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Violinist Jennifer Koh links Bach to contemporary offshoots



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When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18

Where: Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $28-$243

Info: (312) 294-3000;

Updated: January 10, 2013 6:18AM

Jennifer Koh can and does play standard programs of Mozart, Schubert or Brahms with supreme virtuosity, but given her druthers, the ever-adventurous violinist would rather shake things up a little.

For the Glen Ellyn native, that means experimenting with alternatives to the typical two-hour concert format, finding ways to bring more context and connections to the music and striving to update and expand the repertory.

“For a while now,” Koh said, “I’ve been looking into this idea of creating more fully immersive projects, so that it’s not just about walking onstage and doing a one-shot thing. It’s about creating a journey for your audience.”

Her latest undertaking in this vein is a yearlong, cross-country project titled, “Two x Four,” part of which will be featured Thursday through Dec. 18 in a Chicago Symphony Orchestra program centered on Johann Sebastian Bach.

It will be her debut on the CSO subscription series. Now 36, Koh performed with the CSO at 11 as the winner of a statewide music competition and later at the Ravinia Festival.

“Two x Four,” which features her and her mentor, Jaime Laredo, a widely known soloist and teacher at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, explores musical lineage — how compositional and performance traditions endure and evolve.

In a series of concerts with five different ensembles, the two are performing four related works: Bach’s celebrated Concerto for Two Violins and three contemporary works that draw inspiration from it.

In addition to a short 1995 work by Philip Glass, “Echorus,” Koh commissioned two new pieces for the instrumental combination by David Ludwig and Anna Clyne, the CSO’s Mead co-composer in residence.

“It was about seeing a contemporary perspective with those same instruments,” Koh said. “That is quite interesting to me. In a sense, music is always a reflection of the society that we live in. So it’s been compelling to see how each composer made that genre their own.”

She was inspired in part by a historical recording of the Bach concerto featuring Carl Flesch and Joseph Szigeti, who were born 20 years apart and represent two different moments in the evolution of Hungary’s distinguished violin tradition.

“There’s something about hearing a generation passing this tradition to the next generation,” she said. “And the interesting thing is that they don’t sound alike. But it’s this kind of interesting conversation.”

Koh is always on the lookout for exciting new composers, and famed conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen recommended she take a look at Clyne after he and the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered Clyne’s string-orchestra work, “Within Her Arms,” in 2009.

“It’s kind of remarkable to me,” Koh said. “I do a lot of new music, and so many times, I can appreciate the complexity or the gestural aspect, but what was really striking about Anna’s music was that I was so moved.”

The violinist e-mailed the composer and they met at an Italian bakery in New York, establishing what Clyne called an “instant kinship” on both musical and personal levels. Koh eventually proposed that the Clyne take part in “Two x Four,” and she quickly agreed.

“I immediately connected with this sense of musical lineage,” Clyne said. “As an artist, through your teachers, you can sort of trace back time.”

Koh and Laredo gave the first performance of the resulting work, “Prince of Clouds,” in early November with the IRIS Orchestra in Memphis. The CSO, a co-commissioner of the work, will be the second orchestra to present it, pairing it with its progenitor, Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins.

“As a composer, the way you learn the most and become really inspired is by knowing who you are writing for, and that’s something I’ve always done in my music,” Clyne said.

Laredo and Koh are both first-rate musicians, she said, who can bring emotional depth to quiet melodies and have the technical chops to “tame really rugged, raw material.”

“That’s what this piece is about: this juxtaposition of very tender music but also very highly energetic and angular music,” Clyne said.

Also on the CSO program, to be led by Baroque-era specialist Harry Bicket, will be two other works by Bach, including his “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 6, and Igor Stravinsky’s neo-classical “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto.

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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