Jennifer Koh explained the theme for the concert about to commence from the circular stage at the Argyros Theater in Ketchum, Idaho. The program she had put together – which would be repeated four times in February during the winter edition of the Sun Valley Music Festival – would include works from her “Alone Together” commissions (along with Bach and Mendelssohn) and would follow the same titular theme. She and guest pianist Vijay Iyer would perform alone – solo – then come together for a duo. Likewise, the performers and those in attendance would revel in reuniting for live performance.

Jennifer Koh
© Jürgen Frank

Koh kept her comments brief. The basic idea wasn’t difficult to grasp for a masked audience still, perhaps, not quite re-acclimated to attending performances. But there was much more she might have said. The “Alone Together” commissions are just one aspect of the work Koh does that extends beyond performing concerts. That effort brought together 20 established living composers and younger composers recommended by them, all contributing short works for solo violin which Koh premiered on YouTube and, in August 2021, released on record. The project was designed specifically to support composers during the pandemic and was sponsored by the nonprofit Arco Collaborative, which Koh established in 2014. It’s also an aspect of Koh’s visionary work as a curator, or what she refers to as “activism through the arts”. 

In recent years, as news of racially biased attacks across the United States competed for media space with reports about the ongoing global pandemic, Koh’s artistic activism has only increased, through educational programs, tailored concert programs and funded commissions. “It’s impossible to escape the experience we’ve all had over the last few years,” she told me shortly after the Sun Valley concerts. “The industry is still reeling from that period of time.”

In conversation, Koh doesn’t often answer questions directly. Bigger thoughts are quickly spurred, leading to greater contexts and deeper inspiration, boomeranging into larger concerns and societal woes. The idea for “Alone Together” came to her, she said, within a few days of the shelter-in-place order in New York and actual work began within a couple of weeks as scheduled concerts were being canceled. “I remember thinking pretty quickly that there’s going to be an end to this and what kind of person do I want to have been?” The answer, she said, was to be someone who helped people, someone she’d be proud of. 

Jennifer Koh performing at Sun Valley's Winter Festival
© Nils Ribi

Koh is both Arco Collaborative’s artistic director and its primary performing artist. The initiative allows her to create commissioning programs, educational programs and new productions, primarily aimed at musicians and composers who are female and people of color. “I started Arco Collaborative because I knew I had to start my own organization in order to create the work that I thought was important,” she says. “It’s not necessarily handed to you. On a creative level, it’s about building a new creative space where people of color are the tellers of their own stories,” she adds. “Everything is about building our own space.” 

Arco is also the driving force behind Everything Rises, a duo performance long in gestation with the brilliant bass-baritone Davóne Tines. The evening length program, with a score by Ken Ueno, will receive its premiere on 12th April at the University of California, Santa Barbara (the performance will also be livestreamed) and will be repeated 14th April at UCLA. The production fashions an intersection of the Korean and black experiences in America, and incorporates the recorded voices of Koh’s mother, a war refugee, and Tines’s grandmother recalling her own mother’s stories of being a slave. While very different trajectories, both narratives fall outside of the manufactured mainstream of American culture. 

Koh and Tines met at the Palais Garnier in Paris when, she recalls, he approached her as the only other person of color backstage. “We just immediately had a bond and a level of trust,” she confides. Their kinship quickly led to talk of a collaboration. After a Georgia man was arrested in March 2021 for a series of shootings of Asian women working at massage parlors, their partnership spawned a powerful, even horrific, 12-minute video. Strange Fruit, with music by Ueno interpolating the song made famous by Billie Holliday about the lynching of blacks in America, premiered online in April, 2021, and can be seen (with a warning for graphic content) on Youtube. It was made under the aegis of a Carnegie Hall commission that had been granted to Tines. 

Jennifer Koh
© Jürgen Frank

“After those women were murdered,” Koh explains, “I was so upset and he called me and said, 'You know what? I’ve been given this space to tell my story of what it’s like to be a black American. You’re never given that space.' He basically handed it over.”

Continued violent attacks – including in New York City where Koh, born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, now makes her home – led her and Tines to further their work together. The ground for Everything Rises was laid even before the pandemic, but the dramatic events of 2020 pushed it forward on their busy agendas. 

“During the pandemic, so many truths started bubbling up to the surface – police brutality, the murder of black people, the rise in violence against Asian Americans,” Koh says. “When those women were killed outside of Atlanta, I thought, this is enough. I'm terrified of being in the subway,” she adds. “I’ve never carried pepper spray in my life before the last few years.”

If artistic expression runs the risk of being less than explicit, Koh gave her concerns greater clarity in an essay that ran in The New York Times in July 2021. In it, she wrote of efforts to pit minority groups against each other while “falsely promising them access to the white American dream” and about the continued dominance of white musicians and composers in orchestral music. “Classical music is often called 'universal', but what does universality mean when the field was built for white men who still hold much of the power?” she wrote. “In my nearly 30-year career, I have seen not even a handful of ethnic Asians – much less Asian American women – ascend to executive or leadership positions.”

Jennifer Koh
© Jürgen Frank

By founding her own presenting organization, Koh is helping to break that mold. Arco doesn’t, however, occupy all of Koh’s time. Last September, she collaborated with director Robert Wilson and choreographer Lucinda Childs in a new staging incoporating Bach’s music that premiered at the Chapelle Saint-Louis de la Salpêtrière in Paris. And in February, three weeks before her Sun Valley run, she gave the premiere for Missy Mazzoli's Violin Concerto at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, a program repeated in March with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. In May, Koh is set to receive an honorary doctorate from the Cleveland Institute of Music and to deliver the keynote address at the school’s commencement ceremony. 

Her own contributions to musical education extend to The Julliard School in New York City, where she leads a program for young female violinists and violinists of color. The students work directly with composers in the “Alone Together” commissions and learn aspects of professional life through meetings with managers and publicists. Koh will lead her Juilliard students in a program following her own “Bach and Beyond” project at Chelsea Gallery in Manhattan. 

And while it might not be on the syllabus, enduring racism sometimes ends up a subject of discussion in the class. “Two of my students had gone through [incidents of prejudice] and we had a talk about it,” she says. “The students were saying 'What can we do to make it better?' I told them, 'I’m fighting as hard as I can, but it’s going to end up in your hands.'”