Jennifer Koh and Anssi Karttunen knew that their collaboration had a future when they met one day for a rehearsal in Koh’s apartment. “Finns also take off their shoes when they go inside,” said Koh. “That’s also a Korean tradition. If we’re all in my apartment, yes, we’re all playing barefoot.”
Koh is a Korean-American violinist based in New York with a busy solo career and series of well-received recordings. Karttunen, a Finnish cellist, lives in Paris, where he too maintains a solo schedule and an active agenda commissioning new pieces.
The two musicians met in 2003 during the grand-opening festival for Zankel Hall, where both were featured soloists. As is typical in the classical music business, they developed a mutual admiration society, raving about each others' recordings and programs but never quite connecting.
Then one night in 2005, Koh showed up backstage at a recital Karttunen was giving at Lincoln Center. Talk of a collaboration quickly followed. “I had Jenny’s incredible recording of the Schumann Sonatas on my iPod,” said Karttunen. “When Jenny turned up after my concert it was like, ‘oh, I’ve always wanted to talk with you about your Schumann recording.’ We were already in mid-conversation without knowing each other.”
“It was great,” said Koh. “I felt already that we had a kinship musically and in terms of the kinds of music we like and how we build programs.”
The two musicians both felt that a rich violin-and-cello repertoire was waiting to be explored, and soon they began rehearsing pieces by Ravel, Kodaly, Villa-Lobos, Honegger and others. Karttunen notes that the bulk of their repertoire comes from the mid-twentieth century.
“Between 1920 and 1940 there were a whole bunch of pieces that came out of nowhere,” he explained. “Then it calmed down for a while. Now people are starting to write pieces again. Eliot Carter has written one, for instance.”
The two artists have also begun commissioning new works for violin and cello, and on Tuesday at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, they premiered a piano trio by Magnus Lindberg, with the composer performing the piano part.
In the WQXR café, Koh and Karttunen presented a movement from the Duo for Violin and Cello by Erwin Schulhoff – a 1925 piece steeped in Czech folk music. “What’s nice about these pieces is there’s some much atmosphere in them and a certain coloration between the two instruments that we can create,” said Koh.
In this clip, Koh and Karttunen discuss the language of rehearsing:
Text: Brian Wise; Interview: Naomi Lewin; Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber