Jennifer Koh Building Bridges with Beethoven

Jennifer Koh
Music Santa Barbara

Jennifer Koh is no stranger to cultural exploration. Born in Chicago to Korean parents, Koh took up the violin as a child and has since gone on to amass an impressive repertoire drawn from all eras of classical music that spans composers both traditional and contemporary. She took up the violin, learning through a Suzuki-method program, only because spaces for cello and piano had already been filled. After making her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of 11, Koh then shifted her focus to literature earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature from Oberlin College before studying at the Curtis Institute where she worked extensively with revered violinists and music teachers Jaime Laredo and Felix Galimir. Koh maintains a long held passion for expanding the repertoire of the violin and has established relationships with many of today’s most exciting composers, regularly commissioning and premiering new works through projects such as “Two x Four,” “Bach and Beyond,” and more recently, “Bridge to Beethoven.” The latter, a four-part recital series that pairs Beethoven’s ten violin sonatas with new commissions from Anthony Cheung, Vijay Iyer and Andrew Norman, as well as Sommersonate by Jörg Widmann, premieres in Santa Barbara this month. The project explores the significant impact that Beethoven has had on audiences and artists from various cultural backgrounds. The first Bridge to Beethoven recital program juxtaposes three of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 12; Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 12; and Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47, “Kreutzer”—with the world premiere of a new work in conversation with the “Kreutzer” sonata, by jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. Koh is on the string faculty of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development and is the Artistic Director of MusicBridge, a non-profit organization she founded in 2013 to foster and promote collaborations between artists of diverse disciplines and styles, building a community of artists working together to expand appreciation for classical music performances and artistry. Jennifer Koh is bringing “Bridge to Beethoven” to UCSB’s Arts & Lectures series on Wednesday, April 23rd, and she recently told Brett Leigh Dicks that it doesn’t matter whether she is exploring musical and cultural boundaries or serving as a catalyst for others to do the same, her inspiration comes from the music itself – past, present, and future. 

You’re bringing the first installment of your new project, Bridge to Beethoven, to UCSB’s Arts & Lectures series this month. Tell me a little about how this endeavor came about….  

I went to see the play “Julius Caesar,” which was being done by the Royal Shakespeare Company and came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and what was really amazing to me was that I had always seen Julius Caesar as a heroic figure, but they had changed things around and as a result my entire perspective around that play changed. My sympathies, which had previously been with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, then went to Marcus Brutus and I found that really fascinating. That made me realize that the frame in which we view art can change our perspective on it. Bridge to Beethoven is really about exploring not only Beethoven’s music, but about classical music and the evolution of classical music.


In what way?

In Bridge to Beethoven Part I, which I will be performing in Santa Barbara in April with the Indian-American composer Vijay Iyer, who is probably better known as a jazz pianist, the perspective is seeing how classical music has evolved and what the meaning of that is. I, and all the composers we’ve commissioned, come from non-musical families so it’s about coming to an understanding of what this music means to us and how we were drawn to this art form. At least in my lifetime, people have always been declaring that this is an art form that’s dying, so it’s interesting for me to question how and why I find this music so compelling. It’s also interesting to see how we all chose this path, since we all come from completely different racial backgrounds and families from different countries — to see how this art form became so intriguing to us, that we’ve made it our life’s mission. 

Given that you’re drawing from such a culturally broad spectrum of collaborators, what do you think that says about the reach and influence of classical music? 

What’s especially intriguing to me is how this art form is evolving and how the sense of ownership changes with that and whose right it is to perform it, as well. This art form is evolving into something incredibly exciting and it essentially belongs to all of us. 

What is it then about Beethoven that makes his music the perfect chariot for this discussion? 

I had wanted to approach the Beethoven Sonatas for a while. When I first presented the Bach recitals in “Bach and Beyond”, everyone told me it was a terrible idea and said at that time, “You’re known for doing Bach, why would you do this program? Nobody does solo violin recitals. Why would anybody want to book a solo violin recital?” What was interesting is that there was actually a desire for that and there was also an audience for it. When I initially went to the people who I consider advisors and people that I work with and told them I felt it was now time to do a Beethoven cycle they all said it was a terrible idea! It’s been very interesting because I found that made me think further, which I greatly appreciated. What I realized was if I was a Germanic violinist and said I wanted to do a Beethoven cycle people would have immediately responded “that’s a great idea.” So this question of ownership of music was something I had to confront and I wanted to do it in a creative way so that’s really why I created this project. It was around that time that I went to the production of “Julius Caesar” and then realized how you frame something can change one’s perspective of it. I think there’s a great power to the arts in that sense because it does have the power to change you. 

What originally led you into classical music and why specifically the violin?


The violin was completely by chance. My parents grew up during the Korean War and my mother was a refugee from North Korea. I think when they came to the States it was about giving me every opportunity they never had when they were kids. Music just happened to be one of the opportunities they gave me. They also started me in ice-skating, gymnastics, and ballet. When I started in music there was a waiting list for every other instrument so that’s why I went into the violin. It was purely by chance. 

You talked earlier about the element of collective perception in these projects, but what are you seeking from these different explorations on a personal level?


All the projects I have done have been about my own personal questions. In terms of Bach, I was terrified of performing solo Bach in public so I had to confront why that was and I realized it was the weight of that tradition. Then, when I thought further beyond just the solo violin and Bach it became a journey through time, from Bach’s time to the present involving commissioning contemporary work to go along side Bach. So it was a historical journey exploring my own question. The question I had with Beethoven was of the western European tradition associated with the music and how I was so drawn to that given I was a Korean American who grew up Chicago. All of these projects are about exploration.

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