Text by Jeff Kaliss

Images by Juergen Frank

Violinist Jennifer Koh photo by Juergen Frank

About three quarters of the way through our phone conversation, celebrated violinist Jennifer Koh, speaking from her apartment in New York City, feels she owes me an apology. “This interview is turning out to be really long—I’m sorry I’m going off on all these tangents,” she says. “But sincerely, all these projects come from a very organic place.”

Koh’s personal and career “tangents” are in fact fascinating, creative, and important, and need no excuse. But they do need some explanation, and exploration of their origin in her heart and imagination.

Her “Bridge to Beethoven” project currently has Koh touring with pianist Shai Wosner, programming Beethoven sonatas and new works created as a link to those sonatas. This “came up as a kind of question about identity,” Koh explains. “I’m Korean-American, and I didn’t come from a musical family. So how is it that this art form, which is largely credited as Western European, is a visceral and compelling mode of communication for me?”

Bridge to Beethoven” is one of the latest of Koh’s high-energy endeavors, in which she shares questions and answers with her colleagues and growing fan base. For the Beethoven project, she recruited a “plethora of diverse voices,” including Chinese-American composer Anthony Cheung, Indian-American Vijay Iyer, and Jörg Widmann, a German composer whose commissioned Sommersonate has been paired in performance with Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata.

The “answer” affirmed in this multiethnic, multinational quest—which also includes American composer Andrew Norman—is that music is universal and categories superfluous. For example, says Koh, “What’s fascinating about Anthony Cheung is that he’s a devotee of Dutilleux, and his music sounds very avant-garde European.” Iyer, better known as a jazz composer and pianist, has created a piece incorporating material from the “Kreutzer” sonata and African rhythms, titled The Bridgetower Fantasy in homage to George Bridgetower, the half-Moroccan violinist friend of Beethoven who debuted the “Kreutzer.”

Koh further finds it fascinating that Norman and Iyer are “essentially stretching what the violin can do. With Vijay’s piece, he uses sounds he calls ‘subharmonics’ . . . and the way I’m able to get to those is to do everything basically the opposite from what you’re supposed to do to get a ‘nice’ sound: My bow is at an angle, I’m using a very, very, very slow bow, and I’m playing over the fingerboard. Andrew uses different parts of ponticello in expressive ways, with specific markings [on the score] for different kinds of coloration.”

In recordings and in concerts across the US and abroad, Koh has exhibited a masterful and characteristically dynamic approach to traditional repertoire, including marathons presenting all of Bach’s sonatas and partitas in a single performance. With these feats, she answered the lurking question of whether she was up to it, because “performing Bach in public still terrifies me.” With the affirming answer came insights into the evolution of the composer. “It’s amazing that these were never performed within Bach’s lifetime, and that they were never commissioned,” says Koh. “He just felt this creative need to write them. They’re like a personal diary of his life over a 17-year period.”

Koh has her own diaristic comments about the challenges of the Bach marathons, “and I’m not talking about technical things or memory things. To function as a human being, as an adult, you have to have a lot of skin on you, and in preparing the Bach, I felt like I had to peel off all my skin. I remember the first time I prepared [for performing all the Sonatas and Partitas], I couldn’t go outside my apartment for two weeks. Living in New York, you encounter people all the time, and I couldn’t interact—I was way too sensitized to everything. Seeing a homeless person on the street was overwhelming! The only person I saw briefly was [Finnish composer] Kaija Saariaho, one of the human beings I can speak with even in my worst moments. She was so concerned: ‘Are you eating at all?’”

Saariaho contributed a couple of pieces to Koh’s two-part recordings of Bach & Beyond (Cedille) which, as in the Beethoven project, positioned partitas and a sonata by the classical master with new commissions, as well as like-minded works by Ysaÿe and Bartók.

“I decided to expand the concept to Bach’s influence on composition for solo violin, because in a sense we still look at the sonatas and partitas as the pinnacle,” says Koh. “And that was over 300 years ago.” Her imaginative use of extended violin technique to 20th-century music is impressively displayed on another Cedille recording (with pianist Wosner), Signs, Games + Messages.

Although Koh doesn’t count her parents among her musical influences, she is forever grateful for their support along the unexpected path their daughter chose. Her mother’s severe illness a few years ago, during which she spoke only Korean, prompted Koh’s questions of identity, which she set out to investigate with a grant from the Asian Arts Council. “I only spoke English,” she reflects, “but I decided to go to Korea to study indigenous shamanistic music and court music. I was lucky enough to connect with several scholars in shamanistic culture, which is usually very private, and what was funny to me was, all I could think was, ‘Oh, this sounds like Lou Harrison!’ What I realized was that my language is Western classical music, and that I had no more inner understanding of Eastern music than any other person from the West would have. That’s how “Bridge to Beethoven” was born: If this language [of Western classical music] doesn’t belong to me, who does it belong to?” 

Koh’s mother recovered from her illness at about the same time Koh was recruited to cross another sort of boundary, into the title role in a new production by director Robert Wilson of Philip Glass’ opera Einstein on the Beach. “I’d never acted—had no background in theater—so it was, of course, terrifying to me,” Koh recalls with a laugh. “And it took an hour for them to do my makeup, with the wig and the moustache. I think Philip was quite happy with the performance—he said he loved the lyricism of it. And with Bob [Wilson], I felt such a strong artistic connection that, during the rehearsal process, we started talking about what project we would want to do in the future. It ended up that he’d do a complete staging of all Bach’s sonatas and partitas, and that Lucinda Childs, who did the choreography for Einstein, would be the choreographer. It’ll be about the evolution of the artist . . . and we’re hoping for [performances in] 2017–18.”

Violinist Jennifer Koh photo by Juergen Frank

As Einstein, Koh got to play the violin with which she’s most identified artistically. But she’s reluctant to discuss its pedigree.

“I got really scared after my friend, [Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster] Frank Almond, was tasered outside his concert hall, and his violin was stolen [in January 2014; it was later recovered]. So you can just refer to mine as ‘an old Italian violin.’ I’ve had it for a little over five years now, but I was carrying a huge amount of debt, because I’d formed an LLC with shareholders. Some other people donated money so that I could become a shareholder in the company, which owns the violin. But I was personally carrying a debt for about half the instrument’s worth, with an incredibly high interest rate.

Finally, this wonderful couple stepped in and gave me money in the form of a loan, and they agreed to write off the loan in exchange for commissions.

“Then I went to my community of composers, which included Philip, Andrew, Vijay, Anthony, Sam Adams, and others—over 30 composers—and almost all of them said yes, we’ll help you, because I would never be able to pay off this loan in my lifetime. So they’ve essentially gifted these pieces to me. “I decided to call this project ‘Shared Madness,’ because I wanted to somehow characterize the shared creative space we live in, and the shared creative relationship I have with each of these composers.”

Koh expects to showcase these compositional gifts as recital programs, “in which we’re exploring what virtuosity is in the 21st century. Because for some reason, it’s still defined by Paganini, from the 19th century, and some of [these composers] think, ‘Everybody in conservatory can play the Paganini Caprices, so that’s not so impressive.’

A lot of them have given me incredibly melodic pieces, and they’re saying, ‘What’s virtuosic now is being able to play a phrase truly beautifully.’”

Nurturing the 21st century is also a motive in the educational components of Koh’s “Shared Madness” and “Bridge to Beethoven” projects.

Violinist Jennifer Koh photo by Juergen Frank

“I’ll be doing several classes at Harvard, and I’m connecting through [presenter] San Francisco Performances to Stanford,” she points out. “We’ll be doing workshops with student composers and student violinists, not only to connect them with each other but also to explore how we can stretch the violin compositionally.

“It’s tricky to write for violin, because we’re tuned in fifths. But we can do some things that other instruments are not able to do. “I’ve also started a nonprofit, MusicBridge, which is not just about commissioning, but about engaging with our communities and with the other arts. And our composers have put together videos, explaining their projects,” which are available on their websites, as well as on YouTube, where Koh’s own channel showcases a series, Off Stage on Record, portraying a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a virtuoso. It’s a life that continues to demand its share of touring.

After our lengthy interview, which followed Koh’s return home from a set of summer festivals in the state of Maine, she sighs, chuckles, and announces, “It’s gonna be laundry day.” 

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