INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR


The 2016 Honorees

By Allan Kozinn

Her admirably wide repertoire from Bach to the moderns has made her a favorite in American concert halls. Her trademark thematic tapestries of new and old offer ear-opening combinations, and this year she will perform Beethoven Violin Sonatas paired with newly commissioned works.

On a Monday evening in November 1995, I made my way to Weill Recital Hall to cover a young violinist’s debut recital for the New York Times. There are debuts and there are debuts: At the time, a couple of small organizations operated as debut factories, presenting a handful of student performers week in and week out, few of whom were ever heard from again. But there were also debuts by musicians about whom there was already a buzz. 

Jennifer Koh, the violinist who gave her first New York recital that night, was one of those. She was only 19, and still a student at the Oberlin Conservatory. A year earlier, she had shared the silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition with a Russian fiddler, Anastasia Chebotareva. Just a few months before her debut, she was awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant—a prize that, when given to a player not yet known to the public, is usually a signal that professionals in the field sense that this is a young musician worth watching.

It was easy to hear what the Tchaikovsky and Avery Fisher juries—as well as the jury at Concert Artists Guild, which presented her recital—liked about Koh. Her interpretations of Bach, Ysaÿe, Mozart, and Franck (with the 24th Paganini Caprice as an encore) were not only smartly differentiated and stylistically apt, but also fresh, energetic, and daring enough that you could never fully predict where she might take her next phrase.

But impressive as it was, that first recital barely hinted at the directions Koh would take over the next two decades. Soon she was adding contemporary works to her repertoire, performing scores by Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Adams, Jennifer Higdon, György Kurtág, Elliott Carter, and the jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman—for starters—at her recitals, and turning up frequently on the Composer Portraits and Pocket Concertos programs at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, where, for example, she gave hair-raising accounts of Kaija Saariaho’s explosive Graal Théâtre, a formidable violin concerto, and the concertos by György Ligeti (for which John Zorn wrote her an electrifying cadenza) and Laura Elise Schwendinger.

Her interest in the new and unusual has been reflected in her recordings, as well. Her first, for Bis in 1997, was the Finnish composer Uuno Klami’s Violin Concerto, with Osmo Vänskä conducting. A 2001 live recording of Gian Carlo Menotti’s concerto followed, on Chandos, and since then, she has recorded for the feisty Chicago label Cedille, which has given her what appears to be a free hand to record projects devoted either entirely to contemporary works—like her superb “String Poetic,” with works by Higdon, Adams, Lou Harrison, and Carl Ruggles, and “Rhapsodic Musings,” with music by Carter, Salonen, Zorn, and Augusta Read Thomas—or to what have become her trademark thematic tapestries of new and old.

The latest of these, “Bach and Beyond,” is in three installments that mirror a three-concert series she has performed in recent years, in which the Bach Sonatas and  Partitas are matched with later solo violin works, some old (Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2 and the Bartók Solo Sonata), some new (works by Saariaho, Phil Kline, and Missy Mazzoli, among them). This season, she is launching “Bridge to Beethoven,” in which she and the pianist Shai Wosner are performing the Beethoven Violin Sonatas, along with newly commissioned companion works (each paired to a specific Beethoven score) by Anthony Cheung, Andrew Norman, Jörg Widmann, and the jazz pianist Vijay Iyer. 

“These projects all address organic questions that I’ve carried around with me all my life,” Koh said recently. “The Bach happened because George Steel, when he was at the Miller Theater, asked me if I would play all the Sonatas and Partitas. I told him, ‘No, it’s too terrifying.’ But he called every couple of months, and, finally, I said okay. And I began wondering, why is it so terrifying for me to play these works in public, when I’ve been playing them in private for so long? That led to larger questions. If it’s terrifying for me as a performer, what must it be like for a composer to write solo violin music, after Bach? So I began looking at composers’ solo violin works from throughout the ages, which led me to wonder why pianists always play solo recitals, but violinists never do? And the challenge was to put together solo programs that would hold an audience’s interest.” 

Koh’s path to all this started in an unusual way. The daughter of Korean immigrants, she grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, a farm town about an hour west of Chicago. Her parents had her learn a bit of everything: ballet, gymnastics, skating, swimming, and music, and they took her regularly to Chicago to see the Chicago Symphony and the Lyric Opera. She began studying the violin at age three, with Jo Davis, a Suzuki teacher, who worked with Koh for four years before telling her parents that she needed a more advanced teacher. Koh’s parents had doubts: The new teacher was an hour away. So Davis drove Koh to her weekly lessons and practiced with her in between.

An early concerto appearance with the Detroit Symphony (she was 14) brought her to the attention of Isaac Stern, who did his best to persuade her that she should study at the Curtis Institute. She eventually did, but first she completed a degree in English literature at Oberlin and spent her summers studying with Felix Galimir at Marlboro, an experience that, she said, “changed my life.” Upon her arrival at Curtis she became a student of Jaime Laredo, with whom she still collaborates frequently in chamber music and duo concertos.

Koh’s adventures on the concert stage have already been too plentiful and varied to chronicle fully here, but among them was a stage appearance as Einstein in the 2012-13 tour ing production of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach that will lead to two further collaborations with members of the Einstein team—a stage work built around the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, directed by Robert Wilson, with choreography by Lucinda Childs, expected in 2016, and an untitled project that will involve Koh, Glass, Childs, and the visual artist James Turrell, scheduled for 2017.

In the meantime, she has another new-music project brewing. Called “Shared Madness,” it involves works written for Koh by 35 composers—among them, every living composer already mentioned here, along with Anna Clyne, Julia Wolfe, Lisa Bielawa, John Harbison, Marc Neikrug, and even a few rock stars, like Jonny Greenwood, from Radiohead, and Bryce Dessner, from the National. That project will have its premiere at the New York Philharmonic Biennial, next spring.

“It’s a funny thing,” she said about her continuous stream of projects. “When I first start talking about them, people tell me they’re terrible ideas. They said I shouldn’t do the Beethoven Sonatas because I’m not known for that, I’m known for Bach and contemporary music. When I wanted to do Bach and Beyond, they said I was known for contemporary music, not Bach. But before contemporary music, I was known for the Tchaikovsky competition. So I just forge ahead, and I think the objections actually make the projects stronger, in the end.” •

Allan Kozinn, for many years a music critic for the New York Times, now lives in Portland, Maine, and writes about music and musicians for the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and other publications.

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