Somewhere along the way in her 20-some year career, Jennifer Koh jumped off the violin soloist treadmill in favor of less familiar paths and creative channels.
She fashioned an ongoing recital series called “Bach and Beyond” that involves juxtapositions of Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas with contemporary works by composers like Phil Kline, Missy Mazzoli and Kaija Saariaho.
She gives her New York Philharmonic subscription debut this week not with a beloved warhorse like the Tchaikovsky or Brahms Concerto but Lutoslawski’s Chain 2, a dark, knotty work composed for Anne-Sophie Mutter in 1984.
And she has struck up a working relationship with the veteran theater and opera director Robert Wilson, which will expand this November in a staged version of Bach’s solo violin music in Paris.
Koh came to know Wilson when she appeared in the title role in a new touring production of Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass’s landmark opera that came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October.
“I was quite scared going into the rehearsal process because I’ve never acted or done anything in that way,” Koh, 36, told Jeff Spurgeon. “I’ve never played a character. In fact, for me, performing and being a musician is about being more myself there than anywhere else in a sense and being more purely human.
“I didn’t even know where stage right was. They were like, 'walk on to stage right' and I was like, 'which direction is this?’”
In the five-hour opera, Koh doesn’t just perform Glass's churning "Knee Plays" but dons the full Einstein costume, complete with silver wig and mustache. Wilson's acting coaching made a strong impression on Koh.
“In a way, I’ve been searching for a long time for this idea, [whether] doing 'Bach and Beyond,' or creating these projects," she said. "In the end it’s ‘how do you create an experience, and really create a journey for your audience?’ What Bob does with Einstein, with time, it changes your conception of that.”
Koh’s career got off to a start more typical of a child prodigy: she made her debut with the Chicago Symphony at age 11, studied at Oberlin College in her teens, and took home a silver medal at the 1994 Tchaikovsky Competition, the latter while wearing a poofy green dress. But in recent years she's shown an increasingly adventurous streak, as the choice of the Lutoslawski for her Philharmonic debut suggests.
"I believe it’s a great piece and it deserves to be heard more,” she said. “And more than that, the reason I’m happy to do it in New York is that so many of my composer colleagues and friends are in the city and there’s something about his music that is such an important voice that does need to be heard.”
In the WQXR Café, Koh performs selections the final two movements of Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2, a piece that she performed last year at an event for South Korea's First Lady Kim Yoon-ok, hosted by US First Lady Michelle Obama.
“I remembered that I was so excited when I met her at the receiving line that I almost knocked over the first lady of Korea,” Koh recalled. "I just hopped towards Michelle Obama to give her a hug. Then I had to give my apologies to the first lady of Korea. She was very lovely.”
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Ed Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview Jeff Spurgeon