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Violinist Jennifer Koh

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Rob Brown: This is WMHT, I'm Rob Brown, the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle is celebrating after a couple of COVID-related delays, finally celebrating their 70th anniversary with a gala concert featuring Grammy-winning violinist, Jennifer Koh, Saturday at four at the Aston Dairy Barns in Rhinebeck. Jennifer Koh joins me now. Thank you. How are you?

Jennifer Koh: Hi, I'm okay. How about you? 

RB: I'm doing well. Thank you. You have a close tie to the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle through the artistic director, Jamie Laredo. Tell us about that and the Two x Four project.

JK: Oh, well, Jamie has, well, first of all, he was my teacher and I feel like he continues to be my teacher mentor, although he keeps telling me I'm no longer his student, but I would love to stay Jamie's student forever. But I'm really looking forward to doing this benefit and meeting all of the supporters, of course, of the series and having the chance to play some Bach for them and some Missy Mazzoli as well.

RB: And the Two x Four, you recorded music with Jamie Laredo?

JK: Yes, Two x Four is a project that was with Jamie and they were about doing double concertity for two violins and a kind of passing of performance tradition and as well as kind of this idea of mentorship. So, of course, Jamie was my teacher at Curtis at the time. And then it was my generation and then we were playing with Curtis Orchestra, which was kind of the next generation. And that's on the recording with Sadie Records, so it has the Bach double concertity piece by Philip Glass and two new commissions by David Ludwig and Anna Klein, which ended up being very, very beautiful pieces.

So that project was really, I felt like a beautiful musical way of me trying to thank Jamie, but also a wonderful way to kind of celebrate this idea of mentorship and the passing of performance tradition from between generations.

RB: It's so important in classical music. I mean, from the very beginning, it's a wonderful idea.

JK: Thank you.

RB: Saturday at four at the Aston Dairy Barns, the Gallup Performance with Jennifer Koh for the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle. Tell me about the program on Saturday. You already mentioned music of Bach and Missy Mazzoli.

JK: I think those are the only pieces I'm playing. But the piece by Missy Mazzoli is called Dissolve Oh My Heart. It's the first piece that she wrote for me many years ago, which I asked her to create and write a piece that would come after the Bach D minor Partita, which has the chaconne, of course. So what I'll be playing at their gala and benefit is the Bach chaconne.

This piece by Missy called Dissolve Oh My Heart. It was only later that she now that we've been friends for so long and she's written a number of works for me, including a violin concerto last year. Then she told me how intimidating it was for me to have asked her to write a piece that would go after the chaconne. Since that's such a great piece of music and also a huge work to place another piece after. But I think her piece really does it beautifully.

The chaconne is in three major sections of minor, major, minor, and each section ends with just a D. So we don't know if it's minor major and then it transitions into these other sections. Then what's really remarkable to me about the chaconne is it just ends on an open D so it's up to the listener to decide. Is it a major chord? Are we going to towards the light or is it a minor chord? Are we going back to kind of darker times? Missy's piece really plays with that idea.

So if we hear it's like, Oh, is this minor? Wait, is it major? It's so it's a kind of questioning and exploration of this huge kind of arc of the chaconne. She really takes the piece into its own direction, really, really, really beautifully, I think.

RB: That sounds amazing. Do you find that you approach the performance of a new work like this versus the music of Bach differently?

JK: No, I think every composer has their own character distinctive voice that as a performer that I become immersed in.
I almost think of it as a kind of total immersion. So when I learn a work by composer, whether they're from 300 years ago, or 100 years ago, or yesterday, I really.
Listen and study all of their work, not just violin work, not.
So I don't limit it. And that's the same whether it's Bach or whether it's Missy Mazzoli.

RB: I love origin stories. How did you get started playing violin and when did you know that you could and wanted to do this for a career?

JK: I am incredibly lucky. Well, my parents, first of all, were refugees during the Korean War. So when they came to America, they gave me, I think, every opportunity that they never had, because they were young children during the war. At an age when they didn't even have consistent schooling because there was a war raging around them and they were literally on foot.
At that age, they gave me offered me violin lessons and ballet and ice skating and gymnastics and rhythmic gymnastics, diving, swimming, and everything, but I was lucky enough to have a remarkable first violin teacher when I started at three years old.

Mrs. Davis, I was just, we just went out to Arizona to celebrate her 90th birthday, which is remarkable. So I went out to celebrate with her and her family. And what I realized when I was out there because I've known her children and grandchildren ever since I was a kid. I realized it is true because she's been a huge, important part of my life and was always present since I was three years old. So I guess it is natural.

I was so lucky to study with her because she told my parents I had some talent because I don't come from a family of musicians. She found the next teachers, she told my parents, oh, I've taught her everything I know. She found my next teachers for me. She drove me and came to every single lesson for a year that I had with the new teachers and she would actually practice with me in the week to make sure that I kind of understood and learned everything.

I had recently moved my parents to New York. So we were, they had been living in their home for, I don't know, like 40 years or something like that. So, of course, in the basement, I found all of these audio tapes, video, video tapes, and I had everything kind of converted. And I found this recording, a video recording. And at first, I was like, who is this person? They sound terrible. Then I was like, oh my God, that's me when I was young. zit was before, you know, and I was like, oh my God, Mrs. Davis had such faith in me because I sounded horrible.
I can't believe she thought I was talented at that age. So I actually asked her about that. And she said, no, no, it's different because I was like, I found this recording and it was not good.
And she said, no, no, it was different because I interacted with you and I saw you and I heard you ever, every week. And I was like, I guess I'm going to believe you on that. But thank you for having faith in me.

So that's how I started the violin. That's why I continued studying. And then everything for me, I've been fortunate enough to have mentors every step of the way. Jamie is one of those mentors and they truly changed the course of my life. I would not be a violinist. I would not be a musician at all had it not been for them.

It also taught me the great importance every single action we take is and the impact that our actions can make on the over the course of somebody's entire life. Because my teachers supported me and advocated for me and helped me and guided me and advised me, that's the only reason I'm here today as a musician.

So I feel like, you know, I can never repay them for everything they gave me. And the only way to kind of repay them is to do the same for others. So I'm forever grateful, not only to Jamie, but also my very first violin teacher, Mrs. Davis, Mrs. Jo Davis. And it's her 90th birthday year this year. So I hope everybody can celebrate as well.

RB: Lots of celebrations. That is amazing. See Jennifer Koh in performance Saturday at four at the Aston Dairy Barns in Rhinebeck, Gala and Performance for the Hudson Valley Chamber Music Circle. For all of the information, Jennifer Koh, thank you so much.

JK: Thank you. Thank you so much.