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In performance: Jennifer Koh

Web-only review:

Koh opens Adams "Perspectives" series at Kennedy Center
by Robert Battey

Carving out a niche in today's hotly competitive world of concert violinists is a gamble. Do you trade on your looks? Do crossover? Specialize in a period or genre? Play the classics in an iconoclastic, nose-thumbing way? Jennifer Koh's challenging program at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Sunday evening presented an artist of uncommon range and conviction, one who seeks to give her audience an organic experience rather than a string of pleasing, unrelated pieces.
(read more after the jump)

She began with the Bach Partita in E, then followed it with two other unaccompanied works that paid explicit homage, the Ysaÿe Sonata No. 2 and a work by Esa-Pekka Salonen from 2002, "Lachen Verlernt." Upon finishing the Partita, Koh segued immediately into the Ysaÿe, which begins with a direct quote from the opening of the Partita, thus sounding like she decided to start all over again. When things then took a violent left turn, it was an electric moment. Next, the Salonen was played to a video "visual interpretation" by Tal Rosner, projected behind the artist. The computer-generated images - moving lines during gentle passages, jumping finger paint in frenetic ones -- detracted rather than added. This attractive, finely wrought piece would have been better served had we been able to concentrate on it.

Joined by the nimble pianist Thomas Sauer, Koh then offered two American works, John Adams's "Road Movies" (premiered here 15 years ago) and Lou Harrison's "Grand Duo" (1988). The two works shared many traits, for better and worse. While Harrison's ambitious opus reached back farther and wider for its influences, Adams's piece was the more vital of the two; he certainly better understood when he'd gone on long enough. What both works lacked, though, is the kind of phrase-by-phrase development that used to characterize "classical" music, now replaced by endless, jazzy tapestries of rhythms with little variation in dynamics or texture. If your attention wanders for a few minutes, you realize you haven't actually missed anything.

Koh is a confident, highly physical player. She seemed most in her element in the wildest, jazziest licks; her hair-trigger coordination in the last movement of the Adams and the variation movement from the Ysaÿe was dazzling. Achieving simple beauty, though, was more elusive. In Bach, the sound could be pinched or uninteresting, and the two slow movements from the Harrison failed to bloom or sing naturally. Still, kudos for an engrossing evening.

--Robert Battey

The John Adams: Perspectives residency continues with concerts by the NSO on May 13 and May 20.

By Anne Midgette  |  May 11, 2010; 6:10 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Next: In performance: WCO's "Cenerentola"


My problem with the Jennifer Koh's performance was her onstage comments which I could not hear. I knew the order had changed but had no idea what came when. And what is an "octavator" that Thomas Sauer used? Google could not help me unless that little block was really plastic tubes used by kids.

Posted by: TMunsterman | May 11, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

I was completely engrossed by the Bach -- Ms Koh's interpretation was incredibly subtle and sensitive. It moved me to tears. I enjoyed the contrasts between the quieter moments and the rip-roaring Adams! Overall, I found this concert to be incredibly eye-opening and exciting!

Posted by: lpeterson1 | May 11, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

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