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Listen In on a Violinist’s Rehearsal Room

03.14.18
Jennifer Koh
New York Times

"That was good," the violinist Jennifer Koh told the soprano and composer Lisa Bielawa during a recent rehearsal. But then she pointed to a spot on her sheet music and said, "I do think we should take more time here."

They were at Ms. Koh's apartment in Upper Manhattan, practicing Ms. Bielawa's "Sanctuary Songs," which the two will perform together at National Sawdust this month as part of "Limitless," Ms. Koh's latest project to commission new music from a diverse slate of composers - who, in a new twist, will be onstage playing with her.

Ms. Koh and Ms. Bielawa repeated the passage, now with a breath that Ms. Koh said "lets people really hear the music." They went through it a few more times, adding small changes to dynamics, note lengths and overall balance. Finally, something clicked and their eyes lit up.

"There is an infinity of possibilities," Ms. Koh said in an interview. "It might mean that 99 of the million possibilities don't work, so when it does - it's just so good."

Ms. Koh said that she tells composers to aim high, then "scale back" if something doesn't work.CreditCaitlin Ochs for The New York Times Ms. Koh has made a career of working with composers. She tirelessly advocates for new music and has a nonprofit, Arco Collaborative, to commission works from composers she carefully researches by studying scores and flying around the world to hear premieres.

Her previous projects, such as "Bridge to Beethoven" and "Bach and Beyond," have explored connections between living composers and canonical giants - an apt metaphor for her career, in which she might perform Kaija Saariaho's 1994 violin concerto one week and Sibelius's classic one the next.

"Limitless" is about the tradition of composers working directly with musicians, and revisits a moment in music history when the lines dividing genres were blurred or nonexistent.

In Mozart's time, for example, there wasn't a distinction between new and repertory works "because everything was new," Ms. Koh said. "Now we have pop, jazz, classical, and even new music within classical. I don't believe in that; I just believe in good musicians and bad musicians."

This project is also an attempt to add more diverse voices to the violin repertory beyond what Ms. Koh called "dead, white European males." The program for "Limitless" - with works by nine composers including Missy Mazzoli, Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey - looks like a manifesto for inclusivity: women, people of color and musicians who are not your typical classical artists.

Read the rest of the review here