A festival appearance in Sun Valley, Idaho, put violinist Jennifer Koh in a number of spotlights over the long weekend of 24th-26th February. She served as curator for the winter Sun Valley Music Festival, crafting a program that repeated (with slight variation) in each of the four concerts, spanning centuries and celebrating a return to coming together in a common space. She also featured several of her own commissions and was featured soloist for the series.

Jennifer Koh and Vijay Iyer
© Nils Ribi

That common space was a black box theater in the Argyros Performing Arts Center in the small town of Ketchum, a new and flexible room (opened in 2018) with beautiful lighting design and outfitted with a Meyer Constellation Acoustic System. While the small space doesn’t require amplification (seating was kept to 120, although the capacity is quadruple that), the surround speakers give a boost by adding resonance tailored for the space and the program. 

Such amenities were more than apparent in the opening piece during the Saturday matinee. Koh played Bach’s Violin Sonata no. 1 in G minor, BWV1001 with soft lighting bouncing off her freshly coloured silver-blue hair. Suspended shafts, like a Dan Flavin light installation, reflected a luminous, golden glow. The subtle but discernable Meyer reverberation gave her performance a properly church-like profile; she played with such a natural ease that it seemed surprising she didn’t have to stop to breathe. The double stops in the fast fuga were sublime. The Siciliana was uncommonly gentle and the Presto approached a fury. 

Two brief pieces from Koh’s Alone Together commissioning series followed, and paired quite well with the Bach. inti figgis-vizueta’s quiet city and Missy Mazzoli’s Hail, Horrors, Hail were played with barely a pause, both suggesting interruptions of solace and finding a resolution that felt only temporary. 

The second half of the concert (or three-sixths, one might say, as there were two long intervals) featured Koh’s invited guest, Vijay Iyer, and string players who work with the Sun Valley Festival. A pianist most often associated with contemporary jazz, Iyer exhibited – both in playing and composition – a syntax incorporating a variety of influences. 

Sun Valley Festival string players
© Nils Ribi

Iyer played his own dedication to poet Amiri Baraka, preceded by Thelonious Monk’s Work. Broken symmetries seemed to continue the disruptions of the Alone Together pieces but with an air of perseverance in the embedded swing, moving into dramatic swells that felt triumphant but were quick to recede. A quartet of Sun Valley string players performed Iyer’s Dig the Say, dedicated to James Brown. It didn’t suggest the master’s groove so much as his band concept in strong unison phrases, working in bold, thick lines and violin filigrees like saxophone cadenzas. The third movement called for snapped, tapped and stomped polyrhythms, giving second violin Julia Noone the opportunity to ornament. 

Koh played Iyer’s For Violin Alone (also a part of the Alone Together pandemic commissions), somber but beautiful, folding in on itself, layering into perfection. Iyer, still at the piano, promptly picked up the line, entering with the trills of the duet, eventually bringing them together with his The Diamond and a Brahmsian beauty. Koh’s violin soared like a theremin under Iyer’s foundations of multiplicity. 

The pièce de résistance was Mendelssohn’s magnificent String Octet in E flat major, Op.20. The players sat in pairs, the violas opposite each other, situated in a circle on the circular stage in the center of the room, the stage, and beams above, now lit in a warm orange and yellow. It felt like the joy the rest of the program had promised – indeed that Koh herself had hinted at. Written when the composer was the ripe age of 16, the Octet is resplendent and ebullient and the ensemble played it with eight cylinders firing. The ninth member of the group, the Meyer sound system, gave them a balance and clarity. It was an inspired program closer, reinforcing the heavy lines and flights of fancy that passed by without pause earlier in the program and the feeling that we were more together than alone. 

Kurt's press trip was funded by the Sun Valley Music Festival