Adventurous and acclaimed violinist Jennifer Koh returns to St. Anthony’s Chapel tonight, for part two of her commissioning project called “Shared Madness.”
Jennifer Koh, “Shared Madness”
When: 7 p.m., tonight
Where: St. Anthony’s Chapel, 2300 Garden St.
Tickets are $35, $10 for UCSB students
Information: 893-3535, https://artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu
We’ve come to know and love her, and yet continues to morph before our ears. We’re talking about the widely-acclaimed and ever-curious violinist Jennifer Koh, who will make one of her now many visits to Santa Barbara, tonight in the mysterious ambience of St. Anthony’s Chapel.
In the several past local encounters, Ms. Koh has demonstrated her intention to find a through line between the great music of old—Beethoven and Bach, for instance—with contemporary musical ideas and new music. Her old-mates-with-new projects “Beyond Bach” and “Bridge to Beethoven,” both presented at Hahn Hall under the auspices of UCSB Arts & Lectures, were memorable occasions.
Tonight’s fare is something different. Welcome to part two of a project she calls “Shared Madness,” in which contemporary composers she has worked with over the years have penned short works for a generous book of music. The list of composers includes such known contemporary music forces as John Harbison (whose piece was heard last year) and a strong list for tonight’s program, including Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, Philip Glass, John Harbison, David Lang, and Bryce Dessner.
There was a logical, logistical back story to her concept: the moneys earned from the “Madness” miniatures went to repay patrons who helped her buy a new violin. On a local note, she met the commissioner of the project after her first recital in Santa Barbara, seven years ago.
Call it a clever “pay sideways” campaign, with a fine violin and a fine portfolio of new pieces as dividends, for the violinist and her loving audience, which includes a healthy portion of Santa Barbarans.
By way of explaining the series title, Ms. Koh offered that “I wanted to choose a title that encapsulated the shared creative space and collaboration that happens between composers and performers. But I think the title also refers to the crazy financial positions we musicians live under, just to make music.”
Last year, a full house at the retooled St. Anthony’s Seminary chapel—one of Santa Barbara’s finer semi-secret music venues—got an enticing earful of short pieces in the first part of the “Shared Madness” effort.
Another fairly recent local–or regional–Koh encounter came at the prestigious Ojai Music Festival in 2017, when she commandeered a Violin Concerto by that year’s festival music director, Vijay Iyer. Not surprisingly, Mr. Iyer, who moves seamlessly between his jazz foundation and “serious music,” is one of the 30 composers who took part in Ms. Koh’s “Madness.” His playful, dense and ever-changing piece, “Zany, Cute, Interesting,” lived up to its title and was one of the high points of last year’s Chapel concert.
In recent years, the risk-hungry virtuoso Ms. Koh’s reputation has steadily grown. She has premiered over 70 works and was dubbed the Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year in 2016. She even played the role of Albert Einstein in Philip Glass’ legendary minimalist opera “Einstein on the Beach” in 2012. Her projects include “Limitless,” a growing body of new music for duos, and a forthcoming project based on themes of immigration, “The 38th Parallel: A Contemporary Pansori.”
Last November, she released “Saariaho x Koh,” an album of most of the violin chamber works by Ms. Saariaho. “I love Kaija as a musician and a human being,” Ms. Koh asserts. “I remember the first time I heard her music and then studied it and I felt immediately that I found a kindred spirit.”
Although Ms. Koh has built up a sizable discography by now, mostly for the Chicago-based Cedille label, she admits “I find recording very painful. I feel very compelled to record things, often when I believe in pieces and in programs. I may believe in presenting certain composers and want people to hear them. I think that’s what compels me to record, rather than me wanting to record myself. It’s so painful to me to listen to myself play (laughs).
“In the end, I have to come to a point of acceptance that it’s like a snapshot of a certain day at a certain time. Otherwise, every day, you want to play things differently. Every day, you learn new things and have new experiences. Once I get to that point of acceptance, then it’s less painful.” Critics and admirers have found her music to be the antithesis of painful.
She continues to perform more standard repertoire pieces and appears as soloist for orchestras, including the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics, the Cleveland Orchestra and others. But her primary reputation is as an advocate for new music, as well as finding inventive programmatic ways to integrate the then and now.
“It’s not that I don’t love those pieces,” she says of the conventional classical music canon, “but I can’t imagine only doing those pieces. For me, it would be like only reading literature and newspapers from the 19th century. That can be interesting. There is definitely literature I love from that period, but I also want to read things that were written yesterday. I want to read the paper as it’s written today.
“I do find it interesting to read articles and see how language has changed and how people choose their language and how it shifts over time. I also do find that compelling, but I also do want to read things that were written yesterday,” she laughs.
Tonight’s fresh musical news on tap: “Shared Madness.”