5 minutes with violin virtuoso Jennifer Koh

31 Jan 2023
  • Meet the Artists
  • Musician Spotlight
by Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
5 minutes with violin virtuoso Jennifer Koh

Mark your calendars for March as dynamic violinist Jennifer Koh joins the ASO for a performance that promises a musical highlight of the 2023 Adelaide Festival! Jennifer has expanded the contemporary violin repertoire, premiering more than 100 works written especially for her. Get a glimpse into her musical journey through our Q&A where she shares her creative process, and what inspires her as an artist.

In an Australian premiere and exclusive to the Adelaide Festival you are performing Missy Mazzoli: Violin Concerto, Procession. The work was written partly in response to the pandemic, its theme of healing and each of the work’s five movements is based on a different medieval spell or charm. Tell us about the piece musically what can audiences expect to hear?
Missy and I have been working collaboratively together for many years. The first piece she wrote for me was over 10 years ago, and she also wrote three different solo violin pieces for me: Dissolve, O my Heart, Kinski Paganiniand Hail, Horrors, Hail, a pandemic project written in 2020. I think because I know her writing so well and she knows me so well as a musician that when she gave me the concerto it felt so organic, it spoke to the experience that we had had together through the course of the pandemic. We’ve also performed together which means she is able to allow me quite a bit of freedom on my part. At times my performance on the violin is a singular voice and at other times its really enmeshed within the orchestra.

Missy composed Procession over the course of 2021, the concerto’s themes are inspired by medieval rituals that emerged through the Plague. She explored music as a healing ritual, and how we use music to heal, it was written as a reminder at the time that things could always be worse.

You’ve worked with New Yorker Mazzoli on several occasions. What do you love about her and her work?
We’re just really good friends! We’ve worked together for so long and we’ve seen one another evolve as artists and that’s been a really beautiful thing. We know each other both personally and musically so well. And of course she is an extraordinary musician and an extraordinary person. I think this concerto really felt written for me. It’s got all these different elements – There’s technical things but there’s also really beautiful soaring melodies.

How involved were you in the compositional process with Mazzoli on Procession?
It’s a collaborative process and one built on trust. Missy trusted me to work out the score and know the balance was going to work, and work out what wouldn’t. Then we were lucky enough to go through it together in the same room when I was a creative partner at the Julliard School of Music where we did a reading of Procession and made revisions after that reading and some final changes with National Symphony before its debut as well.

Your work is described as varied and eclectic for a classical musician. What lead you to choose repertoire of this nature?
I just really love working with great artists, I love my community of artists and spending time together. I love the opportunity of being able to learn from one another, I don’t separate things it could be that they are a musician it could be that they are a composer or a performer, it could be that they are a director like Robert Wilson or a choreographer like Lucinda Childs or filmmakers. I just like to connect as artists and once connected you just want to make things together. It’s a pretty organic process.

When did you know you’d pursue a career in classical music?
Some people say they knew when they were super young they were going to be a soloist but even after I graduated from Curtis I was like “Oh God can I do this? I’m not sure?” So I’m definitely not a person that believed that or thought that. What I really felt was grateful for my mentors because they believed in me much sooner than I ever believed in myself and out of respect for them I continued.

You are a passionate advocate for promoting equity and inclusivity in classical music. As a female soloist, how has the classical music industry changed and how far do you think it has to go?
I hope things continue to change for the better. For me it’s important to have a mission in life that is beyond yourself, that is beyond just your own performance and it’s really been about advocating for others. It’s essentially analysing what we have done for others and looking at what can we leave behind.

The encouraging things that I see happening at the moment is my colleagues are also supporting and advocating for others. For example, Missy and Ellen Reid created Luna Lab, a unique program that provides mentorship and performance opportunities to composers ages 12-18 who are female-identifying, non-binary or gender non-conforming. Each participant in Luna Composition Lab is paired with an acclaimed female-identifying composer for a year of mentorship. I am hopeful when I see change happening like this, it gives me hope when I see my colleagues also have a mission in their life to advocate for and help others.

Where can you be found when you’re not performing on the international stage?
When it’s not hectic I love being a sloth, actually, my best inspiration comes out when I’m just lying on the floor looking up at the ceiling. It’s a necessary part of my creative process to recharge.

Actually what I missed the most during the pandemic was going to live performances, I love going to live performances whether that be theatre, opera, music concerts and dance. I love being at amazing performing arts venues around the world and seeing other artists at work being creative. I am excited to be performing as part of the Adelaide Festival and to be surrounded by like-minded creative artists.

What makes you happy?
Many things, it’s so complicated, but happiest is being with my community.

Finish this sentence: Music is…
Everything, it’s my life, in general art is everything!

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