The Oklahoman
By Brandy McDonnell
October 1, 2017
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Violinist Jennifer Koh returns to perform with Oklahoma City Philharmonic

For Jennifer Koh, making music is about so much more than just stringing together notes and movements.

“What music is about is the connection. It's a form of communication in the most human possible way. I think that's the essence of what music is,” she said.

The internationally acclaimed violinist clearly forged a sturdy connection when she made her debut with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic four years ago, since she is returning to play again with the OKC orchestra Saturday night at the Civic Center Music Hall.

“Jennifer is a charming, in-demand concert artist, and we were really pleased to have the opportunity to bring her back to OKC,” said OKC Philharmonic Executive Director Eddie Walker.

A prolific recording artist who also curates and commissions musical projects, Koh said traveling around the world to perform with orchestras remains a core aspect of her career.

“I love my community of musicians and my community of artists, and I love just music. I love sharing that with people, and I think music or making music is all about your ability to listen and hear, and so it's kind of a beautiful experience to go into the different communities and cities and be able to listen and hear those communities,” she said by phone from her home in New York City. “I'm just looking forward to playing with everyone.”

Matthew Troy, the OKC Philharmonic's education conductor, will wield the baton Saturday for the orchestra's second Classics concert of the 2017-18 season. The program will include the familiar overture of Rossini's comic opera “The Barber of Seville,” the impassioned prelude and "Liebestod" from Wagner's opera “Tristan and Isolde,” and Paul Hindemith's bold “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber.”

Koh will be featured on American composer Samuel Barber's 1939 “Violin Concerto,” the same piece she performed in her 2013 debut with the OKC Philharmonic. Walker said a soloist returning to play the same selection with an orchestra sometimes happens when programmers overlay what an artist is offering and what an orchestra has recently performed.

“We felt it would be a good chance to see how an artist's approach to a great piece of music might evolve over a period of time,” he said.

The violinist said she also is interested in discovering how her performance of the Barber concerto might have changed in the past four years.

“It's a constant evolution, I think, how one approaches a piece — and who you are, not only as a person, as a human being, but who you are as a musician. It'll be fascinating to see how the philharmonic has changed and shifted, how I've changed and shifted, so I think this is wonderful,” Koh said.

“It's just gratifying to play pieces that I really love, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do that. It's really a blessing.”

The Grammy-nominated musician said she favors the Barber concerto because “pure love and beauty is what this piece is about.”

“There's such a beauty in the kind of emotional openness of the piece, and there's a kind of visceral beauty to it because of that,” Koh said. “It's just like when you're just putting yourself out there and declaring your love for somebody. ... That's kind of a vulnerability in being that open, but there's such a profound beauty in that.”

Eclectic artist

Born and raised in the Chicago area, Koh said music lessons were just one of the myriad activities her parents signed her up for as a child, along with swimming, diving, gymnastics, ballet and ice skating. She ended up learning violin because the Suzuki-method program they enrolled her in had already filled all its spaces for piano and cello.

“I feel like I owe so much to my parents and to how they raised me. My mom was a refugee from North Korea during the Korean War ... and then she came to the United States once the Immigration and Naturalization Act happened in 1965. She worked as a nanny and then got her Ph.D. in, I think, three years. ... She wanted to give me everything that she didn't have,” Koh said.

“It (music) just spoke to me. It was just something that I felt connected to from the very beginning, and I think I always knew I wanted to have music in my life. It was never an established idea to have a career in music, like that concept was just totally foreign in my family. I think when you come out of war, they were like, ‘Who needs musicians? We need doctors, you should become a doctor.' That was more the general philosophy, but I feel so grateful that they gave me that opportunity and invested in me in that way.”

The little girl who took all kinds of lessons grew up into an artist who plays all kinds of music. While she will perform a 20th-century work in Oklahoma City, Koh is lauded for her recordings of Baroque period composer Johann Sebastian Bach and last year released an album of romantic period composer Peter Tchaikovsky's “Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra.” But she also is a champion of contemporary orchestral music and has premiered more than 50 works written especially for her.

“Just like I actually do love going to see Shakespeare plays, but I also love seeing plays that were just written, it's the same thing with music," Koh said. "I really do see music in general as a living and breathing art form."

And it can be a particularly effective one for uniting people during our troubled times, she said.

“In the present climate, it's so polarized that people are just kind of yelling at each other, and I think art is the place where you can create a space to have experiences that you don't have on a daily basis — and that's about empathy. So, you go watch a movie, and you identify with characters that have totally different lives than yourself. You read a novel, and you identify with an experience that has nothing to do with your daily life. You go to a concert, and you have an emotional journey that you don't necessarily experience every day,” Koh said.

“Whether you look at the past, whether you look at the present, music is really about finding that emotional connectivity of what makes us human beings.”

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