Posted tagged ‘jennifer koh’

Return of the Bach: Jennifer Koh, “Bach and Beyond Part 2,” Mansion at Strathmore, February 28, 2013

March 2, 2013

Jennifer Koh‘s second “Bach and Beyond” concert of solo violin music this season at the Mansion at Strathmore on Thursday night featured performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata no. 1 in G minor and Partita no. 1 that beat out any other performances of those works I’ve heard live. From the opening Adagio of the sonata, Koh gave her lines breath and gravity, shaping the melody with aching intensity yet never losing touch with the rhythm. The next movement, a fast fugue, featured some insanely treacherous multiple stops that Koh made into part of the overall thrust of the music. Her low notes, resonant and woody, anchored the counterpoint and seemed to expand to fill the intimate Mansion at Strathmore; the fugal theme first felt like a whisper and then a scream as the emotional intensity built to a shattering climax. A sweet slow Siciliana got ambushed by a Presto finale that came so fast you could barely hold onto the melody, yet sounded perfectly controlled; the effect was like taking a corner at high speed in a race car, except for several minutes consecutively.


If this concert sounds intriguing, you should check out the CD! Or “MP3 download” for those of you born after 1985 or so

Koh’s Partita no. 1 might have been even better. The opening Allemanda came flowing from her bow in a gentle stream, and she seemed to let the last note hang in the air for just a second and then catch and transform it to start the subsequent Double variation, which sounded just as facile with twice the notes. The Double of the Corrente again had that race-car feeling of perfectly controlled speed, and the Sarabande sounded perfectly balanced, never too slow yet always intense. The big thwacking chords of the “Tempo di Borea” finale here are my favorite part of this partita, and Koh gave them a satisfying bite while maintaining the dance rhythm, which is hard to do. With Koh’s overall feeling for rhythm unifying the disparate dances, the partita became greater than the sum of its parts, and those parts were pretty fine themselves.

But Koh enriches the “Bach and Beyond” concerts by going, well, beyond, to more recent solo works. Koh even commissioned Phil Kline’s partita, “Dead Reckoning,” which separated the two Bach words on the first half of Thursday’s program. “Dead Reckoning”’s position helped to cleanse the palate and prevent Bach from sounding too familiar; Kline’s work echoed Bach in certain ways, like the motoric rhythms in some of the faster sections, and differed entirely in others, like how the harmonies stayed relatively static or moved by half-steps rather than round and round the circle of fifths. Koh’s conviction and sense of narrative gave shape to what could well sound like an episodic work, with its various tentative stabs, lyrical swerves, and essays at speed eventually collapsing and yielding to an exhausted kind of grace at the end.

In her previous B&B concert at Strathmore, the non-Bachiana was all contemporary, but she had a ringer in store for the second half: Béla Bartók, with his Sonata for solo violin, written for Yehudi Menhuin almost 70 years ago. For me, this work is to Bach’s solo sonatas as Dmitri Shostakovich’s Op. 78 preludes and fugues for piano are to Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier: a modern master taking a perfected form and daring to make it his own.

Bartók marked the first movement “Tempo di ciaccona,” leading me to wonder: What is the tempo of a chaconne, anyway? It begins with commanding rhetoric that soon finds itself refracted in folk-inflected harmonies. The subject of the ensuring fugue is more a loud rhythmic pattern that beats up the tentative attempts at counterpoint. Things get a bit more serious in the Melodia third movement, which provides the promised melody in a kaleidoscopic array of registers and tone qualities: high harmonics, whispered muted tones, full-on fortes. Koh made it spellbinding after delivering the rough jokes of the fugue. Though Bartók’s Presto finale was not quite as blistering as the same-tempo finale of the Bach sonata and featured frequent switches to place the mute on and off the bridge, Koh dazzled here anyway. (The Mansion’s music room is small enough that you could actually hear the mute being placed as Koh’s left hand pizzicatoed some cover material.)

Deliberately constructing a program to place newer material in the context of older classics so that each is further illuminated is challenging enough that not a lot of people do it and rewarding enough that I wish everyone would do it. Here’s to Koh for both making the attempt and succeeding in a spectacular way.


Some folks applauded a bit after the Presto Double in the partita. They were right to do so! It’s a spontaneous expression of admiration at that point. It wasn’t a lot of clapping, just you had to do something to get the energy out.

This concert was great in part because it had two of my favorite of the six unaccompanied solo violin sonatas and partitas. The previous concert only had one. Here is the ranked list:

  • Partita no. 3. This has the best dance feel of all of them, and I cannot get over the middle two movement, the Gavotte en Rondeau and the Menuets. The Menuets sound like a beam of sunlight coming through a cloud to me, every time I hear them.
  • Sonata no. 1. The fugue! It’s the best one.
  • Partita no. 1. The way Bach makes everything have twice as many notes is so slick. It’s like how you go to Five Guys and they give you two patties as the default option. Bach gives it to you and then he gives it to you double.
  • Partita no. 2. I realize this has the most famous single movement in the six works in question, but the Chaconne always works better extracted from the partita for me. The other partitas are better as balanced suites of works; this one is all back-heavy. The first few movements feel like something you’re rushing through to get to Big Bad Quarter-Hour Chaconne. Maybe this is just me. Probably.
  • Sonata no. 3. Mostly for the first movement.
  • Sonata no. 2. Of these six universally acclaimed masterworks, this is my least favorite. I realize that it is better than almost everything anyone else ever composed. I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.

We’re Going Bach…to the Future: Jennifer Koh at the Mansion at Strathmore, November 14, 2012

November 15, 2012

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.

Photo by Fran Kaufman, borrowed from Koh’s Facebook page.

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.

Updated to add Other People’s Perspectives: Joan Reinthaler and Noah Mlotek.

Balls in the Air: National Symphony Orchestra, June 9, 2011

June 12, 2011

“Juggler in Paradise” is not the story of the time Jimmy Buffet joined the circus, but rather the subtitle of Augusta Read ThomasViolin Concerto no. 3, which received its U.S. premiere Thursday night from soloist Jennifer Koh and the National Symphony Orchestra under its music director, Christoph Eschenbach. The NSO, in fact, co-commissioned the concerto in 2007. Despite the subtitle, which I cannot quite bring myself to take seriously, the orchestra made a good investment.

Picture of Jennifer Koh

Jennifer Koh, by Janette Beckman, from

The work unfolds over one continuous span, the violinist playing nearly the whole time. The orchestra provides mostly spare accompaniment, especially from a vast array of tuned percussion instruments, which on Thursday spanned the rear of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s stage. The concerto journeyed from a quiet, slow opening, where high harmonics in Koh’s solo part were matched by delicate harps and percussion and then by ethereal strings, through various surges and scrambles on the part of both violinist and orchestra to a higher pitch of activity, then returning to the sublimated mood of the beginning.

From start to finish, Thomas made no effort to provide memorable melodies or get any rhythms going for more than a few bars; instead, the process of transformation, of the soloist-juggler playing with and against the paradisiacal orchestra, was the product.

No violinist could have tackled the challenge of putting across such a work better than Jennifer Koh. Whenever you hear Koh play, you know you are going to hear a performance in which the relation of every note to every other note in the piece has been deeply considered, in an effort to create a paradoxically spontaneous-sounding whole. Here, she made her violin line into a guidepath through the work, achieving Thomas’ goal of personification. The most memorable passages came when Koh meditated about a phrase or note and got confirmed or knocked around by an interjection from the tuned percussion; you could hear Koh making her violin line react to the changed circumstances and find its way. Eschenbach and the NSO timed their interjections precisely for maximum impact, yet restrained their volume to give the violin the dominant voice.

Koh also took on Thomas’ challenge of providing an optional cadenza within a work the composer described as “a continuous rhapsodic cadenza” in a program note; Koh’s effort, which seemed to be inspired by a pizzicato orchestral passage earlier in the piece, seemed both a profound inversion of the arc of the piece and exactly the right music to transition into a slow coda, during which I counted two possible satisfying endings before Koh’s bow arm finally fell slack. That overlong close is my only real reservation about a work that I’d gladly hear again tomorrow, provided that Koh was playing it.

On Thursday’s program, the Thomas concerto was sandwiched between Schumann opuses, ensuring that at least two of the three works played that evening would be related somehow. (If you haven’t picked up the June 6 issue of the New Yorker to read Alex Ross’ thoughts on orchestral programming, by the way, you need to do so. It’s what I would write if I were smarter and had time to write!) In the event, the NSO made a virtue of this program design by playing both of Bobby S.’s works really well.

The Overture to “Die Braut von Messina” got its first NSO performance on Thursday, and the opening arpeggio felt like a punch to the face, a blast of energy soon submerged in gloomy ruminating that maintained a doomful air. Eschenbach and the orchestra created a sound that bristled with dark menace and milked the tragic thrust of the narrative for all it was worth — this was far from a perfunctory curtain-raiser.

Different delights came after intermission, as Schumann’s second symphony got a performance whose good humor and crackling playing frequently made me smile from ear to ear. Eschenbach’s control of the music never wavered — each repetition of the scherzo in the second movement sounded just as fresh as the initial iteration, with the NSO’s violins bustling in extremely merry fashion — but his deep spontaneity in the long melodic paragraphs of the Adagio espressivo third movement almost made me feel that I had never heard the symphony before.

The finale burst with energy and imagination as well, leading naturally to a standing O that marked not only Eschenbach’s last subscription concert of the season but also trumpeter Adel Sanchez’ retirement, after 42 years of blowing in D.C. A satisfying way to go out for all concerned.

Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette.

Quickie: National Symphony Orchestra, June 9, 2011

June 9, 2011

It’s the usual deal: I attended the National Symphony Orchestra concert tonight, conducted by music director Christoph Eschenbach, but won’t get to write the review now due to my need to sleep before going to work tomorrow. Boo! I will attempt to become independently wealthy, but in the meantime I can assure you that this is a program worth hearing tomorrow night or Saturday. You get a sandwich of Schumann overture (Die Braut von Messina, a new one for the NSO) and symphony (number 2) around the U.S. premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’ third violin concerto, an intriguing work played with rapturous intensity by Jennifer Koh. The NSO sounds super under Eschenbach’s direction, and everything burst with commitment and sympathy; in particular, the symphony had me smiling from ear-to-ear. Go have a listen if you’re free. And I will provide more details soon.