From Ligeti to pop-up concerts and tackling societal issues with concertos – an interview with Jennifer Koh


In Porvoo, Finland, the American violinist Jennifer Koh is getting ready for her series of concerts at the XXXIV Avanti! Summer Sounds festival, including a performance of György Ligeti’s Conceto for Violin and Orchestra (1990-92), as well as a post-concert lounge and some pop-up concerts at various cafes, featuring the pieces by Andrew Norman, Missy Mazzoli and J. S. Bach.

The Ligeti concerto is one the key pieces of the latter half of the 20th century, a towering masterpiece with its extreme musical demands. For Koh too, learning the concerto was a unique venture.      

”The initial learning process was like trying to crawl up a wall. I would work maybe four hours on the first page, and then the next day I would come back and it was like I had spend no time looking at it before. So, it was long process. It doesn’t usually take me this much time to learn most stuff, but this was a solid four weeks of minimum five hours a day.

There was  a lot to absorb, because it is very dense, and you need to find the keys. So it is almost like unlocking the doors. Finding those keys just took a while, it was like looking under a whole stack of hey, or something. But once I had found those keys, then it was fine. At this point, I feel that I understand those distillations of things.  But to reach that kind of musical and emotional journey, in the end, that is the most important thing, for me at least.”

Alongside the demanding solo part, there is equally dense and tricky writing for the ensemble in the concerto too. Koh has high praise for her colleagues in the Avanti! chamber orchestra.

”They have to practice their individual parts so much! Everybody have to be completely committed, because it is not something where you can come to the first rehearsal and open it and be like ’what is this?’. I appreciate here with the ensemble the amount of commitment, time and dedication they’ve put into this piece, because it takes a lot, and nobody can sit back and not pay attention. Everybody has to be incredibly focused. So it is a really pleasure to make music here with them.”

Alongside the cadenza printed in the score, devised by Ligeti with Saschko Gawriloff, there are alternative cadenzas written by Thomas Adès and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, among others.  Koh performs the Ligeti concerto with a cadenza written for her by John Zorn.

”John is a composer of extremes, but so is Ligeti. Once we had done it, we sent the music and a recording to Ligeti and got his approval. This was only a few months before he passed away.”

For Koh, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra holds a special place in the Ligeti oeuvre.

”It is late Ligeti, unlike the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1985-88), which still belongs to his middle period, I think. And there’s always that special things with composers and their late works, I find that also in Lutosławswki and Schumann and Beethoven, for that matter. In the late works, the composers often take a look at their younger selves, as Ligeti does. Some of the material in the Concerto is so simple and bare, like the opening of the second movement. And that goes back to the early pieces, but with all the knowlege of later years.”

Alongside the tehnical demands with Ligeti, there has been some extra-musical challenges too along the way.  A couple of years back, she toured with the Philip Glass Ensemble, performing the solo violin part in the iconic Glass and Robert Wilson collaboration, Einstein on the Beach (1975-76).

For the soloist, the performances also included a physical transformation into the opera’s title character.

”That took an hour every time. And it was also painful, because they had to glue the wig ant the moustache, so by the end of a run the entire part above my lip and under my nose was just raw. Frankly, I don’t understand how people eat with moustaches, I don’t know how it is possible! I would drink something and then everything would get stuck, and the makeup people would be frantically try to pull food out of the moustache.”

In Porvoo, Koh also plays a series of pop-up concerts in three of the cafes of the idyllic Old Town.

”I love playing outside the concert hall, in art galleries and in various small spaces. When you look back, historically even, chamber music wasn’t meant to be played in a concert hall, it was meant to be played in a living room. Even the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, they were never publicly performed, I don’t think they were ever commissioned.”

In the three pop-up concerts ahead on Saturday, Koh mixes Bach with pieces written for her by Missy Mazzoli.

”I hope people will join us for the whole journey from one cafe to the next. I wouldn’t normally split pieces, but this time I’ll start with the Bach Chaconne, followed by Missy’s Dissolve, O My Heart (2010), that will be the first set. Later there will be more Bach and another piece by Missy, Kinski Paganini (2016).

Bach performed in cafes and Beethoven played in the pubs, so I don’t think they had any pretenses, either. I think music is for the people. And my experience with audiences who have never heard classical music, Beethoven or Brahms or even Wagner, is that they feel much more immediate connection to things that have been written recently. These new works are really like either the umbilical chord or some string thread that connects us to the past, and through this music of today, that’s how they can find the path to the older concert music.

And also the whole ’don’t clap between the movements’, that’s a recent thing with the rise of the bourgeoisie. I don’t believe in that either, I mean, clap whenever you want.”

On disc, Koh’s latest relase features the music of Kaija Saariaho, including the chamber orchestra version of  her violin concerto Graal théâtre (1994/1997)

”I love that piece! It is interesting, a lot of the pieces on that album, like Cloud Trio (2009) or Light and Matter (2014) is much more recent, but Graal still doesn’t sound, oh, early, it is such full-bodied work. Graal is much more fierce, at least for me, compared to the delicacy of Tocar (2010), for example, it is just such a huge contrast.”

When asked the unfair question of favourite concertos, Koh comes up with a fascinating sum-up, both musically and societally.

”It is whatever I play at the moment. Right now, I am so obsessed with Ligeti, but of course I love Kaija’s concerto. It did Esa-Pekka (Salonen)’s recently, as well, actually with Santtu-Matias Rouvali in Gothenburg, and I’m looking forward to doing it again with Edo de Waart. I really enjoy working with him quite a bit, he is very very serious musician, which I always appreciate. That will be very nice experience

And then I am doing world premieres as a part of The New American Concerto project. The next one will be by Courtney Bryan. I created this project because I wanted to create a space to hear voices that are not currently recognized as American, and that includes women and the people of colour.

So this entire project is in order to bring out the voices of those that are not heard, not only in classical music, but not heard in general in America. So that’s become a very important mission for me. For me, it is the most effective way to fight back against what has happened in the United States right now.

Every single concerto is around a different social issue directly relevant to what is happening right now. The first concerto was by Vijay Iyer called Trouble (2017). The third movement is dedicated to the Chinese-American man, Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in Detroit in the 80s, because they thought he was Japanese and stealing their jobs. And the last movement is called Assembly, so that all people can come together to make a change.

As for the Courtney Bryan concerto, each movement is being written in celebration of different a female artist of colour, starting with Maya Lin, who did the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D. C., and was the first Asian-American ever to be commissioned a work of art.

Lisa Bielawa is writing her concerto around the idea of sanctuary, and the use of that word for women, and how that’s transformed. Because sanctuary used to symbolize the home, and as society changes, there are things as domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape, so the idea sanctuary has really shifted, and the use of that word for women has really shifted over time.

Missy’s concerto will explore will explore the ’ten steps to fascism’, the process of reaching fascism, which unfortunately is affecting the most of the world and not just the US. So every single concerto is engaging with a societal concerns the composer and I both share. That’s an ongoing process.”

As a commentary to the ongoing discussion on refugees and immigration, Koh points out that a lot of the innovation that is happening right now in the US is because of immigrants, who have founded many of the key technology companies of the day. She also has a more personal take on the matter.

”My mother came to the US as a North Korean refugee. She worked first as a nanny, taking care of a six-children family. Then she got her PhD in three years, and became a professor. So you also see this incredible determination to survive and to do it well, and what she has added to society because of that; the thousands of students she taught. This is what refugees and immigrants can offer to society.”

© Jari Kallio

Photo ©  Jürgen Frank

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