Photo by Fran Kaufman
By TOM LAVENTURE
(May 13, 2009) – Jennifer Koh, one of the most exciting violinists today, will be in Minneapolis to perform with long time friend and mentor, Maestro Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra for two performances May 21-22 at Orchestra Hall.
Koh is performing as part of Jennifer Higdon’s “The Singing Rooms” along with the SATB chorus (soprano, contralto, tenor and bass). The orchestra will also perform Haydn Symphony No. 101 in D Major, “The Clock” and the Hanson Symphony No. 2, Op. 30 “Romantic”.
Completed in 2007 by composer Jennifer Higdon, and co-commissioned by The Philadelphia Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Minnesota Orchestra, “The Singing Rooms” is a musical and choral interpretation on the poetry of Jeanne Minahan.
Koh describes the piece as an amazing and all encompassing work that is as enjoyable to play as it is to hear.
“I get immersed in it with all the layers of sound,” she said. “I am surrounded by all this music and at times I want to be in the audience to hear it.”
As a musician, writer and poet, Koh said “The Singing Rooms” is an opportunity to demonstrate the exploration of blending poetry, chorale and music, and how it adds a depth and richness on several levels and offers a fulfilling sense of completeness.
“It ends up that the sum of all the parts is greater than the parts themselves, and that is what I love about being a musician; just being part of something that is much larger and greater,” she added.
The Singing Rooms offers a distillation of poetry, literature and music that goes beyond words on a page, she said, and creates a remarkable relationship between writer and reader.
“I was an English major at Oberlin and placed a great deal of emphasis on studying poetry, but I also wrote poetry,” she said. “For me it was a very personal project that brings all sides of my life into one piece.”
Patrons will have the rare opportunity to hear Koh performed with her 1727 Stradivarius violin. It is on loan from a couple that heard her perform and offered the instrument.
“I am incredibly lucky,” she said. “I felt so connected to the instrument. At the time I was playing a different Strad, but this one is so special to me.”
Koh recorded other Higdon compositions on a 2006 CD, “American Works for Violin and Piano”, which also included Lou Harrison, John Adams and Carl Ruggles. Her latest CD, String Poetic (Cedille Records), with pianist Reiko Uchida, was nominated for Best Chamber Music Performance and for Best Producer of a Classical CD (Judith Sherman) at the 51st Grammy Awards earlier this year.
Koh said she was grateful to be considered by her peers and was awestruck with the large.
“For me I was incredibly honored for my first nomination,” she said. “It was very exciting for me and I was quite moved by it.”
Koh does express a little ambivalence about competition in the arts, which she said is really about creating and self-expression of the individual.
“They are all significant as an independent voice,” she said.
Koh recalled meeting Vänskä when she was just 15. She said he helped shape her as a musician and there is still a very strong connection.
“He really offered support and guidance at a time when it was very important for me,” she said. “He was influential in my life both artistically and personally.”
“It is thrilling for me to come back and work with Osmo,” she added.
Koh would go on to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the Concert Artists Guild Competition, and the Avery Fisher Career Grant. Her first recording, “Klami – Whirls, Act 1 Uuno Klami, Violin Concerto, Op. 32”, was performed with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra under conductor Osmo Vänskä.
Koh was born in Chicago to immigrant parents that lived through the Korean War. Her mothers family escaped the north as refugees. She said the only path to opportunity was through academic excellence and her mother would earn a doctoral degree and become a professor of library information science.
She said that music was not a planned path by her parents. They wanted their American born daughter to have opportunities they did not while growing up in wartime Korea.
They enjoyed going to the symphony but neither played an instrument. So Koh tried music along with ballet, figure skating, gymnastics and swimming.
“I was just horrible with gymnastics and ice skating,” she said. “I went to the local school, where the only opening was on violin because there were waiting lists for the other instruments.
“I feel fortunate that my parents started me in an art form that essentially changed and shaped my life at the time,” she added. “I can’t imagine how my life would be now without music.”
Koh went on to study violin and English literature at Oberlin College in Ohio. Then she continued study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Her studies included instruction from Bolivian violinist Jaime Laredo and Felix Galimir, a renowned violinist who found common ground with as an “outsider” in terms of race but also as musicians from non-musical families.
Galimir had been expelled from the Vienna Philharmonic during the 1930s because he was Jewish. Even when he played, she said he was taunted and felt he never belonged.
“He is a wonderful person, who understood the sense of growing up as an outsider,” she said.
Koh said that at the time it was still unusual to see other Asian students or successful APA professional musicians. She said these instructors instilled a gift of empathy “for people on the outside looking in.” They also taught her about musicianship and to pursue beauty in her work.
“They looked at you and nurtured you and it absolutely did not matter if you had ten arms, three heads or four legs,” she said.
Koh said that it is also rare to find music that she can be completely sympathetic with, and that “The Singing Rooms” is one of these very special experiences.
As a virtuoso violinist, Koh said enjoys the repertoire, the travel, and performing with orchestras and chamber groups all over the world. Still, she said it was difficult to overcome her nonmusical roots and she didn’t even anticipate ever working full time as a musician.
“It wasn’t so cut and dry for me,” she said.
Koh said that being a musician is not all about endless practicing with the instrument, but is also about their entire outlook on the world. The arts and music are in conversation with society, and serve as its pulse or viewpoint. For Koh, music is her link to the past and the future, and she is excited to be a part of that.
“I do think that the world is changing in a good way now,” she added.
She teaches and performs concerts in schools as a Music Messenger program to expose youth to this larger philosophy and the chance to give some kids the same profound experience inspired her into music.
It is also a way to fight the stereotype that classical musicians and patrons are all about old people in tuxedos and concert halls. As the daughter of war refugees from Korea, she points to her self as proof that classical music reaches everyone.
Another reason is that Koh is concerned about the absence of a national arts platform in education. She wants her example to show students, parents and schools that music programs are not about fulfilling an arts requirement but about instilling a sense of artistic relevance in education, to validate what it can do to shape and motivate young minds and the good it will do for the community.