Koh closes Winter Chamber Music Festival with bite-sized violin “madness”

Mon Jan 29, 2018 at 1:04 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Jennifer Koh performed two programs of encore pieces Sunday at the WIner Chamber Music Festival in Evanston. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Jennifer Koh performed two programs of short contemporary works Sunday at the Winter Chamber Music Festival in Evanston. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Violinist Jennifer Koh, who closed Northwestern University’s annual Winter Chamber Music Festival with two solo recitals on Sunday, is one of the most forward-thinking virtuosos on the scene today.

Chicagoans with long memories may remember Koh, a Glen Ellyn native, in her Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut at age 11. Or her first Ravinia Festival performance in 1994, 17 years old and fresh off winning the silver medal at that year’s prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

Koh is a passionate performer with a dazzling technique who could have built her thriving international career trotting the globe playing standard concerto repertoire with the world’s great orchestras. But, like many artists of her generation, she is interested in something more. Koh has built thought-provoking programs that mix the iconic solo violin works of Bach and Beethoven with new pieces by contemporary composers.

On Sunday at NU’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston, she brought Chicago audiences one of her newest projects, “Shared Madness.” Inspired by Paganini’s virtuosic 24 Caprices, she asked living composers to write short pieces—approximately three minutes long–for her expressing their vision of what 21st century violin virtuosity could be. Kaija Saariaho, David Lang, Philip Glass, Augusta Read Thomas, Samuel Adams, Michael Gordon, Vijay Iyer, John Harbison and Julia Wolfe were among the 32 who took up the challenge. Koh played 14 of their pieces without intermission on her Sunday afternoon concert and 17 on Sunday evening.

The pieces that opened and closed her afternoon program staked out opposite poles of modern virtuosity. For Jenny by Samuel Adams, currently a composer in residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, launched the recital on a soft wave, with Koh’s hushed violin responding to a gentle electronic drone. Her sporadic, whispered strokes seemed as evanescent as the barely perceptible oscillations of Adams’s mysterious drone. Julia Wolfe’s spinning jenny, on the other hand, was a high-speed fireball, closing the recital with dizzying highs and lows as Koh’s bow rocking wildly across the strings. Though the harmonies were edgy, this was unabashed, old-fashioned virtuosity.

Like many of the pieces, Zosha Di Castri’s Patina had a restless, yearning quality beneath its episodic phrases. Koh is an extremely expressive violinist, plumbing the poetry of whatever she plays, whether the melodies are long-lined and lyrical or fitful and unpredictable. In Eric Nathan’s Far Beyond Far, full of glides to impossibly high, softly whistling pitches, Koh created an atmosphere that was both otherworldly and seductively physical.

In remarks to the audience, Koh explained that, though she was alone on stage, “Shared Madness” was truly a communal venture. A patron interested in commissioning new music had helped underwrite the high cost of Koh’s violin. To partially repay that debt, Koh proposed the idea of asking composers to write pieces—for no fee–that she would play in concerts around the world. The composers’ generous response made “Shared Madness” a different kind of chamber music. She shared the stage, she said, with “a community of composers.”

One minor quibble: With 14 pieces performed with no intermission and few visible breaks, it was difficult for the audience to keep track of exactly what pieces they were hearing. Doubtless Koh didn’t want to interrupt the musical flow, but a quick mention of a composer’s name at one or two points would have been helpful. It’s frustrating for classical music fans not to know, say, where Augusta Read Thomas leaves off and Lisa Bielawa begins.

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