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On “Bach and Beyond,” by Jennifer Koh
Bach and Beyond presents the works of Bach that I have long loved in communion with the contemporary music of composers that I am dedicated to. I hope that each program will strengthen the connection between the six Sonatas and Partitas by Bach and our present world through a historical journey of solo violin works from Bach to the commissioning of new works by contemporary composers. I am grateful to 92nd Street Y for presenting all three parts of Bach and Beyond.
When exploring solo violin works written from Bach’s time to the present day, I find 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 that we live in. Having grown up in a time when people declared classical music to be a dead art form, I found it necessary to understand why I am committed to this art form and why I believe classical music is relevant and meaningful to the present society. I find 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 time periods.
The six Sonatas and Partitas of Bach have long been considered definitive works written for solo violin. These works were never commissioned nor are they known to have been performed publicly in Bach’s lifetime, and I have come to understand these works as an intensely personal and intimate musical journal that Bach was compelled to write over 17 years out of a pure need to create them. I have come to understand this music as a musical expression of his life, his birth and his development as an artist.
Bach and Beyond II is a celebration of the beginnings of artistic life in parallel with composers Bartok and Kline. The program opens with the Sonata in G minor, the very first work of Bach’s set for solo violin, and it represents the beginning of this journey, the introduction into a transformation and a portent of things to come. It then moves to Phil Kline’s Dead Reckoning, the first work that Phil has written for solo violin. Dead Reckoning is literally a partita in that it contains parts of his experience of the days before and during Hurricane Irene in 2011. One can hear the grayness of the light and the ominous calls of birds during that period of time. The naming of the work Dead Reckoning came into existence after his experience of Hurricane Sandy in New York in 2012. Dead Reckoning ends with what I hear as bagpipes, perhaps a prediction of what was to come in 2012.
The B-minor Partita by Bach is perhaps the least performed of all of his works for solo violin. This may be due to the length or the inherent technical difficulties in the work because of the double movements (parallel movements to each of the four main movements). I hold this particular work in high regard not only because this is Bach’s first exploration of the partita form, but because I believe the key of B minor holds great significance in Bach’s work, with his relationship to this key reaching its culmination in his Mass in B minor.
Bartok’s Sonata for solo violin closes this program and serves as a point of connection to each program of Bach and Beyond, from the opening movement Ciaconna to the Fuga. Although Bartok’s Sonata was his first work for solo violin, it was written late in his life. While writing in his own harmonic language, he closely relates the structure of his sonata to Bach’s solo violin writing. Bartok’s Sonata expands the violin’s expressive capabilities with micro-tones and pizzicato and leads the listener forward to what is possible and what will and can develop in solo violin composition.
In celebration of the spirit of this program, I would like to dedicate this recital to my first violin teacher, Jo Davis.
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BACH: Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Born Eisenach, March 21, 1685; died Leipzig, July 28, 1750
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001
Composed c. 1720; 15 minutes
In December 1717, at the age of 32, Johann Sebastian Bach received an appointment as Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen in Brandenburg. Prince Leopold, a 23-year-old man of refined taste, expected weekly concerts and an ample flow of music for special occasions. The Prince was of a strict Calvinist religious persuasion and had little need for sacred music.
Bach and his new employer enjoyed a warm relationship, and the four years in the Anhalt-Cöthen court saw the composition of many of Bach’s most well-known secular instrumental works. Among them was the set of three sonatas and three partitas for solo violin.
Bach’s Sei solo (“Six solos,” his term) not only constitute a musical challenge for the violinist but also stand as an exemplarium of 17th-century instrumental styles—sonata, partita, suite, fugue and more. The score of Sei solo survives in a fair-hand copy dated 1720; Bach himself, who was a capable violinist, and other musicians may have performed the works, and he might well have used the six solos as teaching material for his students. No confirming documents exist.
Bach’s titles bear some explanation. At that time—approaching 1720—“sonatas” were understood to indicate instrumental works for strings or winds, as opposed to “toccatas,” instrumental works for organ or other keyboard, and “cantatas,” works for voice. In his Sei solo, Bach alternated the formal “sonata” with a more playful style, the “partita.” The partita, also known as a “suite,” was a set of instrumental dances that would include, typically, such popular forms as minuet, gigue, bourrée, gavotte, allemande and sarabande. They could be grouped in any pleasing arrangement of contrasting tempos.
The Sei solo, then, comprised a grand quilt of contrasting styles—alternating three formal sonatas with three informal partitas—and within those six works, a kaleidoscopic mix of dances and fugues in contrasting styles, tempos and moods. Unlike the usual performance practice, which was to have one or two other musicians, such as a cello and bass, accompany the featured soloist, these six pieces were to be performed by one violinist alone. The occasional attempts over the years to provide “accompaniments” have been superfluous. The six works stand securely on their own as the ne plus ultra of the violinist’s solo repertoire.
The first two movements of the Sonata No. 1 might be thought of as a Prelude and Fugue. A confident, three-voiced G-minor chord opens the prelude—Adagio. It is a meditation whose extended melody reaches two cadences, in D minor and C minor, before coming to rest in the tonic key of G minor. The following fugue subject comprises a theme built on four eighth notes and two sixteenths, upon which the lively four-voiced fugue is built.
The Siciliana, a gentle dance, is carried by two voices in a treble duet, with a third voice adding punctuation in a lower register. The Sonata closes with a Presto perpetuum mobile.
© 2013 Sandra Hyslop
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KLINE: Dead Reckoning
Born Pittsburgh, February 10, 1953
Composed in 2011; 10 minutes
Phil Kline wrote “a partita for solo violin” for the violinist Jennifer Koh, who performed it publicly for the first time on November 11, 2012, at the Toronto Royal Conservatory. For the occasion, Mr. Kline provided “a personal note” about the work:
“I wrote the Partita in the quiet of Spencertown, New York, during the summer of 2011. It was the summer of Hurricane Irene, sullen and inclement, and I took my marching orders from that, walking the Taconic foothills on damp overcast days, looking for something. I told Jenny I was writing a piece about ‘walking, worrying and watching birds.’ There do seem to be allusions to birdsong—the jumpy contours of Red-Winged Blackbird, Towhee and Wood Thrush, all plentiful in those environs, but no conscious quotation, just the surroundings poking through.
“Bach solo violin works were strictly embargoed for the summer’s listening, so of course I thought about them a lot, subconsciously. And then there was a chance radio encounter with Tartini, which may have provided a mysterious key. There is something of a frustrated spiritual search going on in the piece, a series of alternating meditations and struggles without heroic resolution, only movement onward and grudgingly upward, with a brief glimpse of peace at the end."
Despite the composer’s admission of restlessness in composing the piece, the music is not so introverted as to discourage a listener’s attention. Rather, it invites participation in the composer’s search. The violinist explores music that traverses open spaces at a variety of tempi. The considerable technical demands lie for the most part in the management of rapid arpeggiation and tricky double stops, rather than scalar materials. The opening material of the suite, a melodic element encompassing the interval of an upward tenth, predicts a recurring thematic element of the entire suite.
The opening of “nervous birds”—the upward-soaring tenth—asks for improvisatory playing from the violinist. Its 24 bars are carefully notated, but it retains a free spirit throughout. “pacing” trudges along, without getting far, over 17 bars of austere double stops, before closing on a single tone.
“two birds, one branch,” employs the original upward-tenth interval as the basis for a rapid-fire, staccato sparring match. “high ground” opens with the upward tenth figure; a center section explores nervous trilling; and the piece closes with a return to slow double stops, similar to those of “pacing.” This time the traveler reaches high ground.
The wide open intervals of “flying over” are executed at a rapid tempo—forty bars of flying. Although the melodic material of the “solitary song” contains some stepwise elements, this piece maintains its searching character by continued use of wide-spaced intervals. The final section, “feels like far,” contains references from the first piece, “nervous birds”; it sends the violin on a virtuosic flurry, and closes with an exquisite, wistful meditation in double stops that fade to a single tone.
Since the premiere of the work, the composer has created a permanent title for this suite, “Dead Reckoning.” Of that choice Kline writes: “Since the emotional background of the piece had to do with frustrated wandering, I chose Dead Reckoning. It refers to a kind of fallible navigation technique based on point-to-point observation and guesswork, so in this case it really should be ‘ded,’ for deduced reckoning. But also in Dead Reckoning there is the sense of wandering without a goal (an easy way to get lost in the woods if you're not paying attention) and the intimation of some sort of metaphysical numbness."
Phil Kline is hailed for excelling in multiple genres and contexts, from experimental electronics and sound installations to traditional forms. Among his early works is the Christmas cult classic Unsilent Night, a procession with boom boxes. His latest works include dreamcitynine for percussion and smartphones, commissioned by Lincoln Center Out of Doors, and a new song cycle, Out Cold, which premiered last October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. His website is philkline.com.
© 2013 Sandra Hyslop
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BACH: Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002
Composed c. 1720; 26 minutes
The collection of violin works that Bach entitled Sei solo comprises three pairs of sonatas and partitas. As explained in the commentary for the Sonata in G minor (q.v., above), the Partita No. 1 in B minor was meant as a playful companion to the more formal Sonata in G minor.
The four dances of this partita were well known to Bach’s contemporaries. From the first notes, they would have immediately recognized the styles: the Allemanda, a German couples’ dance; the Corrente, a French courtship dance; the Sarabande, which originated as a lively dance in Spain, but which slowed to a stately pace in its migration to northern lands; and the Bourrée, a French couples’ dance.
The first three, Allemanda-Corrente-Sarabande, formed a standard grouping in Baroque instrumental suites, with the Bourrée a common optional movement. In the Partita No. 1 for Solo Violin, Bach follows each of these dances with a “double,” a French word meaning “variation.” In the Baroque era, the “double” varied the original theme by adding ornaments to the melodies—like a “da capo aria”—and frequently, as Bach demonstrates, increased the tempo.
© 2013 Sandra Hyslop
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Born Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, March 25, 1881; died New York, September 26, 1945
Composed in 1944; 26 minutes
In November 1943, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, deeply attached to Béla Bartók’s music and distressed by the composer’s financial plight as a recent immigrant to the US, commissioned Bartók to compose a sonata for unaccompanied violin. Bartók began the composition in New York and finished it the following March in Asheville, North Carolina, where he was attempting to recuperate from a serious illness (later diagnosed as leukemia). He was able to attend Menuhin’s premiere performance of the Sonata in New York on November 26, 1944.
Having heard Menuhin play his First Sonata for Violin and Piano and admiring his musicianship, Bartók wrote a work that conformed closely to the violinist’s particular style and artistry. In the course of its composition, Bartók and Menuhin found it necessary to make only minor changes in the score. One of the most challenging pieces in the violin repertoire, with left-hand pizzicato, difficult harmonics, and double-, triple-, and quadruple-stops, the Sonata for Violin by Bartók is also one of the most admired.
As the title indicates, the first movement, Tempo di ciaccona, emulates the chaconne style. It is an austere movement, roughly in sonata form, with themes based on Hungarian folk dances and harmonies. The fugue, at first in three voices, does not adhere to strict fugue rules, but diverges into a fast-paced melody with an accompaniment and a series of chords that are both bowed and plucked. It is as though the fugue form could not contain this tour de force.
The Melodia: Adagio is an elaborate, heartfelt melody that the violin sings in all its registers, from contralto to soprano. Double stops, with trilling, ornately ornamented figures, expand the scope of its lyricism. The sonata closes with a lively Presto movement that alternates between quiet buzzing of muted strings and extroverted melodic materials. Three basic themes all come together in the coda, and the sonata concludes with an optimistic flourish.
© 2013 Sandra Hyslop
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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 forms a continuum.
Since the 1994-95 season when she won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the Concert Artists Guild Competition in New York and an Avery Fisher Career Grant, Ms. Koh has been heard with leading orchestras and conductors around the world; last month she made her New York Philharmonic subscription debut performing Lutosławski’s Chain 2. Also a prolific recitalist, she appears frequently at major music centers and festivals. In addition to tonight’s concert, Ms. Koh is presenting “Bach and Beyond, Part II” in Toronto, Berkeley and elsewhere; in two weeks she will perform Bach’s complete Sonatas for Solo Violin in a single concert in Houston. Last fall, she became the first female to perform the solo violin role of Einstein in Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach in New York and Berkeley, presented in celebration of Glass’s 75th birthday.
Ms. Koh is passionate in her effort to expand the violin repertoire, and she has established relationships with many of today’s composers, regularly commissioning and premiering new works. In addition to her “Bach and Beyond” project, which she launched in 2009, Ms. Koh recently began a new project called “Two x Four,” which celebrates the relationship between teacher and student through music. With the title referring to two violinists and four works, Ms. Koh is joined by Jamie Laredo, her former teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music, in performances of works for two violins and orchestra by Bach, Philip Glass, and newly commissioned pieces by composers Anna Clyne and David Ludwig. Mr. Laredo and Ms. Koh have already performed works from the project with the Chicago and Delaware symphonies and the IRIS Orchestra and future engagements are scheduled for the Curtis Chamber Orchestra and Vermont Symphony. Also a committed educator, Ms. Koh has been praised for her performances in classrooms around the country under her “Music Messenger” outreach program, now in its eighth year.
Ms. Koh brings a similar sense of adventure and musicianship to her recordings. Her most recent recording, with works from “Bach and Beyond, Part I,” was released by Cedille in October 2012. Other recent releases include Telarc’s The Singing Rooms, a concerto for violin with chorus by Jennifer Higdon; and from Cedille, Rhapsodic Musings: 21st Century Works for Solo Violin and a Grammy® Award-nominated album featuring Higdon’s “String Poetic.” Ms. Koh’s website is jenniferkoh.com.
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