Jennifer Koh

Recognized for intense, commanding performances, delivered with dazzling virtuosity and technical assurance, violinist Jennifer Koh is a forward-thinking artist dedicated to exploring a broad and eclectic repertoire, while promoting equity and inclusivity in classical music. She has expanded the contemporary violin repertoire through a wide range of commissioning projects and has premiered more than 100 works written especially for her. Her quest for the new and unusual, sense of endless curiosity, and ability to lead and inspire a host of multidisciplinary collaborators, truly set her apart.

This season Koh begins her role as Artistic Director of the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts at the Kennedy Center, where as part of the series she performs Two X Four (two violinists x four composers), joining forces with her mentor Jaime Laredo and members of the Juilliard Orchestra in a performance of Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, and three double-violin concertos inspired by it: Philip Glass’s Echorus, David Ludwig’s Seasons Lost, and Anna Clyne’s Prince of Clouds. Koh created the project “as a musical means to honor our teachers, who are our thread to a long performance tradition.” In the spring, she and Missy Mazzoli, who have been collaborators for more than a decade, come together for an all-Mazzoli program of violin and duo works, including many of the pieces Mazzoli has composed for Koh’s projects.

Koh continues her critically acclaimed series New American Concerto, an ongoing, multi-season commissioning project that explores the form of the violin concerto and its potential for artistic engagement with contemporary societal concerns and issues through commissions from a diverse collective of composers. This season she performs the world premiere of Nina C. Young’s Violin Concerto Traces with the LA Chamber Orchestra. Koh continues to perform Missy Mazzoli’s Violin Concerto Procession with the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, and Charlotte Symphony. Koh premiered Mazzoli’s concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gemma New in 2021, and has since performed the work with the Cincinnati Symphony led by Louis Langrée, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra led by Santtu-Matias Rouvali at the BBC Proms, Philadelphia Orchestra led by Marin Alsop, Lahti Symphony conducted by Dalia Stasevska, Phoenix Symphony led by Tito Muñoz, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra conducted by Emilia Hoving, and the Kansas City Symphony conducted by Teddy Abrams. Additional New American Concerto commissions are Tyshawn Sorey’s For Marcos Balter, premiered with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2020; Courtney Bryan’s Syzygy, premiered with the Chicago Sinfonietta in 2020; Lisa Bielawa’s Sanctuary, premiered with the Orlando Philharmonic in 2019 and given its New York premiere with the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 2021; Christopher Cerrone’s Breaks and Breaks, premiered with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2018; and Vijay Iyer’s Trouble premiered at the 2017 Ojai Music Festival.

Koh’s recent acclaimed projects include Alone Together, Bach and Beyond,  Bridge to Beethoven, Limitless, and Shared Madness. Last season, she premiered Everything Rises, an original, evening length staged musical work co-created with bass-baritone Davone Tines, at UCSB Arts & Lectures, UCLA, and in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The work, a collective exploration of family history, tells the stories of Koh’s mother, Gertrude Soonja Lee Koh, a refugee from North Korea during the Korean War, and Tines’s grandmother, Alma Lee Gibbs Tines, who holds vivid memories of anti-Black discrimination and violence dating back many years. These experiences—of the artists and their families—are both the inspiration for and subject matter of this project. Developed over multiple years by an all-BIPOC creative team including composer Ken Ueno and director Alexander Gedeon, the project powerfully reclaims Koh and Tines’ narratives about who they are and how they got to where they are now.

Koh’s Grammy Award-winning Alone Together—launched in 2020 as a commissioning project and virtual performance series—was developed in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the financial hardship it placed on many in the arts community. The project brought composers together in support of the many freelancers among them—with the more established composers each donating a new micro-work for solo violin, while also recommending a fellow freelance composer to write their own solo violin micro-work on paid commission from Koh’s artist-driven nonprofit ARCO Collaborative. In 2021, Cedille Records released an album of Koh’s Alone Together, featuring 39 world-premiere recordings, including works by Du Yun, George Lewis, Tania Léon, Andrew Norman, Missy Mazzoli, Ellen Reid, Vijay Iyer, Nina C. Young, and Angélica Negrón, and the recording won the Grammy Award in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category. Koh continues to perform works from Alone Together on her recital programs. This season she plays recitals presented by the Hawaii Symphony, the Music Institute of Chicago, Duke Performances, and the Cervantino Festival in Mexico.

Koh regularly performs a broad range of concertos that reflect the breadth of her musical interests from traditional to contemporary. This season, in addition to her New American Concerto works, she performs Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the Seattle Symphony, Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Nashville Symphony, and Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with the Reading Symphony. She recently made her Boston Symphony Orchestra debut performing Bernstein’s Serenade conducted by Andris Nelson. Past orchestral appearances have included performances of such traditional repertoire as Bach’s Violin Concerti with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra; Dvořák’s Violin Concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony led by Manfred Honeck and RAI National Symphony with James Conlon; Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by Bramwell Tovey and St. Louis Symphony led by Nicolas McGegan; Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Munich Philharmonic led by Lorin Maazel; and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the Detroit Symphony led by Nicolas McGegan.

She has performed 20th-century works including Bartók and Berg concerti with the Milwaukee Symphony led by Edo de Waart; Bernstein’s Serenade with the Minnesota Orchestra led by Juanjo Mena and the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin; Lutosławski’s Chain 2 with the New York Philharmonic led by Lorin Maazel and the Philharmonia Orchestra with Esa-Pekka Salonen; Scelsi’s Anahit with the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by Gustavo Dudamel; and Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with the New Jersey Symphony led by Xian Zhang, the São Paulo Symphonies with Marin Alsop, and the Columbus Symphony led by Rossen Milanov. This season, she performs the Sibelius concerto with the Suwon Philharmonic in South Korea. An advocate for music from our current millennium, she has performed Anna Clyne’s The Seamstress with the BBC Symphony led by Sakari Oramo, the Chicago Symphony led by Ludovic Morlot, and Cincinnati Symphony conducted by Louis Langrée; Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto with the Houston Symphony led by Christoph Eschenbach, Nashville Symphony conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero, and Cincinnati and Gothenburg Symphonies conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali; and Steven Mackey’s Beautiful Passing with the Baltimore Symphony under Marin Alsop.

Koh played the role of Einstein in the revival of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach from 2012 to 2014, and a particular highlight of her career was performing with St. Vincent (Annie Clark) and S. Epatha Merkerson at the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors in a tribute to Glass. In 2021, nearly a decade after collaborating in the revival performances of Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach, Koh reunited with director Robert Wilson and choreographer Lucinda Childs for a new work, Bach 6 Solo, that brings to life Bach's sonatas and partitas with theatrical elements and dance. Conceived by Koh and Wilson, the new work has Koh performing all six of Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas—widely considered the pinnacle of solo violin writing and typically performed alone on stage—with four dancers performing choreography by Childs. Bach 6 Solo premiered at the Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Salpêtrière as part of the Festival d'Automne à Paris. Koh continues pushing boundaries juxtaposing violin with dance in the 2023-24 season, performing live improvisation as part of a world premiere dance, Breath of the Beast, part 1, by acclaimed American choreographer Stephen Petronio, celebrating his company’s 40th anniversary.

Koh brings the same sense of adventure and brilliant musicianship to her recordings as she does to her live performances. She has recorded more than a dozen albums with Chicago-based Cedille Records, including her Grammy Award-winning Alone Together album. Her Bach & Beyond recording series, originally released by Cedille Records in three installments (2012, 2015, and 2020), was released as a three-disc box set in September 2021. These recordings explore the history of the solo violin repertoire from Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas to the music of 20th- and 21st-century composers, including new commissions from Missy Mazzoli (Dissolve, O My Heart) and John Harbison (For Violin Alone). The collection also includes the world-premiere recording of Kaija Saariaho’s Frises, as well as works by Berio, Bartók, and Ysaÿe. Koh first launched Bach & Beyond as a three-part recital series in 2009 and she continues to perform these programs regularly. The Bach & Beyond recordings have received widespread critical acclaim, with the Chicago Tribune describing them as an “epic traversal of solo violin repertoire” and “a monumental achievement.”

Other recordings for the label in recent years include 2019’s Limitless, on which leading composer-performers—including Lisa Bielawa, Vijay Iyer, Missy Mazzoli, Qasim Naqvi, Tyshawn Sorey, Wang Lu, Nina C. Young, and Du Yun—perform duo compositions with Koh that explore the artistic relationship between composer and performer, and a 2018 collection of works by Kaija Saariaho, whose music she has long championed and with whom she has closely collaborated. Titled Saariaho X Koh, the album includes the chamber version of the violin concerto Graal Théâtre with the Curtis Chamber Orchestra; Cloud Trio with violist Hsin-Yun Huang and cellist Wilhelmina Smith; Tocar with pianist Nicolas Hodges; Aure with cellist Anssi Karttunen, with whom she premiered the violin and cello version in 2015; and Light and Matter with both Hodges and Karttunen, with whom she performed the French premiere in 2017.

Her discography on Cedille Records also includes Tchaikovsky: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra with the Odense Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Vedernikov; Two x Four in collaboration with her former teacher, violinist Jaime Laredo, and featuring double violin concerti by Bach, Philip Glass, and new commissions from Anna Clyne and David Ludwig; Signs, Games + Messages, a recording of violin and piano works by Janáček, Bartók, and Kurtág with Shai Wosner; Rhapsodic Musings: 21st Century Works for Solo Violin; the Grammy-nominated String Poetic, featuring the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s eponymous work, performed with pianist Reiko Uchida; Schumann’s complete violin sonatas, also with Ms. Uchida; Portraits with the Grant Park Orchestra under conductor Carlos Kalmar with concerti by Szymanowski, Martinů, and Bartók; Violin Fantasies, fantasies for violin and piano by Schubert, Schumann, Schoenberg, and saxophonist Ornette Coleman, again with Uchida; and Koh’s first Cedille album, from 2002, Solo Chaconnes, an earlier reading of Bach’s Second Partita coupled with chaconnes by Richard Barth and Max Reger. She is also the featured soloist on a recording of Higdon’s The Singing Rooms with the Atlanta Symphony led by Robert Spano for Telarc.

Koh is active not only in the concert hall and recording studio, but also as a lecturer, teacher, and curator. In December 2022, it was announced that she is the new Artistic Director of the Kennedy Center’s Fortas Chamber Music Concerts. She has been on faculty at the Mannes School of Music since 2018 and has held residencies at Brown, Cornell, Duke, and Tulane Universities, as well as at the Curtis Institute of Music, Oberlin Conservatory and College, and University of California, Santa Barbara. She was the keynote speaker for the Royal College of Music’s 2020 “Orchestrating Isolation” conference and the League of American Orchestras’ 2018 annual conference. This season she will be in residence with the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she received an honorary doctorate in 2022.
She is the Founder and Artistic Director of ARCO Collaborative, an artist-driven nonprofit that advocates for inclusivity in classical music. Established in 2014, ARCO Collaborative commissions, develops, and produces new musical works that highlight artists of color and women composers in collaborations that bring forth stories previously unheard in Western art forms. She is also a member of Composers Now’s Distinguished Mentors Council and the board of the League of American Orchestras.

Born in Chicago of Korean parents, Koh began playing the violin by chance, choosing the instrument in a Suzuki-method program only because spaces for cello and piano had been filled. She made her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11. She was Musical America’s 2016 Instrumentalist of the Year and has also been recently recognized as a Virtuoso Award honoree by Concert Artists Guild in 2020 and “A Force of Nature” by the American Composers Orchestra in 2019. She performed for former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama and former First Lady of South Korea Kim Yoon-ok in 2011. She was a top prize winner at Moscow’s International Tchaikovsky Competition, winner of the Concert Artists Guild Competition, and a recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature from Oberlin College and studied at the Curtis Institute, where she worked extensively with Jaime Laredo and Felix Galimir.

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