Violinist Jennifer Koh on Preparing For a Newly-Commissioned Work
American violinist Jennifer Koh shares her tips and insights for premiering a newly-commissioned work
Commissioning a work from a living musician or luthier can be an exciting and life-changing process. There is the human interaction during the creation of the art piece which comes together as an organic whole. New or contemporary music can be both musically and technically demanding so how should we best approach these pieces, especially if we are the ones commissioning them?
American violin virtuoso Jennifer Koh shares her expert advice on the topic.
Violinist Jennifer Koh discusses the preparations needed For a Newly-Commissioned Work
JENNIFER KOH | CHRISTOPHER CERRONE | CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN AND ORCHESTRA ‘BREAKS AND BREAKS’ | PETER OUNDJIAN & DETROIT SYMPHONY | 2018 WORLD PREMIERE PERFORMANCE
The process of studying scores and always pushing myself to learn and study music is the most rewarding part of my life as a musician. For me, there is joy that comes from the discovery process of understanding the meaning behind the notes. The process is transformative – a kind of alchemy that turns notes into music – with the composer’s voice and being becoming part of myself. I love this process of immersion when my own body and mind become the vessel of action and embodiment of the music. The magic happens when the composer and composition become a part of my own DNA.
Whether I am preparing to perform a newly discovered work by a composer I have long known and loved, ranging from Bach to Beethoven to Saariaho, or for the premiere of a new work, this alchemy process is the same. When I prepare works by Bach, I study the scores of his Masses and Passions, and not only his works written for violin. I get chills down my spine when I find conscious or subconscious connections between composers’ earlier and later works and this always creates a new point of inspiration for me. In the same way, I also study all the works of composers that I commission and not just their violin works.
I first discovered Chris Cerrone through his piano works and his opera, Invisible Cities. I was curious about his compositional voice and then asked him to write a solo violin work for “Shared Madness” and after receiving his piece, Shall I Project A World, I immediately asked him to write a violin concerto for me which will premiere with the Detroit Symphony this weekend! While preparing for this concerto, I also heard new works of his, written for percussion and voice.
The primary difference in preparing an older work which I’ve known and performed for decades is that I spend a lot of time working to disentangle myself from musical assumptions that can come from influences of previous performances of these works by myself or others.
I always return to the score itself and often will work off of clean scores with no fingerings so that I can “clean out” familiarity and habit. I try to be conscious of not simply phrasing out of habit and to never work from a place of previous performance practices. I want to discover my own path and understanding of music, whether it is old or new!!
The process of always seeking a new way to approach the classics is challenging but liberating for me in all repertoire. However, I believe that the choices of fingering and bowing are integral parts of interpretation. It shapes how I can ultimately phrase in the music. I love working on premieres of new works because I am totally unencumbered and free to find my own musical path within the music.
In the end, the process of returning to a work I already know, or learning a new work freshly written for a premiere, is almost identical. There is great excitement in discovering a new work, whether one that is older and unknown, or a new work that is being given its first performance.
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Recognized for intense, commanding performances, delivered with dazzling virtuosity and technical assurance, violinist Jennifer Koh is a forward-thinking artist dedicated to exploring a broad and eclectic repertoire, while promoting equity and inclusivity in classical music. She has expanded the contemporary violin repertoire through a wide range of commissioning projects and has premiered more than 100 works written especially for her. Her quest for the new and unusual, sense of endless curiosity, and ability to lead and inspire a host of multidisciplinary collaborators, truly set her apart.