By Dennis D. Rooney
Jennifer Koh, a Chicago native and alumna of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute where she studied with Jaime Laredo and Felix Galimir, was heard in recital on two succeeding days in Palm Beach County. Her first appearance was in Boca Raton, the second at The Breakers in Palm Beach. Both events were presented under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Palm Beach.
On both occasions she displayed her mature artistry in challenging programs, opening her Boca Raton Museum recital Feb. 19 with J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 (in D minor, BWV 1004). She has frequently performed the composer’s six solo violin sonatas and partitas on a single program, and has also commissioned new works from various composers specifically intended to program with the Bach works.
Koh, 41, winner of an Avery Fisher career grant and recipient in 2016 of Musical America’s instrumentalist of the year, appeared in a royal blue gown with black highlights. She took the Bach Partita through its paces smartly. Her sound was expressive but also somewhat austere. In the Chaconne, the work’s final movement and arguably the most famous of all music for unaccompanied violin, she always preferred momentum and intensity to any hint of tonal lushness.
She followed it with Dissolve, O My Heart, by the contemporary American composer Missy Mazzoli (b. 1980), a commission in which Koh specifically requested a work that related to the Bach Partita. In the composer’s words, it begins “with the first chord of Bach’s Chaconne, a now-iconic D minor chord, and spins out from there into an off-kilter series of chords that doubles back on itself, collapses and ultimately dissolves in a torrent of fast passages. The only direct quote from the Partita is that first chord, which anchors the entire piece even as it threatens to spiral out of control.”
The title comes from an aria in Bach’s St. John Passion. In Mazzoli’s piece, one heard expanding intervals, a lot of sixths, microtones, slides and sul ponticello (near the bridge) color. The most expressive portion of it was its latter half.
Longer than the Mazzoli was Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII, one of 14 so named works for various instruments that Berio (1925-2003) composed between 1958 and 2002. Sequenza VIII is also related to Bach’s Partita in D minor. Berio calls his 1976 work “like paying a personal debt to the violin, which to me is one of the most subtle and complex of instruments.” Berio studied the violin but started at 13 and was thus too old to progress meaningfully. His strong attraction to it was, he admits, mixed with “rather tormented feelings.”
Sequenza VIII “can be listened to as a development of instrumental gestures. [It] is built around two notes (A and B), which – as in a chaconne – act as a compass in the work’s rather diversified and elaborate itinerary. [It] therefore becomes inevitably a tribute to that musical apex which is the Ciaccona from Bach’s Partita in D minor, where – historically – past, present and future violin techniques coexist.” The work is indeed a catalogue of effects as well as gestures. After often intense musical conflict, an expressive resolution comes at the end, when the violin spends the last 10 seconds playing a double stopped A–B.
Pianist Reiko Uchida made her appearance for the program’s concluding work: Ravel’s Sonata No.2, written in 1923-27. Its second movement, marked Blues, has banjo imitations, syncopations, slides and chords that reflect the composer’s exposure to American blues and jazz following World War I. The outer movements are less specific but also contain spiky rhythms.
Koh chiefly favored control over spontaneity in her account. Uchida’s piano was troubled by some reflection in either the room or the instrument that badly blurred the upper register. She also seemed to have little sympathy for this work, performing efficiently but lacking proper sound or style.