It’s fair to say that Jennifer Koh has Beethoven on the brain. “I’m thinking about music all the time — practically every moment,” said the virtuoso violinist in a recent interview. “Even now, it’s playing in the background [of my brain].”
Nevertheless, she hadn’t stopped to consider the enormous role the brain plays in music-making, controlling everything from memorization to motor skills. That changed abruptly one night during the summer of 2014, when, following an accident, she landed facedown onto a piece of New York City pavement.
Koh didn’t realize it at first, but she had suffered a serious concussion. It was four or five weeks before she had the cognitive power to truly understand what was happening to her, and four months before she could resume her concert career. She spent two of those months in a dark room, forbidden from reading or playing music — a period of “cognitive rest” during which her brain gradually healed itself.
Not surprisingly, she’s now fascinated by the workings of the brain, so much so that during a recent residency at Duke University, she had her brain scanned as she read, listened to, and thought about music. The MRI revealed that her motion-related neural networks were active in all three conditions, suggesting her gray matter was preparing for her to pick up her violin and start playing.
Those sections will be firing on all cylinders Tuesday, April 5, when Koh and pianist Shai Wosner will present the second of their Bridge to Beethoven recitals at the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall. The UCSB Arts & Lectures presentation will feature the composer’s three Sonatas for Violin and Piano, Op. 30, plus three new works acclaimed American composer Andrew Norman wrote for this program.
“Beethoven was incredibly revolutionary, both in terms of radically changing the role of the artist in society and also on a purely musical level,” Koh noted in an interview. “With Mozart and Haydn, the development of musical material is so seamless that it’s kind of hidden. In Beethoven’s music, you hear the struggle.”
Unfortunately, that freshness and boldness can easily be missed today. “What can happen is we start passively listening to it and think of it as just ‘pretty music,'” she said. “I want to shift how people hear it, and I think you can do that by pairing it with new music. [Placing Beethoven in this new context] shifts how I play it but also how listeners listen to it. Hopefully, there is a transformative response.”
Those who heard Koh perform last April at Hahn Hall are familiar with this dynamic: Her program included Beethoven’s famous Kreutzer Sonata and a new work by Vijay Iyer, who is best known as a jazz artist. “I feel lucky to be part of a community of composers,” she said. “They inspire me! Andrew is writing a violin concerto for me, which will premiere with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra two seasons from now. Vijay is also writing a new violin concerto for me, which will premiere in Ojai in 2017. I feel very grateful to have them as collaborators.”
Koh is especially excited about Norman’s “Bridgings,” which she and Wosner will perform Tuesday night before and between the Beethoven works. “I asked him to pair his work with these sonatas because it seems to me he is at roughly the same point in his career that Beethoven was when he wrote these sonatas — that is, entering his middle period,” she explained. “It was an instinctive choice, but he was very happy with it, and the music is spectacular.”
In other words, it was a no-brainer.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner Tuesday, April 5, at 7 p.m. at Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall. For ticket information, call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.