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Violinist Jennifer Koh engages Beethoven via modern music

juergen frank

A few years ago, Jennifer Koh's mother became seriously ill, and for a time could speak to her daughter only in Korean. Koh, a violinist, was born in Illinois, and though she could understand Korean, she couldn't really speak it. It was disturbing, and Koh remembered thinking, "I've lost this culture in one generation," she said in a recent interview.

Her mother recovered. But for Koh — recently named 2016 Instrumentalist of the Year by Musical America — the incident prompted a period of soul-searching about identity, culture, and the role those forces play in shaping a musician's approach. The fruit of that inquiry is "Bridge to Beethoven," a series of concerts mixing Beethoven's violin sonatas with newly commissioned works by composers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. She brings the project to the Longy School's Pickman Hall on Wednesday, courtesy of the Celebrity Series, where she and pianist Shai Wosner will play Beethoven's first sonata (Op. 12, No. 1) and "Kreutzer" Sonata (Op. 47) alongside "Bridgetower Fantasy," written for the project by composer and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer.


In 2012, about a year after her mother's illness, Koh received a grant from the Asian Cultural Council to study traditional shamanistic music in Korea. Perhaps a visit to the land of her ancestry and immersion in its artistic traditions would induce some revelation.

It did — just not the one she expected. "I remember being there and listening to the music — all I could think was, this kind of sounds like Lou Harrison," she said by phone from San Francisco, referring to the California composer known for creatively adapting Asian idioms. "And I realized that my entire context is Western classical music. And I came out of this trip with the realization that this is who I am."

And yet, she wasn't always made to feel welcome in her chosen milieu. After the trip, Koh decided it was time to tackle the Beethoven sonatas, a rite of passage for virtually every violinist. A crucial element was the fact that she and Wosner had been playing together for seven or eight years, and she felt that their partnership was ready for the challenge.


But when she told people about her plans, she recalled, they would tell her it was a terrible idea — that "nobody thinks of you as a Beethoven player." Taking umbrage, Koh would reply, "If I was a German violinist, I'm pretty damn sure you would say this was a great idea."

Her interlocutors, Koh said, admitted that she was probably right. "But they still thought it was a bad idea."

"Bridge to Beethoven" represents Koh staking her claim to one of Western music's great edifices, and it allows her to approach Beethoven through the lens of new music, which is often how she forms her own relationship to music of the past. During an interview, she described never quite understanding the Sibelius Violin Concerto, played as it often was as a Romantic warhorse. Then she began working on Kaija Saariaho's concerto "Graal theatre," and, in doing so, recognized the Sibelius's radical, forward-looking aspects. Suddenly, it made perfect sense.

Equally important to Koh about "Bridge to Beethoven" is that the participating composers are of culturally diverse backgrounds; they include Iyer (Indian-American), Anthony Cheung (Chinese-American), and Andrew Norman (American). She commissioned works from all three, and is also playing a piece by the German composer Jörg Widmann.


Iyer's "Bridgetower Fantasy" itself embodies similar ideas. Its inspiration is George Bridgetower, an Afro-European violinist to whom Beethoven originally dedicated the Op. 47 Sonata, calling him "the mulatto Brischdauernote: this is a German rendering of Bridgetower's name.." (Composer and performer had a falling out after the premiere, and Beethoven revoked the dedication.)

Iyer, in a program note, calls the piece "a series of imaginings" about Bridgetower, interweaving themes recognizably derived from the sonata with West African rhythms. The second movement is completely improvised by the two musicians. "Vijay gave us certain parameters, certain intervals that are important in the sonata," Koh explained, "but he gives us the freedom to use them any way we want."

When she first saw that movement, Koh panicked, having never improvised at that length. She just needed two words, she told Iyer, to get an expressive starting point. "And I remember he used the words 'strength' and 'vulnerability.' And I said, Oh, OKokay. Now I understand."

Of course, since Koh's aim is to loosen a particular tradition to let other viewpoints in, it makes sense that her own habits and practices would be shaken up along the way. "What I like about Vijay's work is that it's always about pushing the expression, and how can you make something meaningful through those expressive tools? How can you stretch the parameters of what these instruments are, and what a musical work is? I think that's really important."


Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner: Bridge to Beethoven

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music of Bard College, Wednesday at 8 p.m. Tickets$40. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidg