Violinist Jennifer Koh is recognized for her intense, commanding performances delivered with dazzling virtuosity and technical assurance. A forward-thinking artist, she is 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.
American Composers Orchestra honored her as a “Force of Nature” in 2019, and collaborated on a new commission as part of Connecting ACO Community, ACO’s response to the Covid-19 shutdowns. Jennifer will perform the NY Premiere of Lisa Bielawa’s Sanctuary, written specifically for her, on March 25, 2022. We spoke with her recently about the upcoming performance and her deep commitment to new music.
Lyndsay Werking (LW): Can you tell me more about your work in American music, in particular, the New American Concerto project?
Jennifer Koh (JK): I feel so grateful to have this opportunity. We just premiered Missy Mazzoli’s concerto, Procession, with National Symphony in early February; the Cincinnati Symphony performance was last week. The project enables us to engage with the present day. Missy’s work was written during the pandemic and is all about healing rituals. It’s been so wonderful and a process full of joy to realize this piece with her, and share it with other musician and audiences. The pandemic is something that we’ve all lived through together. And I think this is a vital part of art – to communicate present and shared human experiences.
I advocate not only for American artists but those who haven’t been traditionally heard, including women composers and composers of color. I believe the way that classical music can have a future is being inclusive of everyone’s voices. We need to be reminded that the global majority in the world are people of color. With this realization, we begin to understand that if classical music does not include the voices of people who have not traditionally been given space to be heard, we become irrelevant. Ensuring a future for this art form is to advocate for our inclusion. Every choice, every decision, every action, is an action in history. What we in classical music do today will effect the future of this art form.
LW: Can you tell me about your project Alone Together?
JK: As musicians, we have to be able to imagine an end to a piece. With the pandemic, the first thing I knew was that there would be an end. Realizing that, I reflected back and thought, “What kind of person do I want to have been?” Was I someone who only cared about myself? Scared and crumpled up in a corner? I wanted to be someone that I could be proud of at the end. I wanted to be someone who cared about and helped others.
It wasn’t just about being scared as artists who lost all their work and income. It was a horrific and tragic time for everyone.
Track caption: Together, But Alone (In Quarantine) by Morgan Guerin.
I don’t come from a family of musicians. It wasn’t that long ago that I had graduated from school. It is not easy to be an artist much less an artist just beginning their careers. And to put a pandemic on top of that it meant that we could lose an entire generation of artists. I was lucky because my work was postponed. For a lot of artists, their work was cancelled. It could have been their first time working with an orchestra or string quartet and it disappeared. The opportunity to learn from others at a crucial stage in our lives as musicians. I have learned so much from other musicians and now those opportunities for younger musicians were gone at an especially critical time of artistic development.
As a freelancer, I know that we cobble together our income and every little bit can help. I founded a non-profit called ARCO Collaborative. We are a tiny organization, but the good thing about it is that we are an artist-led organization and our size makes us nimble and able to respond quickly to the times. I’m very grateful to my board for supporting the idea and moving it forward quickly. We passed Alone Together as a project in less than two weeks of the shelter in place order in New York. Usually, I do a lot of research before commissioning an artist. I listen to a recording, study their scores, go to live performances, and finally meet the person. But in the pandemic, I knew that it was a time of crisis for artists and I knew we had to move quickly so I commissioned composers who were recommended to me by my colleagues who mentored them.
LW: What vestiges of the pandemic do you think will remain in our industry?
JK: I hope it will inspire institutions to give artists more agency to create programs and curate seasons. In the pandemic, I saw that artists can envision and implement a future for the arts. I believe that we can imagine the future that we want to live in and then take every step to build that future.
Track caption: A Beloved Within by Anjna Swaminathan
LW: I spoke with composer Lisa Bielawa about writing Sanctuary. She said that much of her inspiration came from speaking with you and observing your efforts to protest travel bans to the United States. Can you tell me more about that?
JK: I think it’s about clarifying one’s mission in life. I think that the pandemic made all of us face mortality. And that makes me think about what I am doing for the future generations of artists and what actions I am taking for the future of classical music. That distillation of mission is what led to me writing the article for the New York Times. (Read full article here: A Violinist on How to Empower Asian Musicians)
I have students who are having exactly the same experiences that I did when I was their age. Of course, its uncomfortable to engage with issues like race. But I felt it was important to speak out to make things better for the next generation of artists. Hopefully, they will continue the necessary fight. I think they will because they know what’s right and what’s wrong. Through writing the article, I hope that younger musicians feel that they have agency and the right to speak out.
It was meaningful to hear from so many of my colleague after publishing the New York Times article. I didn’t realize before how much shared history I have with many of my colleagues, some of whom publicly look like the most successful artists.
Violence against Asian Americans is continuing to escalate and it is scary to look like me and walk outside of my home. Historically, Asian Americans have been told to keep our heads down, so that hopefully no one will think we are a threat to the current systems. But I wonder at what point others will others advocate for our safety. When will they ask to hear our stories?
LW: Do you follow any rituals?
JK: I’ve had this conversation so much with Missy. We both think about what we do for others. Of course, I want to be the best artist that I can be. That’s a given. But it is most important to have a mission in my life and realizing that life is about what actions we take to advocate for and help others. So I think my daily ritual consists of two things – trying to be the best artist I can be and thinking about how I can make a difference in the field.