Jennifer Koh ~ On Playing Violin and Einstein

Photo courtesy of Juergen Frank

Violinist Jennifer Koh had some time to talk with me about a few things: her multi-tiered project Bach & Beyond, which is both a compelling series of concerts as well as her upcoming CD. She’s also been performing in this interesting stage production you may have heard something about: Philip Glass’s opera Einstein On The Beach at BAM, where she got to not only play the violin part but also portray Einstein himself. Number one, how often do we see a concert violinist perform in any kind of opera onstage, and how often is it a female violinist portraying a male character?

In any event, look for some interesting projects from Jennifer, including the CD, some West Coast performances of Einstein, and more performances of the Bach & Beyond concerts.

CM: How did you become involved in the production at BAM of Einstein On The Beach?

Jennifer: I learned about the revival of Einstein on the Beach through Matias Tarnopolsky from Berkley Cal Performances. I have always been interested in working with people like Robert Wilson, co-writer of Einstein. I had never done stage work, and it was a totally new experience. I was a little trepidatious joining the project because I’ve never done anything like this, but it’s been an amazing journey! Bob and I got along–he’s like a kindred spirit and I absolutely adore him. I am sure more work will come out of our relationship!

CM: It’s very interesting to see this is something where you’re going to be in make-up and costume.

Jennifer: Yeah, it’s not attractive make-up–I’m the old Einstein! But you know, it definitely works, and it’s been an amazing process!

CM: I have to say it’s worlds away from when you were a child learning the violin and playing your first concerts–You probably had no idea that somewhere down the road you were going to be playing Albert Einstein in a production!

[Photo left courtesy of Lucie Jansch]
Jennifer: I actually enjoy doing projects that scare the living daylights out of me, that essentially terrify me. After my first time playing the Ligeti Concerto, and then performing my Bach & Beyond program for the first time, and then doing all six of Bach’s sonatas and partitas in one concert, I felt like I was ready for a new challenge. The sense of accomplishment I feel after performing something terrifying is always the most satisfying.

CM: Well, people love challenges, because it basically fuels your passion for what you do, right?

Jennifer: It does, and I think more and more, after performing Bach & Beyond programs, the Bach marathon recital, and Einstein on the Beach, I’ve been looking towards creating total immersion projects. Those types of projects have fascinated me for a while and it’s something I want to personally experience and share with an audience again.

CM: Is the Bach & Beyond project a statement on how much Bach relates to new and contemporary music?

Jennifer: Bach & Beyond was a way for me to come to an understanding of why music that was written 300 years ago still provides such a visceral experience. How is it that music written 300 years ago can still speak to someone who’s alive in the 21st Century? It is about exploring Bach’s influence compositionally on all composers–not only 20th and 21st Century composers. For example, I’ve also moved back to Ysaÿe. My goal is to make each individual program of Bach and Beyond a valid and interesting journey in itself. I am currently transitioning from Part 1, which I have been performing for the past two seasons–to performing Part 2, which begins this year, though there will be overlap.

[Photo right courtesy of Juergen Frank]
Part 2 is all about beginnings and exploring the core of who we are and the potential of who we can become. The program includes Bach’s first Partita and first Sonata, Bartok’s solo sonata, and a new work–a violin partita written for me by Phil Kline. Part 1 was really a journey from light back to dark, back to light. The last installment will have Berio’s Sequenza VIII, a new work by John Harbison, and the 2nd and 3rd Bach Sonatas. This program is about themes in our life always returning and in a larger sense, reflecting the circular process within a life. Fugues are about musical fragments layering upon each other but at the same time developing upon a singular theme. There is complexity through that process but it is based on the essential musical theme or core. There are different meanings within each program, but also as a whole. I think, in a couple of seasons, I’d like to do this in a marathon form, because after doing the six Sonatas and Partitas, what could be harder than doing all three parts of Bach & Beyond in one concert? [laughs]

Part of the reason I found Bach & Beyond to be a compelling idea was because contemporary music creates a thread to the past. A piece might not be directly influenced by Bach, but every composer that I have worked with and programmed in the series–knows the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, so even if it’s a subconscious link, it’s still there. I believe that when one hears Bach, then a contemporary piece, and then returns to hear Bach again, something changes in that second listen. I think it also changes the way it’s played.

One of the most important things to me is programming and creating a journey for the audience, but also creating a journey for myself musically. Bach was the first music I ever played, but for a long time I didn’t play his works in public. I’d say almost definitely there was a more than 10-year period during which I only played his music in my apartment. I felt like my performances of Bach were very personal and not something that I felt comfortable sharing publicly. Then came the 325th Anniversary of Bach’s birth and George Steel asked if I would perform the six Sonatas and Partitas at Miller Theatre, and I immediately said no. He called a month later to ask me again, and I said “absolutely not.” He must have called 3 or 4 times. After he left Miller Theatre, Melissa Smay started calling me, so I finally agreed to do it! [laughs]

Bach: Chaccone from Partita #2, BWV 1004 (92Y, NYC; 1/30/11)

CM: Why were you intimidated to play Bach?

Jennifer: I have to play Bach from a place of nakedness and vulnerability, because the music itself is so…I don’t say this facetiously at all, but it’s really great music. It’s also incredibly human music, and so transparent. I mean, anybody would say it’s transparent, but I see it as a lifetime. You’re really taking the journey of a lifetime when you go through all of the Sonatas and Partitas. And, for me, I think the process of putting myself into that place of complete vulnerability is really painful. It’s not just the preparation of practicing the notes and interpretation. I feel this way with music in general, that the composer and his/her music have to be infused into your body, so it becomes part of your DNA, and it’s flowing throughout your body. I have to put myself in that place in order to perform the music in the way that I believe it needs to be played.

The Sonatas and Partitas were never commissioned, never meant for public performance, and it is unknown if they were ever performed in Bach’s lifetime. In fact, the pieces were composed over a very long period of time–it took him more than 17 years–and in a sense I see them as his personal journal. When I look at myself and I look at Bach, there’s such truth in the music, his journey becomes my own.

CM: The pieces of Bach, especially when you are talking about the pieces for solo instruments (violin, piano–or harpsichord, organ), are all very iconic, because there’s quite a few performers that made stunning examples of playing these pieces, like Milstein or Szeryng with the violin works, and Glenn Gould with the piano pieces. Was this also a factor you had to observe in your interpretation?

Jennifer: I collect historical recordings, so, of course I know about Szeryng, Milstein, Szigeti, Grumiaux–the list could go on and on. But it wasn’t really something I thought about that much, to be honest. When it comes to art and music I don’t think you can definitively say “this person is the best.” That is just one person’s opinion. It’s such a personal perspective. Of course, there are things that each individual person will prefer, but it’s like being a human being–If you’re in a room with a hundred people, maybe you’ll feel closest to one or two people, it’s not every single person; and that’s something I feel comfortable and totally fine with! [laughs]

I definitely believe that music is meant to communicate all parts of who we are. Sometimes those parts are beautiful and sometimes they’re not. I think of the violin as an expressive tool that brings out the beauty in something that is not radiantly beautiful in everyone’s eyes. The parts that I have made beautiful with the violin have more meaning.

Jennifer performing Ysaye’s 2nd Sonata for First Ladies (US) Michelle Obama and South Korea’s Kim Yoon-ok

Jennifer Koh (Official website)

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