25Oct

Take 5: Jennifer Koh

by Dan Hickey

Superstar violinist Jennifer Koh talks new commissions, dream projects, and her musical roots in Chicago. Her next Cedille album, Saariaho X Koh, is available November 9!

What is your most recent project and what sparked your interest in it?

My most recent projects are The New American Concerto, The 38th Parallel, and Limitless. All three of these projects are about advocating for new voices and personal experiences that have not been heard before in classical music. The majority of composers are women and people of color. The composers and my collaborators in these projects include Missy Mazzoli, Lisa Bielawa, Nina Young, Courtney Bryan, Du Yun, Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey, Qasim Naqvi, Jean-Baptiste Barriere, and Chris Cerrone. The 38th Parallel is particularly significant to me because it brings my family’s and my mother’s experiences as a refugee in the Korean War. All of my projects are funded by Arco Collaborative, a non-profit I founded to bring social justice issues to classical music.

Was there a formative moment for you as an artist? 

I have been very fortunate to have many formative experiences and they all involve the generosity of other people. I think in the end, my most formative moments are when I discover new artists and also when I see and listen to my friends’ and colleagues’ work and am overwhelmed and proud of their evolution as artists; and finally when my friendships with my fellow artists deepen and grow. All of these moments remind me of the beauty of being a part of an amazing and generous community of artists.

When you’re not touring or performing, what do you like to do for fun?

I am usually attending live performances, reconnecting with friends, and trying to raise money for my non-profit, Arco Collaborative, which is the way I can fund and commission the projects I do. If I can add sleep to that, I am very grateful.

What is your dream recording project?

So many things! I want to record every one of the concerti that are being written for The New American Concerto Project. The composers include Vijay Iyer, Courtney Bryan, Chris Cerrone, Lisa Bielawa, Tyshawn Sorey, and Missy Mazzoli … with future ones to be announced later!

What makes the Chicago classical music scene unique?

All of my first musical experiences happened in Chicago. I discovered music and the possibilities of music in Chicago. My first experience with music was listening to the Chicago Symphony. I had my first experience of listening and seeing opera at Lyric Opera. I heard my first recital in Chicago, listening to Nathan Milstein performing the Bach Chaconne which would later become an important part of my own life as a violinist. I know I am a musician because of the guidance of my first violin teacher, Mrs. Davis, my first mentorship; the guidance by Isaac Stern to study at Curtis with Jaime Laredo; and the performance opportunities, advice, concert tickets, and introductions given to me by Zarin Mehta at Ravinia which led me to meet Felix Galimir who brought me to Marlboro Music Festival.

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