In Jennifer Koh’s hands, it would seem a violin can do anything, or maybe it’s just that Koh can play anything on the violin.
Koh presented a solo recital Friday night at the Experimental Media and Performance Arts Center that was part of her six-year, three-recital series called Bach and Beyond, which explores the violin’s repertoire.
Every piece she chose was a tour de force and showed off not only her formidable technique, but also her equally elastic versatility.
Standing alone on stage in a spotlight, with the large crowd in darkness, she began with Bach’s majestic Sonata No. 1 in G minor. Beyond this almost mystical beginning, what was most curious was how almost every other work on the program owed something to Bach’s structure, his fluid chromatic harmonies and even how he presented his ideas.
Playing without accompaniment, Koh used little vibrato to phrase the opening movement’s long, melancholic lines. Her second movement was light and not too fast, with vigorous bowing. Her slow third movement was paced steadily and set up the fleet and intense final movement.
In sharp contrast were the next three works, all written by composers born after 1952. Kaija Saariaho’s “... de la Terre” used a recording of a man’s whispers against distant bird calls and the sound of wind through trees. Koh was amplified with much reverb and tones echoed and repeated. Most of what she played were harmonics, tremolos and harsh scrappings, but the colors shimmered like glass panels in a breeze, with green, blue and white lights shooting through to create an other worldly perception just beyond the edge of a distant horizon.
Without stopping for applause, she launched into Phil Kline’s “Partita,” which was like Bach with modern voicings. There was repetition, discordant passages and tonal shifts, and it all ended with a Celtic lilt against a drone.
John Zorn’s “Passagen,” meanwhile, was violent, with squeals, squeaks, long runs, harmonics, glissandos, harsh pluckings and tremolos that would quickly shift to whispers. Colors were brazen or coy, and the energy was unrelenting. It was like the age of chaos, but Koh was very animated and in total control of the myriad details. She seemed to revel in the work’s unpredictability.
She saved enough to play Bartok’s Sonata, another work requiring much virtuosity and a sensibility that could move from harshness to tenderness in the wink of an eye. Koh was a fierce interpreter and played the four movements with an intense passion, for which the crowd rewarded her a standing ovation.