Jennifer Koh is an intrepid violinist of astonishing abilities and intelligence. In 2011, for example, she performed all six of J.S. Bach’s partitas and sonatas for unaccompanied violin in a single concert, a feat of superhuman focus and endurance. On Wednesday night, UCSB Arts & Lectures brought back Koh for the second installment of her Bach and Beyond project, which pairs two of these works with more recent compositions in the genre of solo violin. Part II is all about beginnings, featuring Bach’s Sonata No. 1 and Partita No. 1, as well as the first and only such sonata by Béla Bartók and a new work by Phil Kline, Dead Reckoning.
Koh is an artist at the peak of her abilities, a woman who has played the violin so well from such an early age that she appears to be entirely liberated from self-concern. Her rapturous absorption seems intent only on bringing the music to life, and her prodigious technique leaves nothing barred to her imagination. The “Fuge” in Sonata No. 1, for example, ran at a lively clip, and yet the arpeggio and interval sections remained clean and calm. In general, there is a prevailing organic quality to Koh’s reading of Bach: Inevitability is never compromised, but Koh’s phrases ebb and flow, shifting color and dynamic as the moment inspires.
Both the Kline and the Bartók, though offering a wink or two at Bach, are thoroughly contemporary pieces with dense harmonic palettes and complex rhythms. Koh has long been a favored interpreter of modern works, as credible with grit and angst as with classical certainties, and Wednesday’s performance was a convincing demonstration of two worlds as one.