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“She asserted her authority instantly, playing with flawless technique and unerring sense of contrast and continuity.”—The New York Times

Jennifer Koh finishes her multi-year exploration of the great Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, “in communion” with contemporary music that responds to Bach’s legacy. In this final installment Bach’s rich contrapuntal sonatas are paired with Berio’s dramatic Sequenza VIII and the world premiere of a new work by the American composer John Harbison (The Great Gatsby).

Jennifer Koh, violin

Bach & Beyond, Part III

BACH: Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003
BERIO: Sequenza VIII
HARBISON: For Violin Alone (World premiere, 92Y co-commission)
BACH: Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005

 

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Jennifer Koh plays Chaconne from Bach, Partita No. 2 in D minor.

Explore the Music

(Click the names below to expand info.)

Statement from the Artist

By Jennifer Koh

The six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by Bach have long been considered definitive works for solo violin. While exploring the history of solo violin works written from Bach’s time to the present day, I have found direct and indirect connections to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas in nearly every composition I have uncovered. Although written nearly 300 years ago, they have proven to be a summit for composers and violinists today and throughout Western classical music history.

I have always believed that music is a direct conversation and reflection of the world in which we live. Having grown up in a time when people have declared classical music to be a dead art form, I have found it necessary to understand why I am committed to this art form and why I believe classical music is relevant and meaningful to present society. I have found that contemporary music recreates the thread that connects us to past works of art and ultimately shapes how we listen and perform music from all times.

Bach and Beyond presents the works of Bach that I have long loved, in communion with the music of contemporary composers that I am dedicated to championing. I hope that each program helps strengthen the connection between our past and present worlds through a historical journey of solo violin works, from the six Sonatas and Partitas by Bach to newly commissioned works. I am grateful to the 92nd Street Y for presenting all three parts of Bach and Beyond.

Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas were written over a 17-year period and, to parallel his wide range in age and life experience as he wrote these works, I commissioned composers who not only varied in age but came from distinct schools of composition. Bach and Beyond Parts I and II included premieres by composers Phil Kline, Missy Mazzoli, Kaija Saariaho, and John Zorn, as well as video artist Tal Rosner. Completing the commissions in Bach and Beyond Part III is American composer John Harbison, an éminence grise of American music, with a new work titled For Violin Alone.

I have come to understand Bach’s complete works for solo violin as a musical journal of his life and development as an artist. While Bach and Beyond Parts I and II explored themes of birth and transcendence, Part III explores the idea of development by highlighting the evolution of Bach’s fugal form. Bach’s second and third sonatas contain fugues that expand upon the one in his first sonata in both size and motif. This form reaches its apex in the C-major fugue of the third sonata, Bach’s largest movement in all his works for solo violin and a testament to the form’s architectural possibilities.

While the fugue is a form that creates development through the layering of a single musical theme, Bach and Beyond Part III as a program is analogous to this form in how it pairs its two Bach sonatas with music that has very literal connections to other Bach works from Bach and Beyond Parts I and II. Both Berio’s Sequenza VIII and Harbison’s For Violin Alone are based on Bach’s Partita form: Sequenza VIII is based on the Chaconne from Partita No. 2, while For Violin Alone consists of six dance movements with an additional epilogue. Ultimately, I hope that the overlapping themes of Bach’s music as highlighted in each individual program of Bach and Beyond will come to life in today’s program: Bach’s music transformed within the works by Berio and Harbison, creating a circularity and symmetry.

Photo: Jennifer Koh performs Salonen’s Lachen verlernt with video by Tal Rosner at Part I, Sunday, January 30, 2011. (Cory Weaver)

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Introduction—by Sandra Hyslop

The surviving fair-hand copy of J. S. Bach’s Sei Solo [Six solo—sic] for violin contains three formal violin sonatas in alternation with three more playful partitas (multi-movement dance suites). Bach’s sense of proportion and balance moved him, in copying out the pieces in a particular order, to alternate the three sonatas with the three dance suites. With a similar sense of balance, Ms. Koh has created a concert that presents the formality of Bach solo violin sonatas in tandem with modern approaches to 18th-century musical form: Bach’s A-minor Sonata precedes Berio’s chaconne, Sequenza VIII, and the Bach C-major Sonata follows Harbison’s new seven-movement partita, For Violin Alone.

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JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH

Born in Eisenach, March 31, 1685; died in Leipzig, July 28, 1750
Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003
Composed ca. 1720; 21 minutes

The six works of Bach’s Sei solo comprise three four-movement sonatas (catalogued as BWV 1001, 1003, 1005) and three multimovement partitas, or suites of dances (BWV 1002, 1004, 1006), a collection that has become the ne plus ultra of the violinist’s solo repertoire. The three solo violin sonatas have in common a similar sequence of movements: a solemn introductory movement, a fugue, a third movement in a contrasting key and slow-to-moderate tempo, and a lively, dance-like finale.

The full A-minor opening chord of the Sonata No. 2 sets a ceremonious tone. The movement’s extended swirls of melodic trills and flourishes lend an elegant air to the proceedings, which culminate in a cadence on the dominant, E. Lingering there in an octave double-stop, the violin maintains a moment of suspension at the end of the first movement, as the ear waits for a resolution of the cadence.

That resolution comes in the main subject of the Fugue, which flows from the suspended E to a brisk little melody that introduces the second movement. Bach develops this wisp—only two measures long—into a fullfledged, masterful flight of virtuosic material. He completes the vibrant journey on a triumphant cadence in A major.

The Andante, in C major, is a strolling duet. The arioso upper voice is accompanied by a beating heart, a pulsing reminder of the human essence that underlies the music. This movement is deceptively simple, requiring exquisite balance and refinement from the violin and rendering breathtaking beauty in its brevity.

Bach closes the Second Sonata with a relentless perpetuum mobile in A minor. Prescribing an echo effect in the repetitions of 16th-note phrases, he asks for fleet fingers and attention to dynamic contrasts that complete the sonata with resounding confidence.

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LUCIANO BERIO: Sequenza VIII, for Solo Violin

LUCIANO BERIO

Born in Oneglia, Italy, October 24, 1925; died in Rome, May 27, 2003
Sequenza VIII, for Solo Violin
Composed in 1976; 15 minutes

Over a period of 44 years (1958–2002), Luciano Berio composed 14 works that he entitled “Sequenza,” most of them for a solo instrument and all of them presenting formidable challenges to the performers. He composed his Sequenza VIII, for Solo Violin in 1976 under a commission from Serena de Bellis, who was then the curator of the vast Frank V. de Bellis collection of Italian books and recordings at San Francisco State College. The dedicatee of Sequenza VIII, the violinist Carlo Chiarappa, performed the world premiere in La Rochelle the following year.

Luciano Berio’s own program note for this work provides valuable clues to its substance:

To compose Sequenza VIII has been like paying a personal debt to the violin, which to me is one of the most subtle and complex of instruments. I studied violin myself, while I was already learning the piano and before starting the clarinet (my father wanted me to practice “all” the instruments), and I have always maintained a strong attraction for this instrument (mixed, however, with rather tormented feelings, perhaps because I was already 13—much too late—when I started my violin lessons).

While almost all the other Sequenzas develop to an extreme degree a very limited choice of instrumental possibilities, Sequenza VIII deals with a larger and more global view of the violin and can be listened to as a development of instrumental gestures. Sequenza VIII is built around two notes (A and B), which—as in a chaconne—act as a compass in the work’s rather diversified and elaborate itinerary, where polyphony is no longer virtual, but real, and where the soloist must make the listener constantly aware of the history behind each instrumental gesture. Sequenza VIII, therefore, becomes inevitably a tribute to that musical apex, the “Ciaccona” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita in D minor, where—historically—past, present and future violin techniques coexist. Berio’s brilliant tribute to Bach is punctuated by aggressive chords, and the tension generated by the A-B conflict is modulated by a brief passage of lyricism. A long, held double-stopped A-B interrupts the perpetual motion, and the journey ends in fading sounds.

In an interview with Rossana Dalmonte (published in 1982), Berio spoke at length about his Sequenza series:

In the Sequenzas as a whole there are various unifying elements…The most obvious and external one is virtuosity…. Virtuosity often arises out of a conflict, a tension between the musical idea and the instrument, between concept and musical substance…[As] I’ve often emphasized, anyone worth calling a virtuoso these days has to be a musician capable of moving within a broad historical perspective and resolving the tension between the creativity of yesterday and today. My own Sequenzas are always written with this sort of interpreter in mind, whose virtuosity is, above all, a virtuosity of Knowledge. (I’ve got no interest in, or patience for, those who ‘specialize’ in contemporary music.)

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JOHN HARBISON: For Violin Alone (world premiere, 92Y co-commission)

JOHN HARBISON

Born in Orange, New Jersey, December 20, 1938
For Violin Alone (world premiere, 92Y co-commission)
Composed in 2014; 21 minutes

In For Violin Alone John Harbison has composed a 21st-century analogue to the three partitas that Bach composed around 1720 for his collection. Composed in 2014, for this final program in Jennifer Koh’s Bach and Beyond series, For Violin Alone is being performed for the first time tonight. The commission was underwritten by the 92nd Street Y; Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley; and the University Music Society at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

In For Violin Alone Harbison consciously emulates the 18th-century dance suite, or partita, a form that J. S. Bach so brilliantly, and repeatedly, epitomized in works for keyboard as well as for violin. Such sets of partitas like the English Suites and the French Suites for solo keyboard have received justifiable acclaim; yet, Bach’s talent for creating rich harmonies and a multiinstrument sound from one slender instrument with four strings certainly stands as a singular achievement. Like Bach in his Partitas, Harbison creates in For Violin Alone a rich harmonic palette through doublestopped strings, evocative voice-leading and supple polyphony.

The title of the opening movement, Ground, refers to the term “ground bass.” In Baroque theme-and-variation forms, such as the chaconne, the main melodic theme frequently occurred first in the bass line. This recurring melodic element supported the continuing variations, both harmonic and rhythmic, that were laid over it. In this case, Harbison creates a twelve-bar introductory passage that provides the basis for five variations. Moderate in tempo, the variations, each 12 measures in length, explore the violin’s wide range of dynamics and expressive articulations.

Dance 1, in 3/4 measure, alternates running 16th notes with jaunty double-stopped, slurred 8th-note figures and staccato triplets. Wide dynamic contrasts and displaced accents enliven the dance, which ends on an inconclusive cadence. As the title suggests, Air is a lyrical movement. Its freedom is evident in the score’s notation, which sketches the melodic material in measures that flow from 3/4 to 4/4, 7/8 to 2/4, 5/8 to 9/8, and so on throughout the movement. The cantabile character is supported by legato melodies, gentle pizzicatos and requests for “flautando,” in which the violinist achieves a flute-like character from the strings.

March does, indeed, march along, with dry and assertive phrases providing the principal melodic materials. These phrases are punctuated by mysterious flourishes of 32ndnote comments that repeat throughout the movement. Dance 2 returns to 3/4 measure. A six-bar introduction in moderate tempo is followed by a rapid barrage of 8th notes that barely pause for breath—until the end, an 18-bar coda which completes Dance 2 in a quiet, fantastic game of chase between two strings. This ending sets up the Duet’s two voices, which proceed without pause from Dance 2. Tightly woven polyphony characterizes the Duet, as the voices stay within the interval of a sixth from each other, singing separately and singing together. At the final note of the Duet the voices sing an octave interval on D, which carries over without pause to the Epilogue. Here, the duet continues, albeit looser, more flowingly. In the last three bars, the soprano voice descends to meet the ascending alto, and the two voices converge on a final G, then swell expressively in a messa di voce, only to fade away to nothing.

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JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH

Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005
Composed ca. 1720; 24 minutes

The dotted rhythm that opens the Sonata No. 3 creates a stately mood that is maintained throughout the first movement, marked Adagio. Written in 3/4 measure, the melodic material—based on a dotted 8th and 16th note figure—is accompanied by increasingly complex double-stops. Occasional 32nd-note flourishes add an elegant air. The movement ends on a G-major chord (the dominant of C major), which is resolved in the second movement, the Fuga.

For his fugue subject Bach chose the chorale tune “Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott” (“Come Holy Ghost, Lord God”). From this simple four-bar melody he built a fugue of immense complexity—and difficulty—for the performer. In spite of modulations and digressions to other, sometimes remote, keys, the chorale tune remains present. Descending slowly from the complexity, Bach completes the fugal journey in a simple articulation of a C-major arpeggio and a broad C-major chord in four voices.

The Largo—in the subdominant key of F major—is a highly ornamented arioso interlude. This lyrical movement provides an oasis between the preceding fugue, with its elaborations, and the rapid Allegro assai that follows. The final movement, with its running 16th-note figures, brings the Sonata No. 2 to a brilliant, dancing close.

© 2015, Sandra Hyslop

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Artist Bio

Jennifer Koh, violin

Violinist Jennifer Koh is recognized for her intense, commanding performances, delivered with dazzling virtuosity and technical assurance. She is dedicated to performing the violin repertoire of all eras, from traditional to contemporary, believing that the past and present form a continuum.

The exploration of Bach’s music and its influence in today’s musical landscape has played an important role in Ms. Koh’s artistic journey. At the same time she is passionate in her efforts to expand the repertoire for violin and has commissioned and premiered works by today’s foremost composers. These two interests melded into Bach and Beyond, a three-part recital series begun in 2009 that explores the history of solo violin repertoire, from Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas to modern-day works. In 2012 she launched Two x Four—a project that pairs Bach’s Double Violin Concerto with newly commissioned double concerti—with former teacher and violinist Jaime Laredo; and she frequently performs the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas in a single concert.

Last May Ms. Koh launched Off Stage on Record, a video series that gives a behind-the-scenes look at the life and career of a concert artist. The first three documentary-style episodes—“Creativity,” “Collaboration” and “Body”—are available on Ms. Koh’s YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/jenniferkohviolin). In April 2015 she will launch Bridge to Beethoven, a recital series with pianist Shai Wosner, pairing Beethoven’s complete violin sonatas with new works by Anthony Cheung, Vijay Iyer and Andrew Norman.

Cedille Records releases Bach and Beyond Part 2, Ms. Koh’s tenth album on the label, in February 2015. Her Cedille discography includes Two x Four, a recording of the aforementioned project; Signs, Games + Messages with Mr. Wosner, performing works by Janacˇek, Bartok and Kurtag; Bach & Beyond Part 1; the Grammy-nominated String Poetic, featuring the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s eponymous work; and others.

Born in Chicago of Korean parents, Ms. Koh has been heard with leading orchestras around the world including the New York and Czech philharmonics; Cleveland, Mariinsky Theatre and Philadelphia orchestras; the BBC London, Chicago, Lahti, Montreal and National symphonies; and the Orquestra Sinfonica do Estado de Sao Paulo in Brazil. A prolific recitalist, she frequently appears at major music centers and festivals. She made her debut with the Chicago Symphony at age 11 and went on to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and to receive an Avery Fisher Career Grant. Her website is jenniferkoh.com.

Photo: Juergen Frank

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