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Violinist Jennifer Koh Makes Unexpected Connections at UB

Bach and Beyond

Local connoisseurs of the classical violin repertoire fondly remember American violinist Jennifer Koh’s last appearance in Buffalo, in the spring of 2010 on the now sadly defunct, much-missed Ramsi P. Tick concert music series at the Nichols School, where she offered an unforgettable evening of strikingly original interpretations of music by the Viennese masters Mozart and Schubert. Thanks to Eric Huebner head of the concert committee of the UB department of music, and Phil Rehard, Slee Hall concert manager and the former artistic director of the RP Tick series, Jennifer Koh will offer the third and final installment of her nationally touring solo violin series, “Bach and Beyond” at Slee Hall today, Thursday January 29 at 7:30pm as part of the Slee/Visiting Artists series.

The beautifully written autograph manuscript of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sei Solo a Violino senza basso accompagnato Libro primo, his masterpiece collection of works for solo violin, was completed in 1720, at Cöthen, where he had moved after finally having been released from his service in the court of the Duke of Weimar. Leaving Weimar had not been easy for Bach; after the Kapellmeister, or head musician in the Duke’s court had died, he had expected to be promoted to the post, but the incompetent son of the deceased Kapellmeister was appointed instead. Dissatisfied, Bach tried to resign repeatedly, but the Duke refused and when Bach persisted the Duke had Bach imprisoned for four weeks. The Duke finally relented, allowing Bach to leave to work for the Prince Leopold of Cöthen in 1717, where his salary doubled and he remained until 1723, in a situation that gave him the opportunity to write more purely instrumental music, such as the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, than previously, or for that matter, ever again.

In composing a set of supremely technically demanding works for solo violin, Bach followed in the footsteps of several late 17th century German composers, including Heinrich von Biber, Johann Walther and Johann von Westoff, the last of whom he most probably met while they were both employed at Weimar. He was also no doubt influenced by Johann Pisendel, a pupil and friend of Vivaldi, who dedicated at least a dozen works to the violin virtuoso who was the leader of the Dresden court orchestra, in composing these works which remain at the pinnacle of works written for the violin.

In the late 1990s, pianist Christopher O’Reilly, host of the popular “From the Top” radio show featuring young performers, gave a highly original solo recital on the old QRS series on a very wintery night at Kleinhans. O’Reilly skillfully intermingled the playing of preludes and fugues by J.S. Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich, two composers with very different styles, separated by a couple of centuries, revealing previously unknown relationships to great effect.

Similarly, Jennifer Koh says she launched “Bach and Beyond” in order to strengthen the connection between Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas to our present world, by a historical journey through other works for solo violin, while making new connections through commissioning works by contemporary composers.

Koh’s program begins with a performance of Bach’s Sonata No.2 in A minor, and ends with a performance of his Sonata No. 3 in C major, bookending works by John Zorn and Luciano Berio. Zorn, a genuinely indefinable contemporary composer much in demand in the downtown New York City musical scene, composed Passagen in 2011 as a gift for Elliott Carter on his 103rd birthday. He describes Passagen, which features allusions to Bach, Paganini, Bartok and Berio as “a brief history of solo violin music.” After the intermission, Koh will perform Berio’s monumental Sequenza for Solo Violin, arguably the finest post World War II work in the genre, and one that Buffalo audiences have been lucky to have already heard superbly performed last season by UB professor of violin Yuki Numata Resnick.

Tickets: $15/10; free for UB students


Buffalo Bach Project

If you are in the city and can’t make it to Slee Hall on Thursday evening to hear Jenny Koh, you might want to consider heading down to the Pausa Art House on Wadsworth in Allentown to hear oboist Megan Kyle, cellist Katie Weissman and pianist Michael McNeill present their Buffalo Bach Project concert event at 8pm. McNeil, who is equally at home on the keyboard, whether he is kicking the jams out with jazz groups like What Would Mingus Do? or The Buffalo Jazz Octet, or playing a harmonium in an Indian restaurant, is also a fine, conservatory-trained classical pianist, as he demonstrated at a recent Pausa gig featuring Beethoven and Schönberg. He’ll be reprising the latter’s hauntingly laconic Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, while Kyle will be featured in a sonata for solo oboe by Sclesi, with Weissman joining them for Bach instrumental pieces, as well as for instrumental adaptations of some cantata movements.

Tickets: $7; students: $5


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