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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Bach Is Best

Last Friday I went to EMPAC to see violinist Jennifer Koh perform her “Bach and Beyond” program, which explores the influence of Bach’s compositions for solo violin on more contemporary works for the instrument.

Koh opened with Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor, which is an amazing piece of music. Standing alone on stage, she delivered a dazzling performance, one that was energetic and aggressive and captured the intensity of the music. My mind often wanders when I listen to classical music, but I was transfixed by both Koh and Bach, and was sorry to see the Bach portion of the program come to an end — I would have happily listened to a whole evening’s worth of Bach. But the point of the program was to show how Bach’s legacy can be heard and felt in music composed within the past 100 years, which made it necessary to move on.

After Bach, Koh played an unusual, somewhat experimental piece by Kaija Saariaho, titled la Terre, which was accompanied by a recording natural sounds, such as bird calls and wind, and a man’s whispering voice. She followed this with Partita for Solo Violin by Phil Kline and Passagen by John Zorn, and returned from an intermission to play Bela Bartok’s Sonata.

The violin is one of the most beautiful instrument, but Koh was less interesting in revealing the instrument’s beauty than showing how the violin can capture the ebb and flow of human emotion. Much of the music, particularly the Bartok, was tumultuous, melancholy, even harsh, though there were stretches of placidity and elegance, and the technique and passion on display never less than riveting. This wasn’t a pretty performance — it was a visceral one.

I appreciated the edginess and daring of Koh’s musical choice, and I enjoyed hearing music from Kline and Saariaho, two composers I was unfamiliar with, as well as Zorn and Bartok. But Bach, as I mentioned above, really was the best part of the program, and I find it sort of remarkable that the work of a man who died in 1750 still towers above the work of the gifted composers who came after. As Jennifer Koh made clear, Bach’s music is still relevant, and very much alive.

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