Performers who play their instruments without accompaniment have nowhere to hide their deficiencies but, by the same token, their skills can shine with an undimmed luster. This is especially true when the player is trying to traverse works of music that form the core of a particular repertoire.
Thursday night at the University at Buffalo’s Lippes Concert Hall was violinist Jennifer Koh’s showcase, one where the program included two beautiful and technically daunting pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach bracketing a pair of contemporary scores by Luciano Berio and John Zorn, works with a whole different approach to sound than the one practiced by the earlier master. The program was entitled “Bach and Beyond, Part III” and follows along with a concept Koh has been working with for the past few years, one meshing Bach’s work with newer adventurous music from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Koh has a lot of talent and drive, values that helped her power through the challenges afforded by the composers on the docket. Her takes on the second and third of Bach’s Sonatas for Solo Violin didn’t forget the architectural beauty at the heart of the works even as she navigated the task at hand.
While the Bach sonatas would be the centerpiece on other programs, they weren’t the feature this time. Berio’s “Sequenza VII” and Zorn’s “Passagen” inhabit a different sonic universe, one that may have started with the big bang of Bach’s violin artistry but, despite shared elements of musical DNA, evolved into a totally different experience.
Berio once referred to the process of writing his “Sequenza” for solo violin as “a personal debt to the violin, which I see as one of the most enduring and complex instruments in existence.” The textual hoops he set for the violinist to jump through demand much from the performer and the performer’s audience.
Slides and stutters, moments where techniques rapidly bump into one another in passing, the kinds of things that force the performer into a maelstrom of audio gymnastics while carrying the audience along with them.
Zorn’s “Passagen” was another challenging piece but one that was distinct from the Berio by virtue of range. Berio’s score narrowly vibrated around a central pair of phrases while “Passagen” adopted a wider sonic palette that paid brief homage to Bach, Niccolo Paganini, Bela Bartok, and Eugene Ysaye with an energetic backdrop that could easily populate the worlds of avant garde jazz masters Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and Leroy Jenkins.
The audience for the concert seemed to be on board for wherever Koh wanted to take them.
All of the works played received plenty of applause, and the violinist was called back onto the stage multiple times at the end of the program, a heartening show of appreciation for a talented performer who took chances with the pieces she played.