Review: Jennifer Koh Gives an Emotional Performance of Bach and Beyond and Alone Together

In a compelling display of virtuosity and emotion on Saturday night, violinist Jennifer Koh gave a solo, homecoming performance at Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston. The program included three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin that Koh recorded in Bach and Beyond, a three-volume release on Cedille Records. She also performed several short pieces from her Grammy Award winning recording, Alone Together.

Throughout most of the concert Koh nailed it with near perfect performances. She showed great virtuosity and a deep respect for Bach by honoring the repeats that many performers skip. However, toward the end, while playing my favorite work by Bach, she got very sad, and her emotions got in the way of the performance. While good, it wasn’t the best, and the emotions did not make up for it.

An Alumna of MIC, Koh clearly felt at home. Her entrance to the stage created quite a stir, with her hair dyed a bright teal blue, matching her floor-length, patterned gown. Her stage presence was commanding.

In these works, what Bach accomplished on a four-stringed instrument is astounding, especially given that only two notes can be sustained at once. He called for the player to create several counterpoint melodies that move forward simultaneously, starting phrases on three or four strings and continuing with double stops. The six sonatas and partitas have an enormous variety of moods and feelings. Reproducing this maelstrom of sound on a small instrument is something that only the most accomplished of violinists can manage.

Jennifer Koh performing in Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.

Once onstage, Koh quickly broke into the opening Adagio of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in g-minor, giving full attention to the counterpoint. The fugue that followed was even more passionate. She showed a remarkable ability to shadow the music, first playing it loudly and then repeating it softly. In the third movement, Siciliana, Bach shifts to the relative major key of B-flat, and Koh’s playing eased up accordingly. Back to g-minor in the presto finale, the music just flowed out of Koh’s violin.

The next work, Sonata No. 3 in C-major, is demanding for performers and listeners alike. Its great length and intensity taxes the sensations, starting right from the beginning with the Adagio. To many composers, C-major is a light and sunny key, but not to Bach. Koh applied the right touch to the delicate notes that open the work, and carefully drew out the multiple melodies as everything intensified.

A sign of a great performance is an artist illuminating aspects that had previously been hidden, and that’s what Koh did in the 10-minute fugue that comprises the second movement, which is also the second longest movement in these solo works. Koh started out calmly and carefully, applying more force as the intensity grew. Koh’s performance illustrated the thematic deviations Bach put into music, for example, the way he started the second half.  

Jennifer Koh at the Grammys.

After intermission, Koh turned to several pieces from her Grammy Award winning release, Alone Together. In response to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions that stopped public music making and required everyone to isolate at home, Koh reached out to several composers to provide short pieces memorializing their experiences at the start of the pandemic. As a result, 39 composers appear on a double CD; with a total time of 97:12 minutes, each piece averaged slightly over two minutes.  

The seven pieces Koh performed from Alone Together allowed her to explore the full range of the violin. The first work, Ellen Reid’s Brick Red Mood, was bit surprising because it starts same way as the Bach partita that was next on the program. Tonia Ko’s The Fragile Season called for pizzicato plucking and quite bowing on the bridge. Missy Mazzoli’s Hail, Horrors, Hail has three-part phrases that started and ended the same way. Koh captured the different feelings that came forth. Koh ended with Kati Agócs Thirst and Quenching, which also ends Alone Together.

Closing the concert was Bach’s Partita No. 2 in d-minor, my favorite. Koh approached the opening Alemanda with a lovely fluidity, but she brushed over some notes in the Corrente. The Sarabande was warm, and the many themes came through well. She played the Gigue a bit slower than usual. Her long pause afterwards led many in the audience to think she was finished, and they applauded.

But she wasn’t finished. Instead, it was an emotional moment when she teared up and said that the work reminded her of her father. She soon started the Chaconne, the longest movement of these pieces and most incredible creation from Bach’s quill. A chaconne is a musical form that starts with a brief theme that gets repeated many times in different guises. In this case, Bach found 64 imaginative ways to repeat this musical phrase.

Unfortunately, there were several instances where Koh slid over the notes, which did not resonate well. This was especially apparent in the three repeated A-notes that mark a climax in the lengthy section in D-major. As much as I wanted to share in Koh’s sadness, the performance was disappointing. That said, aside from the final work, the concert was great. Kudos to Jennifer Koh.

Jennifer Koh’s Bach and Beyond and Alone Together on Cedille Records may be purchased here. Up next at Music Institute of Chicago is faculty member Matthew Hagle doing Ripples in Time. The program, which includes music by Adams, Debussy, Chopin, and Liszt, is built off of  Bach’s famous Prelude in C-major. For more information, click here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.