Classical music performance has recently entered an unprecedented period of growth and creativity. At the center of this excitement, as well as at the top of the list of great contemporary violinists, stands Jennifer Koh, who will arrive in Santa Barbara this week for a performance of her solo project Shared Madness.
Thanks in large part to UCSB Arts & Lectures, Koh has become a familiar presence in our region over the past decade. Arts & Lectures audiences have thrilled to her Bach and Beyond series at the Music Academy’s Hahn Hall three times, in 2011, 2013, and 2014. The L.A. Times’ Mark Swed declared these solo recitals to be “awe-inspiring.” Koh was back again, this time in a duo format with pianist Shai Wosner, for a program called Bridge to Beethoven in 2015, again under the auspices of Arts & Lectures. When I spoke to Koh by phone from Australia last week, she graciously emphasized the importance of A&L’s Celesta Billeci’s loyal support to her career, saying that “she has always backed my most adventurous and personal projects, and this time she has taken a step further by also engaging me as a lecturer.”
In addition to the recital, which takes place on Friday, April 27, in the intimate confines of St. Anthony’s Chapel, Koh will speak at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies (CCS) on Thursday, April 26, at 4 p.m. The talk, cosponsored by CCS and the UCSB Department of Asian American Studies, will be moderated by Professor Lisa Park and is titled Creative Inquiry, Intersection, and Intervention. In that conversation, Koh plans to focus on her recent project Limitless, a series of duo commissions designed to be played with the composers as performing partners. Koh has accepted an invitation to address the League of American Orchestras at its national conference later this spring on how its members might increase diversity in their programming and to address the underrepresentation of women in contemporary classical music, and this talk is part of her preparation for that important lecture.
Shared Madness, the program that Koh will perform at St. Anthony’s Chapel, grew out of a challenge that all topflight violinists face, which is the high cost of a good fiddle. Determined to acquire a violin that she could imagine playing for the rest of her life, Koh appealed to Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting, patrons of the arts in Chicago, her hometown, who have been following her career since its beginning. In collaboration with the Schlichtings, Koh developed an ingenious strategy for paying off her new violin, which cost several million dollars. In lieu of interest payments on this loan, the Schlichtings agreed to accept commissions of 32 short works for solo violin from a gallery of the contemporary classical world’s top composers.
Once this agreement was reached, Koh turned to her circle of friends and was delighted to experience an overwhelmingly positive response. Koh premiered the 32 compositions, which were written by such distinguished composers as John Harbison and Julia Wolfe, over the course of two evenings at the 2016 New York Philharmonic Biennial. On Friday, Santa Barbara listeners will hear approximately half of those works, each of them less than five minutes and all designed to express the various composers’ concepts of what virtuosity means in the 21st century.
It’s impossible to imagine a performer better suited to the task of displaying this rare quality than Jennifer Koh, and there’s no question that those in attendance will leave with new forms of genius to contemplate and appreciate.
Jennifer Koh’s Shared Madness will be presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures Friday, April 27, 7 p.m., at St. Anthony’s Chapel (2300 Garden St.). Call 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.