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Laurie Niles interview with Jennifer Koh

July 1, 2010 at 5:50 PM

Sometimes music helps us connect with feelings we don't even know we have.

This is an idea that violinist Jennifer Koh has embraced, both in performance and in life.

Take, for example, the piece "Lachen Verlernt," ("Laughter Unlearnt") by Esa-Pekka Salonen, from Jennifer's most recent recording, Rhapsodic Musings.

"The inspiration for the piece came from Pierrot Lunaire, from the one poem where the speaker is begging Pierrot to remind her how to laugh again, how to feel again, how to connect," Jennifer said. "It served as many metaphors for me: how a performer tries to communicate and reach an audience, and also how music helps us reconnect with emotions we didn't realize we had, or emotions that are long-forgotten."

Jennifer has played with major symphonies the world over since winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994 and Avery Fischer Career Grant in 1995. She plays the 1727 Ex Grumiaux Ex General DuPont Strad, on loan from a private patron, and these days her projects often evolve from personal inspiration. Her feelings following September 11, 2001, inspired "Rhapsodic Musings," featuring music written in tribute and in memorium; music written just before and just after that fateful day: Elliott Carter's "Four Lauds;" Augusta Read Thomas's "Pulsar"; and John Zorn's "Goetia," written for Jennifer. On the CD is also a video, if you pop it into your computer. Salonen's piece is depicted in a video by Tal Rosner, as lines intersecting – imagine strings with a bow, or a child's pick-up-sticks. It's simple and abstract, almost like vintage computer animation, yet mesmerizing in its movement and direction, which so closely resembles the music.

An upcoming project speaks to Jennifer's Korean heritage and the emotional legacy of her parents, who were war survivors. Jennifer will premiere a piece called "Mugunghwa: Rose of Sharon" by composer Mark Grey next March with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

"About three years ago in the fall, my mother got sick," Jennifer said. "I'm an only child, so it was very difficult. I realized, when my mom was sick, she was only speaking Korean, and I don't really speak Korean. It was really difficult, but it made me want to explore more about that part of my heritage, my culture. So I started to do a lot of research into the cultural history of Korea, and into our family's history. Then I started going into the direction of Korean literature."

"Before that, Mark and I had met, and we were thinking about a project to do, and I realized, the more he and I were speaking, that I wanted it to be about a kind of Korean-American experience," Jennifer said. Jennifer was born in America and grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. "When I was growing up, I had a huge disconnect -- I didn't really identify as a Korean. I identified, at most, as an Asian-American. I realized how I had always filtered different experiences in my life through art, through literature; or through music, through opera. And I didn't really have Korean-American music. I didn't really have that kind of voice to identify with. So I wanted to create a piece based on that."

"My mother's family is originally from North Korea, and they literally walked down the entire peninsula of Korea over the course of three years, during the Korean War," Jennifer said. "I wanted to explore further, to understand who (my mother) is, and who she is because of her experience. The more I explored it, the more I realized that it affected not only my generation, but also those who are a little older and a little younger. An entire nation had gone through this war. Every once in a while, Americans are reminded that, yes, Korea's still essentially at war, between North and South."

"So I wanted to use music as a way to creatively understand my mother's experience," Jennifer said. During her mother's early years as a refugee, "It was such a difficult time, it was all about survival. There was no room to think, 'How am I feeling?' It almost becomes the next generation's job to think, how did my mom actually experience this, and how could she have felt when she was five, and people were shot in front of her all the time? Even when I say it out loud, it's shocking for me, to think of what my mother went through – and how lucky I am. It's not something that we think about every day."

Because of her hardships, "I was able to be born here and study the violin, and now I can't imagine my life being any different," Jennifer said. "So it's been a very interesting process for me, and I hope that it's an interesting process for the audience. My hope for the piece is that it gives voice for Korean Americans."

Another project that grew from her desire to connect with history – to link the old and the new – is a series of recitals called "Bach and Beyond."

"It's interesting, because out of each step comes the next project," Jennifer said. "Out the 'Rhapsodic Musings' CD, I came up with the 'Bach and Beyond' project. It's a three-part project, spreading over six years, and each part goes over two seasons. 'Bach and Beyond, Part 1' includes the E major Partita by Bach and the second sonata by Ysaye, which includes part of the (Bach's) E major (Partita) in it, but then it also goes in to the Dies Irae, which is motivic material that goes throughout the sonata. The Dies Irae, as we know, is usually equated with death – the death mass. In that sense, I wanted it to come from light to dark. So then I go into (Elliott Carter's) 'Fantasy – Remembering Roger (Sessions)' and and 'Nocturne' by Kaija Saariaho, which is written in memory of Lutoslawski, she wrote it in the months after he passed away; he was a large influence on her life. Then I moved into Esa-Pekka's 'Lachen Verlernt,' which is based on a chaconne, which gets into the second half of the program which is the D minor Partita (by Bach – which includes the great Chaconne). In a sense, it's kind of the struggle from dark into light. The D minor Partita, which closes the program, is about moving into the light. It's an amazing journey."

The next Bach and Beyond program will be based on the idea of "firsts" and include some commissions.

"I wanted to illustrate how we can connect our society today with the past," Jennifer said. "Bach was alive 325 years ago, and he's still relevant today." All the programs will have Bach at the beginning, and then Bach at the end, the idea being that Bach changes the way a person perceives the contemporary music, and the contemporary music also then has an effect on how one listens to Bach. "The connection can be just subconscious," Jennifer said. "It doesn't have to be that everybody sees it literally, because sometimes there's just a subconscious connection."

Jennifer started playing the violin at the local Suzuki school in suburban Chicago. "I think that when I was growing up, my parents wanted to offer me all the things that they never had. So they started me in ice skating, and swimming, and gymnastics, and rhythmic gymnastics and diving – and ballet, that was such a disaster! Anything that involved me moving my body in public was just not for me! But I loved swimming-- and violin."

Jennifer remains close to her first violin teacher, Jo Davis.

"She was just wonderful, I actually think that the reason I probably went into violin is because of her," Jennifer said. "She really instilled in me a love for music." When Jennifer was seven, Davis told her it was time for her to move on to another teacher, and then "she herself went out and checked out all these different teachers in the area." When Jennifer started studying with Roland and Almita Vamos, Davis "went to every single lesson with them for a year, and she actually would practice with me, to make sure I understood. So she's always been an incredible kind of force in my life."

By age 11, Jennifer had soloed with the Chicago Symphony. She studied with Jaime Laredo and Felix Galimir at the Curtis Institute, and she also studied at Oberlin – and not just music. She also earned an English degree.

"When I look back, I think that it was one of the most important things that I did," Jennifer said of her English degree. "I remember, at the end of my freshman year at Oberlin, everybody was telling me to go full-throttle into a massive career, to move to New York and to do all these things. I was lucky at the time that it was clear enough to me that I should stay in school. I really wanted to finish my English degree. It just gave me all this space to not only grow up as a person, but also as a musician."

Not only did it get her thinking about other disciplines, but it also showed her that she could step off the expected path. Following her conviction to get an English degree gave her the kind of mindset she would later need to try commissioning composers, doing solo violin recitals, doing a CD with only 21st century violin music....

"There's a greater meaning to what you're doing than just doing everything perfectly," Jennifer said. As Marcel Proust said, "the most important thing is that you carve out a path for yourself. It's not always the well-trodden path, it's not always the clearest way, it's not the easiest. It might be incredibly hard, and scary, and challenging. But I often find that the projects that fill me with the most fear are usually the most rewarding! It's worth it to take that path."

Jennifer has played on the ex-Grumiaux Strad since 1997.

"I think when you work with a violin that you really love, it becomes like another entity, another personality. Currently I play on the ex-Grumiaux Strad," Jennifer said, and the instrument still embodies the music that Arthur Grumiaux made with it. "There can be incredible moments during a concert, where you feel this incredible energy of everybody is connected in this one moment of time, and in a way, it's still captured in the instrument. It's still there."

"Violins have very strong personalities of their own. You learn a lot when you play. You also have to be malleable. It's like a conversation with another person; you can't just dominate the conversation – then it's not a conversation. So in a sense, it's like a very intimate conversation that you're having with this instrument, and sometimes in the most profound ways and the most intimately emotional ways.

"One of my teachers, Felix Galimir, passed away, and a couple years after that I saw his Strad in New York. I asked to play it, and as soon as I played, it was like Felix was right back there with me. I mean, it's incredible."

"The only thing that makes me sad is that they're not affordable for musicians any more, which they were in the past," Jennifer said. "I think the problem in the United States is that we don't have a long-term loan program for our musicians, whereas national banks, almost in every other nation, invest in instruments and loan them out because they realize that they're actually a good investment and valuable. But we don't have that in this country, and that makes it very difficult."

"It makes me sad that I don't know where Felix's Strad went. I hope it went to somebody who knew him, but you never know."


From Terez Mertes
Posted on July 1, 2010 at 6:43 PM

 What a wonderful, affecting, compelling interview to read. Just loved it. Thanks so much, Laurie and Jennifer both!

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on July 1, 2010 at 10:08 PM

This is another wonderfully insightful piece, Laurie! Only a true winner can resist all the external pressures to carve out her own path. Bravo, Jennifer!

From jack ripple
Posted on July 2, 2010 at 4:22 AM

I really enjoyed reading this insightful blog/interview - cheers!  JR

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