Violinist Jennifer Koh is all about the now — not only full immersion in the performance at hand but a career that has employed a number of today’s prominent composers. Besides her gifts as a dazzling violinist and convincing interpreter of the canon, Koh is a meticulous programmer who devises multiyear projects, honoring great composition cycles by cementing them with new works spawned by the originals.
UCSB Arts & Lectures hosted the annual phases of Koh’s multiyear “Bach and Beyond” project, which paired the unaccompanied solo violin sonatas and partitas of J.S. Bach with new solo works especially commissioned for the violinist. Appropriately, Koh has selected the image of a bridge for her present project, which focuses on Beethoven’s 10 violin sonatas through four concert seasons. It was Santa Barbara’s good fortune Wednesday night to host the inaugural performance for the “Bridge to Beethoven” series.
Israeli-American pianist Shai Wosner has collaborated with Koh for five years, notably on the 2013 CD signs, games + messages, but Wednesday’s was the duo’s first Santa Barbara appearance together, and the collaboration was nothing short of brilliant. The two sonatas played, No. 1 in D Major and No. 9 in A Major “Kreutzer,” happen to be the very pieces that first captured my interest for classical music 30 years ago, when I practically wore out a recording by Isaac Stern and Eugene Istomin. Of course, that kind of tilt toward one rendition can lead to narrowness. But my experience Wednesday was like meeting a pen pal in person for the first time after corresponding for decades: familiarity, yes, but immediacy, dimensionality, and living charm.
Wosner is a gifted pianist and a wonderful interpreter of Beethoven. Together the two gave carefully coordinated, sensitive articulations of these masterpieces of dialogue. Sonatas numbers 1 and 9, which virtually “bridge” the entire series of 10, are compatible confrères for evident reasons: They each have three movements, with lengthy exercises in variations in the middle. Beethoven was a master of the variation (what I like to think of as the Romantic equivalent to jazz), and Koh and Wosner gave insightful and distinguished character to each. For example, in the second movement of the “Kreutzer,” the violin fiddles a flashy hoedown round, only to be followed by a dripping melodramatic minor turn. It is a very funny moment, and the composer’s wit rang crystal clear. These elaborate variation movements are themselves a sort of bridge within each sonata.
“Bridgetower Fantasy” by the genre-defying pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, came second on the program, serving as both a bridge and a border between the two Beethovens. Named for the African-European violinist who inspired and first performed Sonata No. 9 with Beethoven, the Iyer opens with high strikes in the keyboard and extreme-pitch harmonic whistling in the violin. Transitions from sparseness to frenzy follow in a convincing, organic flow, the natural flourishes of a revolving ostinato that turned like the seasons. At other times the chatter of impossibly involved passages seemed to come out of nowhere, as if the silence had been peeled back to reveal what was already there, and there had been no real change at all. Whatever it was, Iyer’s work proved both adventurous and accessible, and it deserves repeated hearings. We can only hope this program finds its way to CD, but we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there.