Jennifer Koh will perform what might be called a rare musical marathon.
An acclaimed violinist, she will be playing the complete works for unaccompanied violin by Bach during a special presentation at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center.
Her first performance of these six works in a single show last fall in New York City received critical praise. Now she will perform it at the 325-seat home of Rockport Music, a venue half the size of Columbia University’s Miller Theatre at the Academy of Arts and Letters where she performed last October.
“It felt like the audience came almost as a pilgrimage,” she said in a telephone interview this week. “Not many people take this on. It’s very difficult. It’s really a challenge on a musical level, on a physical level, and on a mental, spiritual and psychological level. It’s a very intense experience, and in the end, it’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve done in my life.”
The performance caught the attention of the media. The Wall Street Journal called the recital a “rare Mount Everest-ish feat.” The New York Times’ Vivien Schweitzer wrote: “Brave violinists with exceptional stamina occasionally venture this feat, a daunting challenge, given the music’s emotional depth and technical hurdles.”
The sonatas and partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) are unique in that they were not commissioned.
“He never did it for money. It was a personal need to
create,” said Koh. “The music itself is some of the most extraordinary music ever written for solo violin. What
makes it very special is that this music really encapsulates a lifetime.”
Bach, born in Germany, the son of a court trumpeter with a long musical lineage, remains one of the world’s best known
Koh, 35, who now resides in New York, recalled playing her first Bach when she was about eight years old growing up in the Chicago area.
“As a violinist, you learn his music when you are very young,” she said. “Bach is such a personal and intimate
experience in music. It took me a long time to come to the point of wanting to share that in public. For me, it was kind of a milestone that I wanted to share it with other people.”
To prepare for such a performance is transformational for the musician.
“I don’t leave the apartment for two weeks,” Koh said. “It’s about being able to put myself in a place that’s completely vulnerable. This music is so visceral and so human. It comes from directly within you.
“Bach’s music is about that purity of who we are as human beings,” she said. “The preparation process is far more than physical.”
Koh’s bio notes that in the 1994-95 season, she won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the Concert Artists Guild Competition, and the Avery Fisher Career Grant. Since then, she has performed with leading
orchestras and conductors around the globe.
The Wall Street Journal noted that Koh had practiced these works 15,877 hours from the ages of 10 to 34. But since that time, Koh said she has probably rehearsed another 1,000 hours.
She also estimates that she has had more than 1,095 recurring dreams involving the music. Sometimes she awakes with tired hands because she was practicing in her sleep. However, she also professed to a sweeter alchemy of making 484 batches of cookies during her breaks.
David Deveau, the Rockport Music artistic director, described Bach’s complete works for solo unaccompanied violin as an epic journey for both the performer and audience.
“These pieces express the range of human experience: the elemental, the visceral, the mathematical, the affecting. They are among the most technically challenging and interpretively demanding pieces in all of classical music,” he said. “Bach demands such total musicianship and technical command that the music -- not any obvious pyrotechnics -- is the ‘main event.’ “
The music can give the audience members the sense of Bach speaking directly to them, he added.
“Jenny’s rave review in the New York Times for her performance of these pieces was the sort that performers usually dream about,” Deveau said.
“A richly deserved rave,” he added. “Come Sunday to hear for yourself.”
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at email@example.com.
IF YOU GO ... What: Jennifer Koh performs rare feat of the complete works for unaccompanied violin by Bach When: Sunday, 3 p.m. Where: Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport For tickets, visit www.rockportmusic.org, or call 978-546-7391.