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Arts & Culture

Violinist Jennifer Koh Explores Bach's Lasting Influence at Kent Blossom Music Festival

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JENNIFER KOH

Violinist Jennifer Koh began her career at the age of 11 when she debuted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

She has since performed with the world’s major orchestras, recorded more than a dozen albums, and had over 50 original works written for her.

Last year Musical America named Jennifer Koh instrumentalist of the year.

As an Oberlin grad she comes back to Ohio periodically, and this week Koh is teaching master classes at the Kent Blossom Musical Festival, and performing a solo concert tonight at Kent State.

Just a few years ago, Koh came perilously close to losing all of this after suffering a concussion.

"It was almost three years ago to the day in 2014," says Koh.  

"It was terrible," she says, "I did go to the emergency room and they didn't' mention a concussion. They were just concerned that my jaw was broken because I had fallen on my face."

Koh says she had short-term memory loss following the accident, "I walked into a room and didn't remember why I was there."

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Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU
Violinist Jennifer Koh and WKSU's Jeff St.Clair talk about concussions, Bach, and the life of professional soloist ahead of her Kent/Blossom Festival performance.

She had trouble remembering words, and was prone to headaches.  She slept 20 hours a day for the first month of her recovery.

Needless to say, it put a cramp in her busy schedule.

Koh was also worried that there would be lasting damage.

"I had heard these stories of someone hitting their head and never being the same," says Koh.

Fortunately that was not the case for her.  Eventually her doctors allowed her to begin practicing again, just 10 minutes a day at first.  Koh found even a limited schedule exhausting.

It took her about 6 months to recover, but Koh is grateful that there haven't been any lingering effects of the concussion.

Bach and Beyond
Jennifer Koh is performing two modern pieces tonight as part of the Kent Blossom Music Festival, sandwiched between two works for solo violin by J.S. Bach.

  • Sonata for Solo Violin No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003 by J.S. Bach
  • Dissolve, O My Heart (2010) by Missy Mazzoli
  • Sequenza VIII for Solo Violin (1976) by LucianoBerio
  • Partita for Solo Violin No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 by J.S. Bach

Koh has had more than 50 original works written for her, some of them inspired by Bach's monumental final movement from his D minor Partita, the famous chaconne.

"Missy Mozzoli wrote her piece, Dissolve, O My Heart for me," says Koh, "and she wrote her piece in conversation with the chaconne."

"It starts with the D minor chord, and then kind of goes into a different language."

With his chaconne,"Bach blows out what the form is," says Koh.

"It's almost a struggle to reach a kind of transcendence," she says, "and it's such a human struggle."

"But then when you reach the last note, you don't know if it's going to be minor or major. So it's really up to the listener to decide, 'do you go into the light with major, or do you stay in the dark with minor?'"

"And there's something so beautiful to me about that openness," says Koh.

On the Solo Violin
"There's an absolute sense of vulnerability that you share with your audience, and they're coming towards you and you can feel them with you," says Koh.

"There's something in that," she says, "that kind of dichotomy of vulnerability.  It's that split between being absolutely present but also being completely open and exposed, and that can be difficult."