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High Time

Jennifer Koh’s new album showcases an eclectic career at its height.

In the competitive world of classical music, the violinist Jennifer Koh has her pick of record labels and venues. But the Glen Ellyn native remains loyal to Cedille Records, the small not-for-profit Chicago label that, this spring, releases her fifth album, String Poetic—and that, earlier this year, won a Grammy.

Containing four works by American composers, String Poetic is a portrait of the artist as a young and undaunted explorer. The title piece is a 20-minute violin-piano suite that the Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon wrote for Koh in 2006: In it, the violin part mirrors the many styles of music that the 30-year-old has surveyed in her career, from Bach to the free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. Higdon calls it “a small storybook.”

Koh, who now lives in Manhattan, studied with the legendary pedagogues Almita and Roland Vamos at the Music Center of the North Shore in Winnetka, now the multicampus Music Institute of Chicago. Early on, she showed both remarkable technical abilities and a great musicality: By 11, she had already played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  In 1992, at 15, she won the Illinois Young Performers Competition, and two years later she won the top prize—and all of the special prizes—at the international Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. She has since played with nearly every major orchestra in the United States.

On her new album, her many gifts are most fully revealed in the most cryptic work, Carl Ruggles’s six-minute Mood, assembled from decades-old sketches after the composer’s death in 1971 at 95. “For me, music exists right now, but it is always in an organic conversation with the past,” says Koh, who wrote in her program notes to the piece: “Here, to my mind, imperfection outshines perfection itself."  True enough.  But only because Koh’s own perfection is added to the mix.

 

Photography: Fran Kaufman

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