Jennifer Koh is one of those fearless violinists unafraid to take on the daunting challenge of performing the six J.S. Bach sonatas and partitas on the same recital program or difficult, not necessarily audience-friendly, contemporary works like the Saariaho Graal Theatre violin concerto. Her risk-taking usually elicits cheers and ovations from audiences and glowing reviews from critics. Koh performs a fairly equal number of concerts as a soloist, chamber player, and recitalist, and, not surprisingly, in a broad and eclectic range of repertory.
Jennifer Koh was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, to Korean parents on October 8, 1976. By age 11, she was a violin prodigy and debuted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She studied English literature at Oberlin College and music at Oberlin Conservatory. She had further studies in violin at the Curtis Institute, where her teachers included Jaime Laredo and Felix Galimir. While a student at Oberlin, Koh shared the silver medal at the 1994 Tchaikovsky International Competition, making her a de facto winner at age 17 of the prestigious Moscow-based contest since no gold medal was awarded. That same year, she won the Concert Artists Guild Competition, and in 1995, she was awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant. Koh debuted at Carnegie Hall to enthusiastic reviews in November 1995 in a program of J.S. Bach, Mozart, Ysaÿe, and Franck. Among her first recordings were a 1997 BIS release of the Violin Concerto by Uuno Klami and a 2001 Cedille release of the Solo Chaconnes, with music by Bach, Reger, and Richard Barth.
By the turn of the new century, Koh was firmly established as one of the rising stars among violinists. She debuted with the Cleveland Orchestra in 2003 in an acclaimed performance of the Menotti violin concerto. She received lavish praise from overseas, specifically with her performance of the Nielsen violin concerto with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 2005. Koh regularly performs mainstream works by Vivaldi, Mozart, and Beethoven, among others, and lesser-known or contemporary fare by Szymanowski, Ruggles, and Jennifer Higdon. She is active in promoting new music, too: Koh and her husband Benjamin Hochman gave the premiere of the Double Concerto for violin and piano by Lera Auerbach with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra in 2010, and Koh premiered the John Zorn Passagen to great acclaim in 2011 at the Miller Theater in New York City. Koh has appeared as a soloist with the major orchestras of New York, Los Angeles, and St. Louis and with such ensembles abroad as the Czech Philharmonic and Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. She has collaborated with a number of musicians in concert, including violinist Jaime Laredo, cellist Christian Poltéra, and pianist Reiko Uchida.
Koh initiated several major projects in the 2010s decade, including Bach and Beyond, examining the connection between Bach’s solo violin works and contemporary music. Another, “The New American Concerto,” is a multi-season project started in 2017 with Koh commissioning new concertos from American composers: for this project, she has premiered new works by Vijay Iyer, Christopher Cerrone, and Missy Mazzoli, among others. In 2019, Koh issued the violin and piano album Limitless, performing duos alongside the composers. The third and final album of Koh’s Bach and Beyond project was issued in 2020, with a boxset containing all three volumes released the following year. In 2022, she issued the album Alone Together, highlighting compositions written for her online fundraising effort of the same name to help composers struggling during the coronavirus lockdown. ~ Robert Cummings & Keith Finke