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A child prodigy from Glen Ellyn, Jennifer Koh was just 11 when she first performed alongside the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall as part of a youth competition.
In the decades since, she’s performed on the world’s most prestigious stages as one of the leading violinists of her generation, one who’s as comfortable with familiar virtuoso works as brand-new pieces.
On Saturday, Koh — now 47 and sporting a shock of aquamarine-blue hair — returns to Chicago for the first time since a portentous performance on March 9, 2020, with the Chicago Sinfonietta. The little-understood novel coronavirus had just begun its destructive path through the United States. Koh presciently prolonged her stay in Chicago by a day to set her parents up with a new freezer and essentials from Costco.
That Orchestra Hall performance would be her last live concert for months.
“I got back to New York on Wednesday, [March 11]. The next morning, every half hour, every single gig was canceling,” Koh remembers.When Koh returns this week, it will be in a much more intimate setting, playing a solo recital on Saturday at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston. The appearance is personal: Koh herself attended the institute as a young violinist, taking lessons with famed husband–wife violin pedagogues Roland and Almita Vamos back when the institute was called the Music Center of the North Shore. There, she’ll perform a few of the 39 solo violin pieces she commissioned and performed during lockdown, as featured on her Grammy-winning 2021 album Alone Together.
Alone Together was released on the Chicago-based classical music label Cedille Records, which has put out nearly all of Koh’s records to date. Jim Ginsburg, Cedille’s president and founder, said Koh’s precocious debut with the Chicago Symphony left such an impression that he flew out to hear her play an engagement with the Minnesota Orchestra years later, as an adult. He promptly signed her to the label.
“The two things about Jenny [that stood out] were the interestingness of her repertoire, especially her abilities to bring out contemporary repertoire, and also her playing. It’s so from the heart,” Ginsburg said.
Those qualities unite powerfully in Alone Together, a harrowing time capsule from the bleakest days of the pandemic.
In some pieces, like Wang Lu’s “Hover and Recede,” Koh’s violin mimics the sound of ceaseless sirens — as citydwellers heard during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and during the unrest following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.
In Katherine Balch’s “Cleaning,” Koh scrubs down her violin for a minute straight, an all-too-familiar ritual back when we didn’t know much about how COVID spread.
At the end of another — David Serkin Ludwig’s “All the Rage”— she just screams.
“Sometimes it’s quite difficult [to play these pieces],” Koh says. “But at the same time, I feel like it’s important not to forget the people that passed away during that period and how we felt. It’s so easy to rewrite things that are painful, or deny they ever existed.”
Koh started her violin training at age three through a program run out of Wheaton College. Her first teacher, Jo Davis, remembers her young pupil becoming one to watch early on. Later, after Koh began studying at the Music Institute, Davis helped drive her to lessons.
“She just took it all in. She had such an ability to learn and a beautiful tone,” Davis recalls.
For Koh, music was a solace. Growing up Asian American in Glen Ellyn in the 1980s was “rough,” she says. Koh’s mother, who now lives in her apartment building in New York, is a former Dominican University professor and war refugee from North Korea; her father, who grew up in Seoul and passed away earlier this year, owned a cleaning business. The suburb was much more rural then — Koh remembers corner produce stands that operated on the honor system, with unsupervised cashboxes. The Kohs were one of the few, if only, families of color for miles. Violin became her ticket out.
Koh credits her parents for the grit with which she approached the instrument.
“My father’s personality was very different from my mom’s. But both were honed for survival in some way,” Koh says.
That survival gene kicked into high gear during the pandemic. Like so many musicians, Koh’s livelihood vanished overnight; she signed up for food stamps. The virus, especially rampant in New York, left her terrified to leave her apartment. Unlike many musicians, however, Koh knew she had the privilege of a platform.
“This is way harder for the younger generation … I remembered how hard it was financially, just getting out of school, then put a pandemic on top of it,” Koh says. “I realized I had to do something.”
Koh asked 21 composers with steady incomes — many of whom were on faculty at universities or held salaried arts positions — write her a short piece for solo violin, which she premiered in live-streamed performances from her apartment. The twist: The contributing composers would donate their commissioning fee to a less-established colleague who needed work. (Through a fundraising campaign organized by Koh’s nonprofit, Arco Collaborative, all the commissioned composers were ultimately reimbursed),
New York-based composer Missy Mazzoli was among the donating composers — local audiences might recognize her as the composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony from 2018 to 2021. Mazzoli also wrote a violin concerto for Koh called “Procession,” which Koh is currently performing across the country. The two plan to tour together as a duo next year, with Mazzoli playing electronics, piano and keyboard. But Mazzoli will always credit Koh as someone who trusted her when she was a young composer, back in 2009.
“I was 28, and it was really one of my first massive commissions. She was like, ‘I don’t want this to be scary, but I thought you could write a piece based on the Bach Chaconne,’” Mazzoli recalls, referring to the monumental, oft-excerpted movement from Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin. “She was asking me to write my first solo violin piece based on the most famous solo violin piece that’s ever been written!”
The piece Mazzoli wrote for Koh, “Dissolve, O My Heart,”was later included on the first of a three-album trilogy called Bach and Beyond, also released on Cedille. Koh’s upcoming recital at the Music Institute of Chicago follows a similar formula as those albums, juxtaposing Bach’s sonatas and partitas with contemporary pieces for solo violin. The sonatas and partitas, which Bach completed in 1720, are prized by classical violinists everywhere for their technical demands and intricacy.More than that, they’re an epic emotional journey: The six pieces wind through stormy seas — like those in the D minor Partita, with its famous Chaconne — to anchor in the dazzlingly sunny key of E major, in the third and final Partita.
Koh has been playing solo Bach as long as she’s been performing — so, nearly her entire life. But the pandemic shifted her entire perspective on the works, 300 years after Bach wrote them. The sonatas and partitas might be the oldest pieces on her recital program, but Koh hears them as the music which most looks to the future — that is, our future.
“I’d always thought of the partitas as this kind of solitary path that we make ourselves. After the pandemic, it became more about the shared experience of being alone. And how do we find that joy afterwards?” she says. “To go through the course of your life with all of these struggles and to reach a point of joy, I think, is remarkable.”
Hannah Edgar is a Chicago-based culture writer. Their work appears regularly in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Musical America and Downbeat.
If you go: Jennifer Koh performs Saturday at the Music Institute of Chicago in Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston. Tickets are $30 to 60 and free for Music Institute students and faculty.