent case for Berio’s “Sequenza VIII” from 1977, with its slashing bow attacks and ferocious flurries of passagework. The energy that shapes this showpiece comes from the octaves and near-octaves that recur throughout as structural guideposts, with increasingly ornate sprays of notes placed in the intervals, and Koh charted both the work’s formal clarity and its dramatic explosiveness beautifully.

Fortunately, there was more vigor and direction after intermission, with a splendid rendition of the C-Major Sonata. The vast fugue that stands at the center of the work worked its magic, and the final Allegro served as an eloquent capper.