Violinist  Jennifer  Koh
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Jennifer Koh is one of a select few violinists who have risen to the top and are making their way in the competitive field of international touring soloist.  She does it all
she plays solo recitals, she appears with orchestras around the world, she makes recordings on a regular basis.  Her repertoire encompasses the standard literature as well as recent works and world premieres.  Beyond all of this, she inspires young and old alike with her style and presence both onstage and off.

More info and photos can be found on her official website, and many details of her career are included in the biography at the end of this webpage.

Now a resident of New York City, Koh is a graduate of Oberlin and Curtis.  But she was born in Chicago so I could not resist beginning the conversation with the following question . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Is it at all odd to be a guest in your hometown?

Jennifer Koh:    Oh, it’s great!  It’s really quite special to have a chance to play in your hometown!  I’m very happy to be back in Chicago.

BD:    Good, good.  Now, you’re playing at Grant Park, which is an outdoor festival, but this one will be indoors at the Harris Theater.  Is it disappointing for you not to be playing out in the band shell?

kohJK:    Well, we had a chance.  Yesterday we had rehearsal in the new outdoor venue, and that’s just a gorgeous, gorgeous, amazing, beautiful place!  So, it would have been very nice to play there, but because we’re recording this concert, we have to be indoors!

BD:    Is that the ideal way to get something onto a disc
do a live concert and then fix any tiny mistakes?

JK:    I actually enjoy it.  The last CD that I released of a concerto, the Menotti, was actually done in a similar way
from two live concerts.

BD:    That gives you enough material?

JK:    Hopefully! [Both laugh]

BD:    You’ve also done recordings in the studio?

JK:    Yes, yes.

BD:    Which do you prefer?

JK:    There’s something that’s very magical about playing live, no matter if it is recording or not recording.  There’s a special energy and a special kind of relationship with the audience that I think definitely affects the music making.

BD:    Does it please you, as young as you are, to be making a few recordings these days?

JK:    It’s great fun!  I’m having a lot of fun, and it’s been really nice to be working with Cedille Records, because it really offers a great deal of artistic control and repertoire choices and ideas, which is quite unique in the recording industry right now.

BD:    You’ve made it a point, so far, to play standard works and new works.  From this vast repertoire of violin literature, how do you decide what you will play?

JK:    I go on different kicks!  [Laughs]  It all depends on what’s inspiring me at the moment.  With this concerto that I’m playing
the Szymanowski, for exampleI was going through a huge fix of Milan Kundera, and was just reading so much about Czechoslovakia!  He also speaks a great deal about music; I think his father was a musician.  I also played with the Czech Philharmonic in their beautiful hall this year, the Dvořák Rudolfinum, and was just very inspired to do a lot of Bohemian things, I suppose.  So Szymanowski, Janáček, Martinůthese are all inspiration points.

BD:    How long has this been in the planning stage, the concert and the recording?

JK:    For a while now.  I guess we were in the talking stages for maybe nine months or a year.  We’re still deciding about future repertoire, what’s feasible, what we want to do and what we think would be exciting.

BD:    Do you know yet what else will be on the disc?

JK:    We’re still in the talking stages.

BD:    So you’ll lay this down, and then decide eventually what to put with it?

JK:    Yes.

BD:    Is that good, to let it sit in the can for a year or two before it comes out?

JK:    I think it’ll probably only be a year.  We’re definitely finishing the concerto disc next year, so it’s exciting!  I’m very excited!  And to record with a Chicago orchestra is great, too.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You were born here, but you’re of Korean descent?

JK:    Yes.

BD:    Is there ever any thought to doing works by Korean composers?

kohJK:    Actually, I’ve just found a very interesting work by a composer called Unsuk Chin, who happens to be Korean.  It’s interesting, though, because she was a student of Ligeti.  Because of that connection is how I discovered it, and then I realized she was Korean!  I just did a tour with Tan Dun, and we did his Water Passion.  That’s a very Asian influenced; he’s a very Asian influenced composer.  It was a completely new and different language for me, musically!  [Laughs]  It was very exciting and very inspiring to explore this new medium.  I’ve been totally trained in the classical tradition, so breaking into this kind of Asian music was very new for me.

BD:    Did you find that it resonated somehow in a special way?

JK:    No.  I think that there are a lot of kinds of music and a lot of composers and a lot of instruments that resonate within me.  I’m also an avid, kind of obsessive collector of historical recordings, so it’s really a matter of where you find your artistic inspiration.  That’s also something that’s very fluid, because once you discover something and you’re very excited about it, then you want to discover more.  And your process of growing and changing is always moving.  I did this tour with Tan Dun in Asia a few months ago, and that was very exciting.  Now we’re moving on to Bohemia!

BD:    Are you now hoping that he’ll write something for you?

JK:    He’s actually got a movie in the works.  He showed me the score and gave me the music, and is thinking of making it into a suite for violin and orchestra, similar to what he did from his movie score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  That was, of course, with Yo-Yo for cello and orchestra, and then he created a suite for it.  So we’ll see if he wants to do the same thing with this particular score.

BD:    When you come to a brand new score, do you ever work with the composer on it or do you wait until the composer has finished the score and then see what is on the paper?

JK:    Most often I think the best way is to wait until they’re finished with their creative process.  Most composers will change things once they hear the rehearsals or the first performances.  A couple composers don’t, but most do, actually.  There’s always a creative process.

BD:    Are you ever surprised by what composers will ask of you, the violinist?

JK:    I’ve really run the gamut in terms of different composers I’ve played with and worked with!  So I think at this point, I’m pretty much not overly surprised!  But I am always surprised, in a sense, by their uniqueness.  One of the things I find completely inspiring about working with composers is that they are so individual, and they have such a unique way of looking at the world.  It’s not only in terms of their music, but also in their personalities and who they are.  That’s always extremely fascinating for me.

BD:    When you get a piece of music, do you delve just into the music, or do you also delve into the background of the composer and his or her ideas?

JK:    Again, it’s always where your inspiration points it.  Sometimes you feel the point immediately when you look at the score.  Other times, it can be when you play different parts and sometimes when you bring everything together.  And sometimes it could be looking into the composer’s life.  It depends on the piece quite a bit.

BD:    When you’re working with a piece of music and you’re playing what the composer wants and trying to figure out everything that is there in the score, are there times when you put a little bit of yourself into it, also?

JK:    In terms of...?

BD:    ...the music, the phrasing, the ideas.

JK:    Oh, absolutely!  I think
working with composers today is so vital.  I’ve never worked with a composer that said, “Don’t feel free.”  Every single composer I’ve worked with — and I’ve worked with quite a few — have always said, “Do what you want with the music.  I wrote this music, and now do what you feel is in the music.”  It’s quite special, and I feel that when you go back to your bread-and-butter staples of the repertoire, like Beethoven and Brahms and Schumann, Schubert, Mozart, you look at it with a different perspective.

BD:    I was going to ask if you feel free with the living composers, do you feel free with the dead composers, too?

JK:    I think one should, definitely.  Different composers are very different.  For example, Beethoven is very detailed in how he marks everything, almost obsessively so; Mozart, less so.  So again, it depends on the particular composer.

BD:    Do you go behind Bach, or is that about the beginning of music for you?

JK:    I have done some exploration into Renaissance music.  For me, Bach is a great master to start with.  Why not?  But of course there’s also music before that, before him!

BD:    When you get much before Bach, then you really need to use other instruments.

JK:    Yeah.  I hear reasons to play Bach on baroque instruments, but I’ve also heard extremely convincing performances of Bach on today’s pianoforte or today’s violin.  I think it depends on the interpretation of it as well.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How do you divide your career these days between concerto appearances and solo recitals?

kohJK:    I try to do a lot of recital programs.  I think there’s something very intimate with doing a recital because you have the artistic freedom to create an entire evening of music, for an hour and a half or however long you want to make your recital program.  You can create an arch in the program.  There’s something so intimate and so special about playing a recital and being at a recital!  I’ve been an audience member at recitals so many times as well, so that’s always very special to me.  Of course, concertos are always fun because you get to play with lots of people that are very nice!  There’s something amazing about having a hundred people onstage with a similar goal, which is to play well together.  There’s something very exciting about that, and being able to communicate so intimately with those a hundred people onstage is an amazing thing!  That’s kind of the macro amazing thing, and then the recital is kind of a micro amazing thing.

BD:    You’re communicating with the hundred people that are behind you.  Are you also communicating with the thousand or two thousand people in front of you?

JK:    Absolutely, absolutely!

BD:    Are you aware of them every moment, or are they just sort of there?

JK:    I think of the audience, definitely.  When I’ve been an audience member, you feel that you are a part of the evening; there’s no question about that.  And in the same way, I feel that as a performer when I am onstage.  It is a direct communication.  It’s a very visceral kind of experience.

BD:    Does that help, then, when the recording is made with the live audience, as opposed to being in a studio where there’s just a few engineers and that’s it?

JK:    Absolutely!  I think that the recording process of working in studio is very unnatural.  You can create magical moments in a studio, but it’s much harder to do that because the audience is an essential part of the performance.

BD:    And the audience, a little bit removed by time, doesn’t enter into your mind?

JK:    No.  You just stare at the little microphones and wish they weren’t so close to you!  [Laughs]

BD:    Should you perhaps invite twenty-five of your closest friends to the recording?

JK:    That would be too much to ask of anybody, I’m afraid.

BD:    Because of the various takes and retakes and everything?

JK:    Yeah, yeah.

BD:    Is there ever a chance that the recording becomes too perfect?

JK:    I was just on this panel at the American Symphony Orchestra League in Pittsburgh, and we were talking about historical recordings and why performance practice has changed so drastically.  One of the points that one of the members of this panel brought up was that it’s because everybody expects perfection.  Then another panel member said, “But you know they’d be crucified if it wasn’t perfect!”

BD:    These are professionals who are working to bring more orchestral concerts to more people?

JK:    Yes, these are orchestra managers, mostly management and administration.

BD:    Do they have the right slant on performing, or is it a little bit skewed because they are trying to present rather than enjoy?

JK:    I think they definitely enjoy it.  No one can be in the classical music world without loving music, because if they don’t love classical music, I’m sure they could make a better living doing something else!

BD:    I assume this is something that you’ve always wanted to do?

JK:    It was something that I always knew, that I wanted music in my life.  When I was young I never really dreamed that I’d actually be able to make my life as a performing musician.

BD:    You could just buy a CD player.

JK:    No, I think I knew I always wanted to be playing in some form.  Whether it would become a career, I wasn’t sure.  I don’t even think I knew what careers were when I realized that I always wanted music in my life.  But I feel very fortunate.

BD:    So then you really didn’t select it; it selected you?

JK:    I think that’s usually the way it goes, many times.

BD:    Are you pleased that you’re music’s victim?

JK:    I’m very, very happy.  Very happy.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask the real easy question
what’s the purpose of music?

kohJK:    One of the most amazing concerts that I did was a couple days after September 11th, 2001.  The National Symphony in Washington D.C. decided to still present a concert.  I think it was on a Friday, and September 11th was on a Tuesday.  I went there, and part of the reason that I felt that I could do this was because it was an all-Beethoven concert, so I was doing the Beethoven Concerto with them.  It was the kind of music that I felt was, in a way, the most appropriate for this time.  So we had rehearsals and it was still very chaotic at that time.  People were calling in all these bomb threats, and the Kennedy Center is across the street from the Saudi Arabian Embassy.  They’d see a paper bag and they’d think it’s a bomb, so the Kennedy Center would lock down, rehearsal would stop and everybody would vacate the building.  So it wasn’t the most ideal rehearsal situation.  When the concert came, it was amazing.  It was completely sold out, and after I finished playing, people were just weeping!  Music is about communicating when you can’t find the words.  It’s about spirituality, in a sense.  It’s about the human soul.  It’s about seeing the worst in people and the best in people, and being able to take all the sides of humanity and turn it into something amazingly beautiful and profound.  I think that’s the function of music, and I felt that more strongly than ever after that experience.

BD:    Now, of course, we collectively carry September 11th with us, perhaps for the rest of our lives, and maybe even for generations to come.  Is that going to affect the way music is felt, or does it just become a distant memory?

JK:    I don’t know.  I don’t think we know yet what the effect of it will be.  I think we have no idea.  It was interesting because I played at the memorial service on September 11th of this season, 2003, in New York.  That was two years afterward, and it was funny
I felt that more profoundly in remembrance than I did even the previous year.  So I have no idea what this will come to mean for anybody.

BD:    I guess we have to let it sit, and we’ll remember it the way our parents remember World War Two, or things like that which have happened, good things and bad things, in our consciousness.

JK:    Yeah.  One of the lucky things we have in the States, which a lot of people don’t have, is not to have these attacks happen on a daily, weekly, monthly, even yearly basis.  I think we’re extremely fortunate.  It was a horrible, horrible, terrible thing that happened, but we’re also very lucky that it hasn’t happened again in the last two years.

BD:    Sure.  I hope that it continues that way.  Music, of course, brings out and can demonstrate the worst and the best in all of us.  When you’re looking at a score, do you look only for the best, or do you also look for the less-than-best in it?

JK:    In score, you try to find the composer’s voice and what the composer is trying to say.  It ultimately becomes a conversation with the other musicians as well as the composer.  In terms of saying, “Is this a good part, or is this a bad part” I don’t know how that necessarily translates, but it’s all in the music.

BD:    You need to find it in the music because you don’t have text.  A singer has a linguistic text, so do you feel that as you’re playing, you’re playing a different kind of text?

JK:    I think that music is a language.  It’s slightly reductive to call it a language; it’s a lot more than just a language.  But in the sense that we have words or we have letters or we have sentences or we have phrases, it is very similar to a language.  But it is more than just a language.

BD:    Is the music that you play for everyone?

JK:    I would hope that it is.

BD:    Six billion of us these days?

JK:    I don’t know.  I think a lot of it has to do with offering music and having it available to as many people as possible.  That’s something that has not necessarily been done, especially since arts funding is always the first thing to be cut in schools.  That’s quite tragic because instant gratification and commercials and all of these things that are thrown at not only us, but at the children is quite overwhelming.  Music — classical music especially
is something that takes patience.  It takes effort to listen to.  I know that if I go to a concert, and if I’m thinking that I have to buy eggs the next morning and I have to buy milk, I’m not going to absorb what the music is saying.  It takes a great deal of effort on the part of the listener.

kohBD:    Should we set aside, perhaps, five minutes at the beginning of each concert to put everyone in the right frame of mind for the music?

JK:    I suppose that’s what the overture is supposed to do!  [Both laugh]

BD:    To keep music alive, is it music that has to adapt to the changing culture, or is it we that have to adapt, so that we can continue to enjoy the music?

JK:    I think that society has changed, and music that is being composed today also reflects that.  It reflects the kind of common experiences that humanity has had.  That’s also why I think it’s so important to play and to communicate contemporary music, and to program it.  It’s very difficult to program it!

BD:    Why?  What is it that makes it so difficult to get the new music to the audience and complete the circuit?

JK:    I’ve heard people say so many times, “Oh, I heard a new music piece once, and I just hated it!  And I hate new music now.”  That’s just so funny to me!  I go to the movies and I might hate a certain movie, but a person would never say, “I saw a movie once and I hated it.  I hate movies now!”  It’s a common misperception, because there is a lot of horrible, terrible new music out there.  But there’s also a lot of great new music out there.

BD:    Do you only play the great new music?

JK:    I only play the new music that I definitely believe in, and that I feel has something to say, that’s for sure.

BD:    How can you know this before you’ve really gotten into it, or even performed it?

JK:    By looking at the score, and knowing the composer and the kind of works that he’s produced.

BD:    If a composer comes to you and says, “I want to write a piece,” do you have any advice for that composer?

JK:    No, I’d say to follow their own individual voice.  And to hand in parts in time!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Did you ever play a concerto or a solo piece where the ink’s still wet?

JK:    Yes, of course!  [Laughs]  That’s happened many times!  It’s a little nerve-wracking.  It’s probably more nerve-wracking for the composer.  Some are composers just completely tortured while they write, and others write more easily.  So I try to be as sympathetic to their situation as possible, but we also have to have a chance to learn the parts!

BD:    [With a sly grin]  You don’t want to sight read at the concert?

JK:    [Emphatically]  No!  [Laughs]

BD:    Are you completely tortured when you’re working on the music, or does it come easy for you?

JK:    Nothing in music necessarily comes easily.  I think the most important thing is the process of it.  From the beginning it sounds horrible and then it gets better day by day.  You begin to understand it more and you begin to feel it more, and the perception of the music changes.  So it’s that process that I am in love with.

BD:    Then is the performance a let-down?

JK:    No, it’s all a part of the larger process because there’s no way that I’ll just play a piece once in my life, hopefully.  So it is a part of a larger process, and it’s about constantly growing and changing as a musician.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I asked about recordings, but what about performances?  Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

JK:    I try to think that there’s not.  I’ve been to plenty of performances as an audience member where I thought it was the most amazing, perfect performance ever.  But I think for any musician it would be quite daunting if any of us came off stage thinking, “This was the perfect performance,” because what can you do after that?

BD:    Do you to go other violinists, or do you go to other concerts that don’t have violin?

JK:    Everything.  I go to all kinds of concerts.

BD:    Then when you listen to another violinist, do you take some ideas from that performer?

JK:    Yes, of course, even if it’s just that you fell in love with somebody’s sound or one aspect of their playing.  That will definitely inspire you to look at your own playing in a different way.  And it doesn’t even matter if it’s a violinist or a pianist or a singer or any instrument.  So yeah, I feel like the most important thing for any musician is to go to concerts, because that’s what we’re doing, and that’s our life.  For me, that’s absolutely my life.

BD:    And yet, so many musicians are playing, playing, playing, playing.  On their night off, they don’t want to go to a concert.  They want to do something else — go bowling or play golf or something different!

JK:    Yeah, I’m kind of the opposite.  I just go for the concerts!

BD:    Do you carry discs around and listen to them in your hotel and on the plane, or do you just go to concerts?

JK:    Well, like I said, I love historical recordings, so I always have a couple of them with me.

BD:    What violinists of the previous generations do you most admire?

JK:    I would say definitely Bronislaw Huberman, Joseph Szigeti, Adolf Busch.

BD:    Busch solo, or the Busch Quartet?

JK:    Both, actually.  One of my favorite quartet recordings is the Budapest Quartet doing Beethoven “Live at the Library of Congress.”  I also have the studio-recorded version, but the live version is really quite spectacular!

kohBD:    Tell me about your instrument.

JK:    This is a 1727 Strad Ex-Grumiaux.

BD:    It is one Grumiaux played?

JK:    Yes.  I believe he made his solo Bach recordings and also Mozart recordings with Claire Haskell on this violin.

BD:    How long have you had it?

JK:    I have had it for about seven years.

BD:    So your recordings are also on this instrument?

JK:    Yes, yes.

BD:    Should we compare your recording to the same recording that Grumiaux made, and hear how you each brought your own sound out of the instrument?

JK:    What’s really interesting is that the person that I take my instrument to, to kind of take care of it, is René Morel in New York.  Morel is an older gentleman, and he actually worked on this instrument with Arthur Grumiaux.  Grumiaux would take it to him for adjustments.  So it’s quite fitting that we both now meet again!

BD:    I would think that you would have to do that; that someone who knew the instrument for many years would want to continue taking care of the instrument.

JK:    It was interesting.

BD:    It seems like it would be more than just happenstance that you would seek out that person, if possible.

JK:    I had no idea that he had known it.  He’s just an amazing person, a luthier with the instrument.

BD:    What about the bow?  What bow do you use?

JK:    I use a Tourte bow.

BD:    It’s nicely balanced, and fits your hand well?

JK:    Yeah, yeah.

BD:    Do you try other instruments and other bows, or are you just happy with the one that you have?

JK:    I am very happy with this instrument!  I’m unbelievably happy with this instrument.  Of course it’s always fun to play other friends’ Strads, when you run into another Strad, and compare and contrast.  It’s always such a joy to find great instruments, so I feel very lucky to have the one that I do.

BD:    What advice do you have for younger violinists coming along?

JK:    To keep faith and to work hard.  Eventually, in the long run, it will be very worth it.

BD:    Is that a guarantee?

JK:    I think in terms of being in love with music, yes, it’s a guarantee.

BD:    What advice do you have for audiences?

JK:    I don’t know!  [Laughs]  I’m an audience member myself, and I have no idea what advice I should give myself.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You play all over the world.  Do you adjust your style at all for different concert halls
large halls, small halls?

kohJK:    Oh, you have to!

BD:    Is this an automatic thing or does it take a lot of effort?

JK:    It becomes a natural thing.  Some halls have different quirks than others, and so it takes a little bit of time.  But it becomes a natural thing.

BD:    Are the audiences different, and perhaps in a predictable way, around the world?  Is the Italian audience different from the French audience, different from the German audience, different from the Korean audience, different from the American audience?

JK:    I think one of the amazing things is that audiences throughout the world are pretty similar in the sense that they’re all human, and they respond in the same kind of way.  That’s something I’ve found really amazing, actually, and the fact that in general, audiences react very similarly to each other.  I was quite surprised.

BD:    Is that perhaps because we’ve all listened to the Grumiaux recordings, we’ve all listened to the Millstein recordings, we’ve all listened to the same orchestral recordings, and eventually we’ll all be listening to your recordings?

JK:    I think it’s more that music is about being human.  Human beings respond in similar ways when things are being spoken in a medium that transcends cultural and language boundaries.  That’s the beauty and great thing about classical music
that it can transcend those boundaries.

BD:    Music really is the universal language.

JK:    I believe so.  At least I have to believe that because this is what I love doing.

BD:    I want to be sure and ask about the Uuno Klami Concerto.  How did you discover it and why did it wind up on disk?

JK:    Oh, I discovered it because of (conductor) Osmo Vänskä!  He said, “Oh, this is a great piece!”  So I looked at it and he said, “Do you want to record it?” and I said, “Yes!”  And that’s how it happened.

BD:    Just as simple as that?

JK:    Yeah, yeah.

BD:    Did it turn out to be a wonderful experience?

JK:    I had a great time, actually!

BD:    Is it something then you would try to get performed elsewhere?

JK:    Yes, yes.  I’ve tried, but it’s actually very difficult — more so in the States than it is in Europe — to get things that were written after 1920 played!

BD:    I’m glad that you’re a champion of new music, and that you try to balance the old with the new.

JK:    I think there’s such direct connections between all of this music.  I can’t really imagine not playing new music because there are so many things that are interconnected.  It’s also very inspiring to go back to Bach after you’ve played Adams.  It’s very special to do that.

BD:    Is that perhaps one of the things that helps you decide whether you’re going to play a piece or not
if you find the direct connections?

JK:    I think part of what I find inspiring about making up different programs and deciding what pieces I’d like to learn is that you find these connections, even if they’re in the most obscure places and most people wouldn’t see that connection.  But as long as I feel that there’s a connection, hopefully that can show in the end.

BD:    I certainly wish you lots of continued success.

JK:    Thank you so very much.

Violinist Jennifer Koh mesmerizes audiences with the sheer intensity of her playing.  As a virtuoso whose natural flair is matched with a probing intellect, Ms. Koh is committed to exploring connections between the pieces she plays, searching for similarities of voice between among composers, as well as within the works of a single composer.   In the words of Allan Kozinn of The New York Times:  “Jennifer Koh's violin recitals are consistently pleasing, not only because she is in command of a strong technique and a rich arsenal of tone, but also because she builds her programs thoughtfully, with a sensible balance of contemporary works and standard repertory.” These qualities have most recently been recognized by a Grammy nomination for her recording “String Poetic,” on the Cedille label, which includes a world premiere by Jennifer Higdon as well as music by John Adams, Lou Harrison Carl Ruggles.

Highlights of Ms. Koh’s 2009–2010 season include return guest appearances with the New Jersey Symphony, National Symphony of Washington, D.C., and the New World Symphony, among other ensembles.  Abroad, she makes her PROMS debut with the BBC Symphony directed by Ji?ri Be?lohlávek in the UK premiere of Augusta Read Thomas’s violin concerto, “Juggler in Paradise,” and is also heard with the BBC Scottish Orchestra and Dresden Philharmonic.  A new concerto written and commissioned for Ms. Koh by Klas Torstenssans will be premiered in Amsterdam with the NIEUW Ensemble in May 2010.  To commemorate the 325th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s birth, Ms. Koh launches “Bach and Beyond,” a three-program recital project that will explore the solo violin repertoire from Bach's six Sonatas and Partitas to newly commissioned works for solo violin. In recital, Ms. Koh also plays all six violin sonatas and partitas of Bach at New York’s Miller Theatre.  Ms. Koh’s other recital engagements include all-Mozart and Schubert programs with pianist Shai Wosner and a duo program with cellist Anssi Kartunnen with performances in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. (Kennedy Center), New York (Miller Theatre and the Baryshnikov Arts Center), San Francisco (Herbst Theatre), Oberlin College (OH), Houston (Da Camera Society), and Minneapolis (Schubert Club).

In November 2008, Ms. Koh made her debut with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra performing the Russian premiere of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto under Maestro Valery Gergiev in St. Petersburg. Other engagements that season included solo appearances with the orchestras of Atlanta, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Houston, and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC.  She was heard in recital in Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia; and in chamber music in New York at the 92nd Street Y.  Besides performing various contemporary works such as Saariaho’s violin concerto “Graal theater,” Ms. Koh performed the Brahms, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, and Mozart Concerto No. 4, as well as the Beethoven Triple Concerto.

Since the 1994-95 season, when she won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the Concert Artists Guild Competition, and the Avery Fisher Career Grant, Ms. Koh has been heard with leading orchestras and conductors around the world, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the National Symphony Orchestra, New Jersey Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, Houston Symphony, the New World Symphony, and Montreal Symphony.  Abroad, she has appeared with the Czech Philharmonic, the BBC London Symphony, the BBC Scottish Symphony, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Iceland Symphony, the Helsinki Philharmonic, the Lahti Symphony, Moscow Radio Symphony, the Brandenburg Ensemble, and the Singapore Symphony.

A prolific recitalist, Ms. Koh appears frequently at major music centers and festivals including Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Marlboro, Wolf Trap, Spoleto, and The Festival International de Lanaudiere in Canada.

Ms. Koh records regularly for the Chicago-based Cedille label, and in addition to her recent recording “String Poetic,” she has released an acclaimed CD devoted to the complete Schumann violin sonatas plus earlier discs of music by such varied composers as Bach, Schubert, Szymanowski, Martinu°, Schoenberg, and jazz great Ornette Coleman.  Also released on Cedille was Ms. Koh’s “Portraits” which features the Szymanowski, and Martinu° violin concertos recorded with the Grant Park Orchestra under conductor Carlos Kalmar. Her recording “Violin Fantasies,” for the Cedille label, has been praised for its sense of adventure and brilliant musicianship.  In the words of John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune, “The idea of a concept album built around violin fantasies from various periods by composers with distinctly different voices is so good I’m surprised other fiddlers haven’t ventured it. Jennifer Koh, the young violinist on this new Cedille recording, regards each of the four fantasies (Schubert, Schumann, Schoenberg, Ornette Coleman) as a ‘life’s journey,’ and something of that spirit of high adventure informs her collaboration with pianist Reiko Uchida.”  Ms. Koh’s first Cedille recording was an imaginative program centered on Bach’s great Chaconne (with solo chaconnes by turn of the century contemporaries Richard Barth, and Max Reger).

A committed educator, Ms. Koh has also won high praise for her performances in classrooms around the country under her innovative Music Messenger outreach program. Now in its seventh year, the program continues to form an important part of her musical activities.  “The majority of children in this country have not been given an opportunity to learn music as a form of self-expression,” she asserts, “and  I want to share the experience of creating and listening to music with them.”  Ms. Koh’s outreach efforts have taken her to classrooms all over the country to perform challenging music – whether it be Bach, Paganini, or Bartók -- for thousands of students who have little opportunity to hear classical music in their daily lives.  "Music is a visceral experience which can create a positive outlet for emotions and a place for inner expression that is more compelling than time spent in front of the television or at a mall,” she adds.  She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the National Foundation for the Advancement for the Arts, a scholarship program for high school students in the arts.
Born in Chicago of Korean parents, Ms. Koh currently resides in New York City.  Ms. Koh is a graduate of Oberlin College and an alumna of the Curtis Institute, where she worked extensively with Jaime Laredo and Felix Galimir.  Ms. Koh is grateful to her private sponsor for the generous loan of the 1727 Ex Grumiaux Ex General DuPont Stradivari she uses in performance.

© 2004 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on June 30, 2004.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNUR in 2005, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2006 and 2007.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.  It has also been included in the internet channel Classical Connect.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.