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Classically Speaking: Koh at Slee

Jennifer Koh


Read the bio of any traveling classical musician (or one vying for a university post) and you’re likely to find some variation of the phrase “Ms./Mr. X is a passionate advocate for new and contemporary music.” The need to declare one’s passion for new product is an impulse that in the year 2015 feels both obligatory and familiar. It discreetly points to the anxiety that hounds those in the classical music-loving business: can a substantial audience be found for new music?


With the question of new (and, in the case of classical music, lots of not-so-new) music comes the concern of “accessibility,” which is polite-speak for understanding what on earth is going on, or, if not, at least enjoying the ride. But here’s an odd fact to which older music consumers will testify: a lot of nonchart-topping pop music really wasn’t that compelling at first, but you kept listening to the lesser-known tracks over and over again because you already bought the album. The tracks grew on you by process of repeated listening, and you slowly became a “real fan” of singer/songwriter/band X, with all the incumbent pleasures of scorning casual fans who only go to X’s concerts to hear the sugar hits. So that’s something to think about, maybe: the diehard faithful of any composer, pop or otherwise, tend to stake their claims within the deeper cuts that require repeated listening before their strange vagaries sound natural and right.


On January 29 at University at Buffalo’s Lippes Concert Hall (Slee Hall), violinist Jennifer Koh stakes her claim within solo violin repertory, new and old, that gets better with every listen. Koh is a celebrated soloist (she debuted with the Chicago Symphony at age eleven) who has augmented her touring schedule with a fascinating recital series she conceived and started performing in 2009: Bach and Beyond. No violinist can escape the six sonatas and partitas that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for the unaccompanied instrument, and many contemporary composers who write for solo violin feel their pull as well. This is the third installment of the series for which Koh selects modern works for unaccompanied violin (“Seqenza VIII” by Luciano Berio and “Passagen” by John Zorn) along with two of the Bach works (Sonatas no. 2 and 3) to perform on stage, alone.


“Sequenza VIII” and “Passagen” pair well, similar in length and affect. Both start with an introductory gesture reminiscent of Bach, then present the listener with an array of stylized passages, though not for the purpose of ironic play. More compelling with each listen, there are many different performances of “Sequenza VIII” on YouTube, while “Passagen,” the main track of Zorn’s CD Lemma, can be purchased online via the usual means. For many, this will be their first exposure to Berio and Zorn, but both are giants in the world of new music.


Luciano Berio studied piano and violin in his youth, but a hand wound suffered in World War II forced his focus onto composition. In 1960, he moved from Italy to the United States; for a while, he taught at Mills College in Oakland, California, where his list of students included Steve Reich and Phil Lesh. Over the course of his career, he released a series of compositions under the title “Sequenza,” each one for a different solo instrument; “Sequenza VIII” was written in 1976.


In music, a sequenza (or sequence) is a short passage that repeats immediately in different keys, a metaphor perhaps for Berio’s series of short solo pieces in different instruments. There is also an archaic musical definition of sequence: the splicing by subsequent monastic generations of new text and chant into an established section of Gregorian chant. This lends itself to metaphor as well, for “Sequenza VIII’s” foundations are primitive pillars of double stops (two notes elicited by playing two adjacent strings at the same time) that act as a refrain between more nuanced gestures and material, including a lengthy section of mesmerizing bow technique. Berio states that the piece is built around two notes, A and B, and you can hear the double stop pillars morph back and forth from being centered on A to being centered on B, with the final weathered breath of the piece being a double stop on both. Between the pillar-like refrains lie passages that, according to Berio, “can be listened to as a development of instrumental gestures...where the soloist must make the listener constantly aware of the history behind each instrumental gesture.”


In a similar mood, John Zorn describes his “Passagen,” written in 2011, as “a brief history of solo violin music,” a history that includes Berio, not to mention Bach, isolated cartoon gestures, good old fashioned shredding, and much more. Zorn lives in New York City and probably at one time or other has been involved in every genre and sub-genre of music you can think of. Koh and Zorn know each other well, and she has played his music at many events besides Bach and Beyond.


“Passagen” starts with a sample of chords modified from the opening movement of Bach’s first violin sonata then continues like a carousel slide projector to present brief passages (hence the title) of markedly different soundscapes. Arising from the fragments Zorn has shored against each other is a private yet charismatic self-contained logic, the kind that is found in art that sticks with you.


By programming Bach alongside Berio and Zorn, Koh is following the standard practice of using a big brand name as cover to slip in some lesser known names. Without trying to be too provocative, though, it can be argued that, in some sense, Bach is the least accessible of the three composers Koh presents in this program. As familiar as the Bach may seem, it helps to have some background.


Like other musicians of his time (and ours), Bach traveled from gig to gig, always on the lookout for a more desirable position. He spent the greater part of his thirties (1717-1723) working for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, a young and ardent music-lover who inherited a small principality located in what is now eastern central Germany. The liturgical demands of the prince’s Reformed church were few, and Bach was encouraged to investigate the French and Italian styles that influence his secular compositions of that period, including the Brandenburg Concertos, the suites for unaccompanied cello, and the sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin. The violin partitas, like the cello suites (“partitas” and “suites” are interchangeable terms) are sets of stylized dance movements. The various dances on which they are based, each with its own distinct rhythm and steps, were popularized and made extremely fashionable in Versailles by the only very recently deceased Louis XIV, and you can well understand the flattery involved if Bach presents his patron, the crown prince of a small patch of farmland just north of Leipzig, with sets of dances redolent of the Sun King.


The sonatas, on the other hand, are (even) more serious vehicles for Bach to display his compositional skill, the term sonata in this instance deriving from sonata da chiesa: church sonata. “Church” simply means there will be no dance movements, and while the format of such sonatas was not carved in stone, Bach followed the standard blueprint of a slow introductory movement followed by a spirited demonstration of contrapuntal skill (which for Bach naturally meant a fugue) and then lighter slow and fast movements, both easier to digest and easier in compositional fortitude.


Now is as good a time as any to pause and consider the nature of “one-upmanship” in the history of music. As long as there is an established compositional style, it’s often irresistible to take what your forebears did and release a version that’s louder and longer with more structural complexity and more harmonic sophistication—all while standing on your head, etc.—and we do tend to honor those who up the ante. A typical sonata da chiesa of Bach’s youth called for two violins and harpsichord. The violins effectively shared and harmonized one melodic voice while the harpsichord bustled with accompanying chords, excepting of course the spirited demonstrations of contrapuntal skill, in which each violin set forth independently—bonus points if the harpsichord had a separate voice as well. Almost always, these contrapuntal movements begin with the top violin making a statement alone for a measure or two, followed by the second violin imitating the first violin’s statement before meandering its own way, and then the harpsichord following suit on one hand while the other hand harmonizes the whole thing.


On New Year’s Day 1700, Arcangelo Corelli (whose compositions Bach would have had access to in Köthen) published a set of sonatas for one violin and harpsichord (opus 5) in which the one violin clearly is playing the role of two voices in many of the fast movements by means of double stops. As you may suspect, the violin can’t play literally two lines for too long lest they quickly become boringly simple, so Corelli has the violin play one line in full while implying the course of the second line through the judicious use of double stops here and there. The skill of the composer is revealed through the successful apprehension of the implied line. Corelli’s skill at implying a second violin voice is admirable, but, of course, he still uses a harpsichord.


You can see where all this is headed: harpsichord? Good heavens, real composers can imply the harpsichord on a single violin. And to imply successfully a basic keyboard accompaniment on a solo fiddle while simultaneously playing a melody is impressive enough, but what does Bach throw down in the contrapuntal fugue movements of his unaccompanied violin sonatas? Three separate voices on the lone violin, and massive in scope. At this point of one-upmanship, never mind the composer; it’s the skill of the listener that’s revealed through successful apprehension of implied lines!


There’s one more contrast between Corelli and Bach worth highlighting: on paper, some of Corelli’s slow movements look absurdly simple, nothing beyond whole and half notes in both violin and harpsichord parts. Musicians of this era were trained to improvise and decorate when needed, and the simplicity of Corelli’s slow movements demonstrate his presumption that they would do so. But performing musicians, you will be shocked to learn, have their own compulsion for one-upmanship, and 300 old letters by tasteful correspondents of the era have survived in which they plaintively describe how the billowing ornaments and flights of melodic fancy by this or that soloist have become, well, a bit much. We do not know whether Bach was dealing with this in Köthen, but the opening slow movement of his first and second sonatas come fully decorated, which is a forest-like point easy to miss if it’s your first time among the trees. Bach has the violin scatter occasional chords (implied harpsichord accompaniment) while gently demonstrating to performer and listener alike how to improvise a slow opening. In both sonatas on Koh’s program, Bach’s opening movement segues with natural ease to a fugue of intimidating ambition, followed by another graceful slow movement (listen for the implied accompaniment), and finally a scampering perpetuum mobile in which the touches of call and response evoke differing registers of an organ, the only instrument by the way that can fully realize a three-voiced fugue, a small point you might enjoy savoring as the organ on stage in Lippes Hall looms silently behind Koh as she plays.


The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. on January 29 at University at Buffalo’s Lippes Hall. Tickets are $15.    




Edmond Gnekow plays bass in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and shares Spree’s classical music coverage with musician and writer Phil Nyhuis.


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