Koh and Wosner unveil a Beethoven journey

Jennifer Koh & Shai Wosner
San Francisco Chronicle

Musical works never exist in a historical vacuum — they interact closely with everything that’s come before and after — but performing artists don’t always draw the connections carefully enough. Among those who do are the violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai Wosner, whose promising new commissioning project, Bridge to Beethoven, had its first local airing on Wednesday night, in an inspired Herbst Theatre recital presented by San Francisco Performances.

The plan is simple enough. Across the space of four recital programs — two this month and another two in March and April — the pair will present all 10 of Beethoven’s sonatas for violin and piano, interspersed with new pieces commissioned as responses to Beethoven’s work.

Fortunately, the commission is loose enough to allow for a wide range of possible responses, as Wednesday’s program demonstrated. In his “Bridgetower Fantasy,” composer Vijay Iyer took as his inspiration not so much Beethoven himself as the violinist George Bridgetower, who gave the first performance of what would eventually become Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata.

As the title suggests, Iyer’s 18-minute score is a free-form collection of textural fragments, melodies, reveries and more, ranging across a variety of stylistic modes. There are disembodied single notes — most arrestingly in the eerie opening moments of the piece — that then get gradually harmonized, like a pointillist painting emerging into view.

There is a broad, swooping violin oration set against unsettled piano harmonies, and a gentle, texturally lush ballad that accelerates unnervingly into a frenzy of bow strokes. In between the major thematic statements, the two instruments feel their way gingerly to the next junction, as if pursuing ideas that are only just occurring to them.

The result doesn’t bear a specific similarity to Beethoven as such — it isn’t a work of quotation or pastiche — but it’s a deft and often persuasive imagining of Bridgetower’s artistic personality, and Koh and Wosner gave it an ardent and forceful reading.

Just as in the opening account of Beethoven’s D-Major Sonata, Op. 12, No. 1, the combination of Wosner’s silky elegance and Koh’s more extroverted musical demeanor made a wondrous combination. There were precision and wit in abundance, especially in the presto finale, and the huge set of theme and variations at the center of the piece — harking back to the similar but more modest set in the D-Major Sonata — unfolded with a wealth of eloquence and grace.

Read the rest of the review here