Interview with Jennifer Koh: Nina Young's Violin Concerto 'Traces'

November 6, 2023, 10:31 PM · For years, violinist Jennifer Koh and composer Nina C. Young lived just six floors away from each other in the same building in New York City.

At first, they kept hearing about each other but never met. Then they started doing a few projects together. But when the pandemic hit - their friendship became a lifeline.

Jennifer Koh Nina C. Young
Violinist Jennifer Koh and composer Nina C. Young.

This weekend Koh will perform the world premiere of a piece that Young wrote for her called Violin Concerto: Traces, with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) and Jeffrey Kahane, who is the orchestra's Conductor Laureate. (The performances are Nov. 11 and 12 - click here for information, and use the code "Violinist" for a 20 percent discount on tickets. She is also giving a master class at 11 a.m. Wednesday Nov. 8 at the Colburn School; click here to get free tickets to that.).

Koh was born in Chicago to Korean parents and began playing the violin when all the spaces for cello and piano were filled in the Suzuki-method program where she started. She debuted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11 and since then has received many honors: Musical America’s 2016 Instrumentalist of the Year, a top prize winner at Moscow’s International Tchaikovsky Competition, winner of the Concert Artists Guild Competition, and a recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant. She also is the Founder and Artistic Director of ARCO Collaborative, an artist-driven nonprofit that advocates for inclusivity in classical music.

Koh, who spoke to me last week in a phone interview, can attest to the fact that the early pandemic was a harrowing time for people living in New York City.

"New York was very, very scary," Koh said. "In March and April of 2020 it was terrifying. It was a good day if you had less than 900 deaths - and then after the numbers came out, we realized it had actually been worse than that."

Once the shelter-in-place edict went out, Koh and Young each found themselves completely isolated, each in their own apartments, in that building.

Despite the situation - concerts and engagements cancelled for the foreseeable future - Koh's creativity kept her busy. "I came up with the idea for Alone Together within three days of the shelter-in-place order," Koh said, "So that process started very, very quickly." The resulting project, Alone Together - ultimately a collection of 40 works by 20 composers - would later be recorded as an album that won Koh a 2022 Grammy for "Best Classical Instrumental Solo."

But at the time it was an evolving project, and Young was one of the early composers to participate, writing a piece called There Had Been Signs, Surely for solo violin.

At first they were communicating via Facetime or Zoom, but as the days grew longer it became more difficult, being alone.

"Neither of us saw another human being for six and a half weeks," Koh said. "You really start to feel it."

Finally they made the decision to meet in person. "At that point we didn't even have masks yet, and New York is really concentrated in terms of people," Koh said. "I remember we were talking strategies about when we would go to each other's apartment. Would it be better to run down the stairs? Or maybe it would actually be better to hold your breath in the elevator? It was that scary. I feel like everybody that lived here during that time developed PTSD."

After six weeks with no human interaction, "when we finally met and we interacted with each other - human beings in real life - I think it's an actual chemical that runs through your body when you're with another human being, and I never felt it to such a degree," Koh said. "I had never not seen another person for six and a half weeks, before that!"

"So we became pod mates, and we were the only two people that we interacted with during that time," Koh said.

The idea for the violin concerto that Koh will play this weekend was actually already in the works, before the pandemic. The piece was co-commissioned by LACO and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Koh had been impressed with Young's music years before, when she heard one of her pieces in a concert by the American Composers Orchestra (ACO). That had led to Koh playing Young's piano quartet, Spero Lucem, then later performing together with Young and recording her piece Sun Propeller for a recital project and album called Limitless in 2018-19.

Because of the pandemic, Young's violin concerto evolved in unexpected ways, as did other concertos commissioned before the pandemic and then written during or after it. "It's been my experience that the music that's being created now, after the pandemic, is still reflecting that time period," Koh said. "It's still communicating with us as a society and leading us out of that experience."

For example, Missy Mazzoli's Violin Concerto "Procession," which Koh premiered in February 2022 with the National Symphony Orchestra: "Before the pandemic, we were planning to base it on the ideas of the five steps that it takes for society to turn to fascism," Koh said, "but then it turned into a piece that was all coming out of the pandemic and looking towards the past. We looked at the different healing rituals after Black Death, looking back at how we as human beings emerged from previous pandemics."

Similarly, Young's Violin Concerto "Traces" evolved in its meaning, and "Traces" came to mean a number of things. "In a sense, what we had thought about is very different from what has come out," Koh said. "Now it's 'traces' of what we leave behind as humans, and also traces of memory, the traces of thought, ideas."

Young herself is a violinist, and there are "traces" of memory - "because we're musicians, there are the memories of our engagement with past concerti, past pieces."

It's written in four connected movements, "and this is probably the most notes in a concerto that I've learned in a long time," Koh said "I believe that this concerto engages with the virtuosic aspects of the violin, which is engaging with the past as well. It's a kind of bildungsroman," in which the hero - or heroine - grows in some way. As such, the music at times sounds like undulating lines or waves, with the soloist sometimes emerging as the main voice and at other times being submerged by the orchestra.

Koh said she is very much looking forward to working with LACO, a group with whom she has performed many times, and in fall 2017 served as the Guest Artist in Residence.

"I love LA!" Koh said. "A huge part of it could be the fact that I do believe that the best Korean food outside of Korea is in Los Angeles, so I personally find LA to be a thrilling place to eat."

She also loves working with LACO, she said. "The musicians in LACO are so dedicated," Koh said. When she was playing the Ligeti concerto in 2018, concertmaster Margaret Batjer called her personally to talk to her about rehearsal time for the concerto. "In other words, the musicians care - they really, really care! And there's something so wonderful about working with colleagues that are that dedicated and about making music with them. They're just top-notch players."

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For more information about Jennifer Koh's performances Nov. 11 and 12 of Nina Young's Violin Concerto "Traces" with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) and conductor Jeffrey Kahane, click here (and use the code VIOLINIST for 20% off). She is also giving a master class at 11 a.m. Wednesday Nov. 8 at the Colburn School; click here to get free tickets to that.

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November 7, 2023 at 04:11 PM · We saw her perform a show of solo Bach live this past weekend. I have been so conditioned by a ubiquity of technical flawlessness amongst modern soloists that I was rather surprised to see a performance of such musicality along with a number of less than perfect moments. I reached out to my daughter afterwards saying this reminded me of her playing, and that I am sometimes too hard on her, thinking that the industry expects near-robotic perfection over the individual expression of something unique and special. It gives me some hope to stand corrected.

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