Jennifer Koh stumbled a bit at the beginning of her concert Wednesday night at the Mansion at Strathmore, playing Bach’s Partita no. 3 for solo violin. Some repeated notes in the opening “Preludio” lacked focus, and the quick-paced counterpoint felt careful rather than nimble. Her sound in high notes was uncomfortably piercing in the small room. The overall sweep of the music occasionally receded under the weight of the myriad details to which Koh had to attend.
That kind of performance is the last thing one would expect from Koh. Her appearances with local orchestras have revealed a player who imagines each note, measure, and melody intensely to create a series of dramatic moments and to link them into a story.
On Thursday, Koh’s storytelling ambition extended to the whole evening. In her “Bach and Beyond” programs, Koh returns to the lodestones of the solo violin repertory, Bach’s three sonatas and three partitas, but also connects them to other works, some of which she has effectively championed before (see this CD for evidence thereof). Later in the concert, Koh said that she had built the program as a journey from light to darkness and, eventually, back into light.
Fortunately, her journey through the third partita got back onto the right path quickly. Given a chance to let a melodic line breathe in the second movement, Koh’s tone became warmer, and her imaginative phrasing and concentration came to the fore. The apex came in the Minuet, where the music seemed to be aloft, particularly when she sustained a double-stop as a tender murmur of sound, a measured but distinct pulse ushering the melody along.
After the bubbly Gigue that closes the partita, Koh began replaying the Preludio, just to hear it again. No, wait – that was actually the beginning of Eugene Ysaye’s sonata for solo violin, Op. 27 No. 2, as I was reminded when the Preludio shattered into a huge dissonance from which emerged everyone’s favorite Romantic obsession, the plainchant Dies Irae. The attacca sequence produced some confusion among the audience, though I think we all eventually figured out that this was not some recently discovered Bach appendix. The constant invocation of the Dies Irae in this sonata, along with the completely relentless minor mode, makes it a major broodfest, but Koh’s ability to make music sound like it’s being created on the spot made for gripping psychological drama even within the grim confines.
The Ysaye, quite forward-looking in its harmonic language, made for a natural transition into three modern pieces. Kaija Saariaho put more kinetic and sensory experiences in her “Nocturne,” in memory of the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, than she did melodic ones, and Koh marshaled the swoops and scrapes into a narrative of exploration, at first tentative, then bolder. Elliott Carter’s “Fantasy — Remembering Roger,” written regarding the composer whose last name was Sessions, was a good way to remember the recently deceased Elliott, a complex, dynamic web of textures and rhythms interrupted occasionally by quiet moments of plain feeling. In “Lachen verlent” (“Laughing Unlearned,” a phrase from Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire”), Esa-Pekka Salonen takes an angular ground bass and works up a passionate chaconne; Koh gave a powerful sense of the music itself finding a connection, with the feeling overflowing in the final variations before a tentative coda called into question the earlier resolution.
The chaconne form echoed the last movement of the last piece on the program, the return to Bach in the form of his second partita. Here Koh’s playing was clean and commanding throughout, with the Sarabande flowing like a stream before a fierce Gigue led to the famous Chaconne finale. The Chaconne’s turn toward the light, the unexpected, seemingly miraculous move into the major mode, had to compete on Thursday with a helicopter that kept circling Strathmore as if it was looking for someone who had managed to escape Georgetown Prep just up 355.
Koh appeared unfazed. When the initial tentative major variations turned into something blazing with strength, she showed she had kept some power in reserve for just this moment, and made it a culmination of the program. The final turn back to D minor, normally so cruel, here felt cleansing, a resolution of tension. Only someone with the forethought to design and play an entire program with a journey in mind could have pulled that off, and Jennifer Koh is such a musician. She brings part 2 of “Bach and Beyond” to the Mansion next February 28; put it in your calendars now.