In the world of violin stars, Jennifer Koh stands apart for her dedication to new music. It’s not as though she ignores the standards of the repertoire – she regularly performs Bach and Vivaldi, and, as one of her recordings exhibits, she can play a mean Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. But she has also given the premieres of literally dozens of works written specially for her.
Her resume is marked by a number of special projects, including Limitless (see below), The New American Concerto – a multiple-season project in which Koh performs newly-composed violin concertos that engage in various ways with social issues – and juxtapositions of old and new like Bach and Beyond and Bridge to Beethoven, which respectively paired Bach’s solo violin works and Beethoven’s violin sonatas with more recently-composed works.
More recently, Alone Together, a new commissioning project designed in part to support composers during the coronavirus pandemic, was launched in April 2020. Twenty-one composers, most with salaried positions and donating their work and commission fee, were asked to write a “micro-work” of between thirty seconds and one minute, and at the same time recommended a fellow freelance composer, many young and struggling financially due to COVID-19, to create a similarly short work on a commission paid through the nonprofit Arco Collaborative that Koh founded and directs. Koh has been presenting these works live on Facebook and Instagram. The music and associated interviews are also available on YouTube.
Born to Korean parents in Illinois, Jennifer Koh made her public debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature from Oberlin College, and then went on to study at the Curtis Institute with Jaime Laredo, with whom she has recorded an album of duo concertos, and Felix Galimir. She is a recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, was a top prize winner at the famous Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and was Musical America’s 2016 Instrumentalist of the Year.
Koh has over a dozen recordings to her credit, and has in recent years produced a series of highly interesting albums for the Cedille label. Here are five of her Cedille albums that focus on new music and are particularly worth seeking out.
Limitless was a project begun in 2018 in which Koh commissioned new works that explored the relationship between composer and performer. She collaborated closely with each of the composers – all of them women and/or people of color – many of whom performed their music with her. Her recording of works from that project came out in 2019 on Cedille. Not long ago I was lucky enough to see her perform with a couple of her collaborators here, Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey, in San Francisco. The intensity and freedom of those live performances come through in this recording, in which Koh interacts with Iyer’s piano, Sorey’s glockenspiel, the electronics of Missy Mazzoli and Wang Lu, the voices of Lisa Bielawa and Du Yun, and more. Limitless appeared on the New York Times‘s “The 25 Best Classical Music Tracks of 2019” list. (Three pieces from this recording, Qasim Naqvi’s The Banquet and Missy Mazzoli’s A Thousand Tongues and Vespers for Violin, are featured on the June 3, 2020 edition of Horizons.
Jennifer Koh has had a long association with the great Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, recording Saariaho’s Nocturne on one of her Bach & Beyond albums and having performed the violin concerto Graal théâtre as far back as 2006. That concerto is part of the present album devoted to Saariaho’s works. Aside from the concerto, all the music included here is for two or three instruments, and Saariaho’s unique sound world and sensitivity to tone color are on full display in works like the string trio Cloud Trio and the piano trio Light and Matter. (Cloud Trio is featured on the June 3, 2020 edition of Horizons.)
This album features Koh and pianist Shai Wosner in terrific performances of music that is slightly closer to the mainstream repertoire than the previous two. Béla Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 1 of 1921, a bit less well-known than his Sonata No. 2 from the following year, receives an appropriately intense and colorful performance. The one and only Violin Sonata by Leoš Janáček, music that can be rather jagged and intense, is quite lovely here. And the sets of miniatures by the elusive Hungarian composer György Kurtág are appropriately deft, aphoristic, and highly evocative. As pianist Shai Wosner said of this album, “it’s intense music; we wanted to milk the most out of every bar.”
This collection of recent works for solo violin takes its title from the third movement of Elliott Carter’s Four Lauds, tributes to fellow musicians written over 1984 to 2000. The album opens with Lachen Verlernt by composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, an increasingly intense and fiery ten minutes that is a great vehicle for Koh’s virtuosity. Also on the album are Pulsar by Augusta Read Thomas and John Zorn’s Goetia, a powerful showpiece whose quite appropriate title is derived from the Greek word for sorcery. One might think that such a collection of rather challenging music for a single violin might become monotonous, but the intensity and sheer color of Koh’s playing holds one’s attention throughout.
This album, subtitled “American Works: A 21st Century Perspective,” received a Grammy nomination for Best Chamber Music Performance and was my introduction to Jennifer Koh’s work. I’d initially purchased it because of my love for the music of both Lou Harrison and John Adams; the former’s characteristically eclectic Grand Duo and the latter’s propulsive Road Movies are included here. The collection’s title work, String Poetic by Jennifer Higdon, and Mood by the iconoclast Carl Ruggles were nice bonuses. The range of expression from both Koh and pianist Reiko Uchida really won me over all those years ago, and I’ve been a Koh enthusiast ever since. (Road Movies by John Adams is featured on the June 3, 2020 edition of Horizons.)