Jennifer Koh, violin, Works by Berio, Harbison, and J. S. Bach, Heritage Hall, March 12, 2015.

It is a particularly exciting event to have violinist Jennifer Koh bring her much-praised “Bach and Beyond’ concept to Vancouver’s Music on Main concert series. This is the artist’s third installment of the idea to set very innovative contemporary works in a common context with the landmark violin compositions of J. S. Bach. Bach and Beyond I has already been recorded on Cedille. The violinist has always been known for her virtuoso brilliance and precision, and her ability to take on the most demanding ultra-modern compositions, such as Ligeti’s Violin Concerto.

Jennifer Koh was the top medalist in the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition and received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1995. In 2012, she was a featured performer in the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson opera Einstein on the Beach. She has performed with virtually all major North American symphony orchestras and in Europe, and in fact appeared here about a decade ago as a soloist in the Vancouver Recital Society’s Summer Chamber Music Festival.

Bach and Beyond III extends the concept of inter-genre juxtaposition by featuring two of Bach’s unaccompanied violin sonatas, No. 2 (BWV 1003) and 3 (BWV 1005) between Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII and the American composer John Harbison’s For Violin Alone (2014). This is the Canadian premiere of the latter.

The Berio is one of fourteen works with the title Sequenza, written for a wide variety of solo instruments, perhaps to highlight the uniquely incomparable quality of each. Extended techniques are a standard request from Berio each time, and Koh clearly tackles the composer’s demands with intensity and passion. Structured around two notes (A and B), Berio’s love affair with the violin encompasses gradually more expansive gestures, always returning to these anchoring notes, much as a ground bass is used in a chaconne. This allows a strong integration to preceding materials, the violinist being able to hint at a Baroque foundation at the same time.

John Harris Harbison (b.1938) is an American composer well known for his larger orchestral works. Given his interesting mandate to make each of his compositions as unique as possible relative to its predecessors, it is easy to see where the recent inspiration for For Violin Alone could have come from. Written expressly for Koh and this project, it is a highly structured piece of virtuoso writing that suits Koh’s playing style perfectly. In fact, both of these modern pieces are exactly what Jennifer Koh excels at. 

How does Koh’s passion and intensity mesh with the Bach? The 2nd sonata in A has a fugue in three voices for its second movement, vibrant in character, and this was very well delineated by Koh. However, it seems that it is in the sections where a single voice is exposed that the violinist’s emotional connection with the materials is greatest. From a musical standpoint, the highlight of the night was the 3rd sonata in in C major: a truly demanding work of contrapuntal beauty. Koh did respond variably to some parts of this but I thought she brought admirable energy and vibrancy to both its central fugue and culminating allegro. Bach and contrapuntal writing are almost synonymous, and the myriad ways that Bach was capable of writing counterpoint make it very difficult to believe this was the work of only one man. The second movement’s fugue is a truly one of the most beautiful compositions ever written for the violin.

Bravo to Music on Main for bringing us both a distinguished violinist and innovative musical programming.

© Kate Mackin 2015

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