By Stephanie Powell
Violinist Jennifer Koh is no stranger to commissioning new works. In her past projects Bridge to Beethoven and Bach and Beyond, she fearlessly tackled contemporary repertoire, eager to traverse unfamiliar musical plains.
Commissioning 30 works for solo violin for a single project, however, that’s new—and it’s just what Koh is doing in her latest undertaking, Shared Madness. At press time, the project was set to premiere as a part of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial, in two performances on May 24 and 31 at National Sawdust.
While commissioning new works remains at the heart of Shared Madness, the project is also a reminder of the generous and supportive spirit that thrives within the musical community. Koh went through an eight-year period of carrying such significant debt due to the purchase of her instrument that financial advisors recommended she declare bankruptcy.
“My financial situation was in such a bad state,” Koh says, “but declaring bankruptcy was not advice I could take because then I wouldn’t have a violin to work, perform, and make music on.”
Fortunately, she met her patrons in line at a CD signing: Justus and Elizabeth Schlichting, who expressed their support of new works and decided to contribute commissioning dollars to Koh’s then-current project Bridge to Beethoven. Commissioning dollars soon turned into a great deal of support in the form of a loan to help Koh pay off the debt she carried because of her instrument. “It’s an amount of money I would never be able to pay back in my lifetime,” she says, “and their main interest is commissions, so they very generously allowed the loan to be repaid in new works.”
With a significant portion of the debt taken care of, Koh could now focus on a way to honor her patrons’ interest: new works. She started by brainstorming engaging angles and eventually landed on two thoughts: how to define virtuosity in the 21st century, and Paganini’s 24 Caprices.
“Paganini defined what virtuosity is, and he still defines what virtuosity is for the violin and our relationships to these instruments, which for me is kind of ironic, considering that he was alive in the 1800s,” Koh says. “The idea of extended technique—all of these [techniques]—even our concept of virtuosity has completely transformed and evolved since then. So, I thought, let’s do it around this idea of ‘what is virtuosity in the 21st century?’ And that seemed to be artistically compelling to the composers.”
Koh was hoping to mirror the Caprices and commission 24 new works for solo violin. Assuming that most composers, who would be donating their work and time, would say no, she asked more than 30 composers.
She was thrilled and shocked by the response, she says, when 32 composers agreed to the task at hand—a list that includes Kaija Saariaho, Philip Glass, Samuel Adams, and Augusta Read Thomas, among many others.
“These friends very clearly know that I believe [all artists should be paid] very strongly, but I was in such a desperate situation,” she says. “That’s the reason I was so moved by it: They are all so busy also, and a lot of them pushed other work aside to help me.
“It’s very overwhelming for me to talk about it,” she adds, choking up a bit over the phone, “because I was just so moved by their gestures and, I mean, I have the music in front of me, but I still can’t believe it.”
The works are varied, she says, and exploring composers’ unique approaches has been interesting and thought-provoking. She offered only two parameters: the pieces had to be for solo violin, and they could be no longer than three minutes.
“The idea for [Shared Madness] was about shared creative space and, at least for me, and I think a lot of the composers feel this way: when you play music—it could be Bach, Saariajo, Philip Glass, or the whole gamut—you have to go into this shared space where one becomes the other,” she says. “And for me as a performer it gets to a point where it’s not only about flow, but where they become a part of you. You want your music to sound as though it’s being created in that moment and that you’re the person creating that.”
Koh may have used Paganini as a source of inspiration for the project, but that doesn’t mean she still plays his Caprices. “I played all the 24 pieces when I was a kid, but I also went through all the standard repertoire, probably by the time I was 16,” she says, “So it just seemed bizarre to stop learning—that’s why I do a lot of contemporary music. I thought, ‘Why would I suddenly stop learning a piece now that I’m 17? Why would I just only play one work all the time or the same pieces in the standard repertoire?’”
She admits that she “finds Bach and other standard repertoire mentally, psychologically, and technically challenging,” but her desire to explore and learn turned her attention to contemporary repertoire.
“The way I approach music, and the reason I don’t practice [Paganini] or specific technique, is because [performing] is just about how to serve the composer and the music,” she says. “And when you get to the point of performance, it’s about not letting anything physically or technically get in the way of what you’re trying to say expressively. So that’s the reason I practice, but it’s not so that I can play really fast or anything, at least for me that’s not really interesting.”
Leading up to the two-concert premiere of Shared Madness, Koh was concertizing in London and Italy, performing the Dvorak Concerto with the RAI Orchestra, and practicing works for Shared Madness in between rehearsals as they trickled in from composers via email.
“I’m so grateful. So many times in classical music, people ask us: What do we do for our communities? What is the purpose of music? I was so moved by the generosity of these composers—I mean, I knew I was a part of a great community, but I don’t know that I knew the capacity of their generosity,” she says. “It’s been incredibly moving for me. I wish there was a more poetic way to say it, but I can’t find the words right now.”
And to thank the composers, she says, all she can do is play their music to the best of her ability. “I said, ‘Oh can I at least take you out to dinner? Or lunch and thank you?’” she says with a laugh. “These composers said no, just play your music. That’s the most important thing and the only way I can thank them: by doing the best I can playing their works for Shared Madness. So, I hope people can hear that, too, [in the performances]—the love and the work that not only went into the composition process, but also as a way to thank [the composers].”
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