Violinist Jennifer Koh Champions Kaija Saariaho in Her Upcoming Concert

Lou Fancher on March 1, 2019
Jennifer Koh | Credit: Jürgen Frank

When violinist Jennifer Koh appears March 10 at Berkeley’s Hertz Hall as part of a trio with pianist Nicolas Hodges and cellist Anssi Karttunen, audiences can expect nuanced virtuosity and astounding technique. Delivered with humor, delicacy, respect, and strength, works by Finnish composers Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg, and others provide a showcase for the three musicians’ deep commitment to classical music, along with indications for the genre’s future.

But a performance of musical repertory is only a small portion of Koh’s voice as an artist, woman, person of color, and advocate for greater diversity in the field. In a phone interview, she speaks with passion about the program, an artist’s responsibility in social and political realms, and a new project involving her family’s history that is closest to her heart.

You have had a long association with composer Kaija Saariaho. Tell us about your introduction to her work and its joys or pleasures in performance.

I first heard one of her operas on a DVD release. I kind of knew from that moment that I felt incredibly connected to her musical voice. I did a deep dive into her operas, orchestral and chamber works, and of course, the violin concerto that I was incredibly eager to play. In 2006 or 2007 I performed it with L.A. Philharmonic. That was the first time I actually met her in person.

She’s able to express a kind of vulnerability that’s in all of us, as well as the rich internal emotional life that we all have. There is a voice I don’t want to categorize, because she’s much more than this, but there are echoes of Spectralism in her works.

Kaija Saariaho
Kaija Saariaho

Can you provide a specific musical example that demonstrates both a signature characteristic and her wide range of expression?

In the violin concerto, it has a repeated motif of F sharp that runs through the violin, the opening of the piece, the harp, the piano. It’s three F sharps above middle C and there’s almost a meditative quality because it returns over and over.

That same thing is in [Philip Glass’s] Einstein on the Beach, but there, you lose your perspective on time. But with her music, it’s entirely different. You’ll hear it when you listen to all of her compositions: delicacy and also storminess. In the new CD [Saariaho X Koh], I wanted to take the listener on a journey of all the things she is as a composer.

Tell us about the Berkeley program? First, Tocar: which means “to touch” in Spanish. How do the piano and violin “touch” each other, and how does that “touch” audiences?

There’s a pulsation between the piano and the violin. It’s present in her [Saariaho’s] Graal théâtre in another color form because that’s written for orchestra and there’s more instrumentation. With two instruments, it’s more intimate. In the chamber music setting — versus orchestral pieces where you step forward as a soloist — you’re really bringing in the audience. Intimacy means you draw the listener into an internal world. Graal is a more dramatic shift where you go out to the audience and only at times bring them in. Tocar is a more subtle take. There’s drama in Tocar, but you communicate it and they hear it in a particular way because it’s a very internal space. [An analogy is] if you’re speaking to a crowd, outwardly, versus a conversation with just one person. I don’t like to reduce music, but you can talk about the intonation and the profound conversation one can have with just one other person in the room.

This entire concert in Berkeley is about that internal, intimate conversation. There are even things you’d only go into when you are on your own, in your own thoughts during a concert. It’s a place where you can have a deep internal dialogue with yourself, be emotionally present, have rich emotional experiences. Her music gets the performers and the listeners into that space.

Light and Matter was written in response to changing light, changed perspectives. What can you tell us about the work’s history?

She was writing it in New York City during an ice storm. It was a tree outside and about the light going through the ice and that transformation. At the time she wrote it, we were already quite close. I was playing a great deal of her music and we were close also as human beings. I don’t know if there are direct correlations to our relationship, because I’ve always felt her music was so true to herself. I felt that after doing a deep dive into her music that I knew her completely. To be honest, I felt awkward when I first met her in person because I felt I already knew her quite well. At the same time, we evolve and we change and grow so by that point of writing Light and Matter, she’d evolved into a different composer, although she was the same person.

What is the primary feature of that evolution you observe?

She has become even more internal in her compositions. Recently I saw her latest opera, Only the Sound Remains, and there’s a kind of concentration and distillation in her music that’s happened. It’s a different, equal kind of intensity.

Graal théâtre is not on the program, but in what ways does having over many years performed that work and her other compositions inform your performance?

Jennifer Koh | Credit: Jürgen Frank

I think when we talk about music in general, for example with Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, it’s music we’ve heard from childhood, whether we’ve sought it out or not. It’s in films, sampled online; we heard it as kids in cartoons. So it’s embedded within us. We’ve gotten to know these composers. And of course, if you go to concerts and listen to recordings, you get to know them even more. I do that with living composers: studying scores, attending concerts. Part of what I believe must be done as a performer is that composers become a part of you. It’s a form of magical alchemy. They become almost a part of your DNA, a flow that goes through you.

Having studied and been immersed in Kaija, is a part of my performance. You know, as soon as I heard her music, I knew we would be friends. Kaija has incredible coloration in orchestration and all the skills, but some composers are skilled and it’s not the absolute truth of who they are. That’s why I love Anna Karenina. Tolstoy was actually quite moral. He was able to develop Anna quite deeply so that people relate to her strongly as a character. Somehow Kaija is absolutely true to who she is and encompasses empathy for human beings. There’s no judgement, it’s just an envelopment of who we are. It’s never simple, like, “this is a happy piece.” There’s a rich emotional life in every single one of her works.

The Magnus Lindberg trio: What are the attributes you value and what associations do you make with the work?

We premiered that work in New York years ago. The part I had at the time was not yet published, so even on the tour, Magnus was constantly revising it. Now, approaching it as a completely finished piece, the difference is in how I’m processing it. It was so much in an experimental stage then and now it’s its own piece. It sounds romantic to me; strongly reminiscent of Brahms. I’m curious to see what the audience feels. This is just how I feel as I study it.

These are two Finnish composers: Do they have traits in common a person might attribute to the country’s folkloric traditions or the composers’ explorations into electronic music and the ways classical forms can be stretched?

I don’t believe that just because you’re born in a certain country it defines who you are. We have insightful people from all sorts of countries and they’re all individual. I don’t like stereotypes and I don’t think of them as similar at all. They have individual voices.

What has been your experience performing with (pianist) Nicolas Hodges and (cellist) Anssi Karttunen?

They’re just great musicians. We bonded during the course of the recording [of Saariaho X Koh]. They’re sensitive musicians: we give space to be individual, express what we need to in our different parts. When it’s someone else’s voice, the other musicians give way to that. There’s musical give and take. Sometimes people aren’t sensitive, although they can work on that quality, but for us it’s intrinsic to who we are as musicians. There aren’t arguments: it’s organic and doesn’t take a lot of work to bring a piece together.

Anssi Karttunen | Credit: Irmeli Jung

You’ve expressed in past interviews and public talks the realties and your opinions on the lack of diversity in classical music and the arts overall. What more would you choose to say on those topics?

We can all be simply observers of what’s happening around us — or even in intimate friendships. Yet there’s another action we can take even with intimate relationships: to reach out or take care of a friend. In the political realm, one can advocate, take time, make the effort.

I don’t have a solution for the entire classical world. The places I can make change and advocate for other artists are in the works I commission, the people I collaborate with, the people I choose to advocate for. My nonprofit supports and brings to life the work of composers from whom we haven’t heard or haven’t heard enough from. Every well-known opera, written by men — because that’s been the history of most of our classical music — you notice every female character dies of a broken heart, is murdered, commits suicide. Almost all the women characters in opera die because of a man.

Jennifer Koh (Photo by Jürgen Frank)
Jennifer Koh | Credit: Jürgen Frank

But in [Saariaho’s] L’Amour de loin, the man gets to die of a broken heart. I don’t know that it was an exact decision that Kaija made, but it reflects the difference when you include even one member of 50 percent of the world’s population [a woman] and give them a chance to write an opera.

I believe we should reflect the communities we live in: it’s about expanding, giving voices that we haven’t heard from in the classical realm. Even if I’m referencing this one opera, it doesn’t mean only men will die in operas written by women composers. I just think our entire world will learn, be richer, encounter experiences that are not our own, if in the arts we’ve given these chances to step outside of our experiences that are totally different than how your day has gone in the office. Similarly, even in the most classic Shakespeare, there is a human experience communicated we can learn from.

What project ahead most excites you? Maybe The 38th Parallel project?

Yes, that’s the one. My mom was a refuge from North Korea. There are stories that have not been told. When we hear them, when we see what happens between generations that have lived through war, it’s easiest to communicate it through art. One has an experience of other human beings that is individual. It’s more difficult to “other-ize” people because of that. “Collatoral damage” actually means the number of civilians and others who’ve been killed in an attack. It’s a way to distance ourselves, but if we witness these acts — the arts are (where) we can communicate the emotional experience — you are in a space where you comprehend that refugees are not scary groups of people.

Not a single Syrian refugee has been allowed into our country in the last few years, so I wanted to bring forth this experience from my own mother and her experiences. Between any parent and child, we have similarities. Yet our experiences, my mother’s and mine, are dramatically different. But I feel her family history so deeply, carried in me. I’ve never experienced war and hunger to the degree my mother did. Her relationship to food, I can see the effect. It gives me empathy for people who have had that experience. Knowing and hearing that story makes me have a different understanding.

Also, I have empathy for people going through violence, fleeing for their lives, building from nothing, having only a nickel that might mean they eat — or don’t. Refugees are people desperately trying to escape, working incredibly hard to move forward. My mom came to the United States with thirty dollars. She worked as a nanny and within three years had her PhD. She did everything she could to survive.

Before that, she didn’t ever go to school until she was in the refugee camp. There, they just put her in a grade according to her age. She was so confused at first. Imagine going from that point to having a doctorate and then giving back by teaching and educating other people? I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Refugees have a great deal to offer to society directly because they’ve had experiences that are different.

As the daughter of a refugee it’s not a coincidence that I believe in advocating for artist and people who’ve not been heard from before. Being a minority — a double minority as a woman and person of color — my perspective is different. It’s our loss if we don’t see these other sides of humanity and hear their voices.

I want to say one last thing. My mother would not have been able to stay in this country if there had not been a change in immigration policies in 1965. The change meant there were no bans on immigration from countries that were not Western Europe. It’s why America has become who we are economically and culturally. It’s our loss if that changes. Refugees are on our side, leaving areas that are unimaginable to do what I see in my mom, a survivor. Isn’t that kind of person who we want to have as citizens?