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Jennifer Koh and Nina C. Young: A Creative Lifeline during the Pandemic

by Madonna

Violinist Jennifer Koh and composer Nina C. Young, residents of the same New York City building, were separated by only six floors but had never met until their paths finally crossed. Their initial projects together marked the beginning of a collaboration that became a lifeline during the pandemic.

This weekend, Jennifer Koh premieres a new composition by Nina C. Young, titled “Violin Concerto: Traces,” with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) under the baton of Jeffrey Kahane, the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate. The performance takes place on November 11 and 12, offering a unique opportunity to experience their artistic collaboration.

Jennifer Koh, born to Korean parents in Chicago, embarked on her violin journey when cello and piano classes were fully subscribed in the Suzuki-method program. Her prodigious talent led to a debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at just 11 years old. Over the years, she has achieved numerous accolades, including being named Musical America’s 2016 Instrumentalist of the Year, winning top prizes at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and receiving the Concert Artists Guild Competition and Avery Fisher Career Grant. She is also the Founder and Artistic Director of ARCO Collaborative, an artist-driven nonprofit advocating for inclusivity in classical music.

Reflecting on the early days of the pandemic in New York, Koh recalls the harrowing experience. The city was gripped by fear, with daily death counts exceeding 900 at times. Isolation became a daunting reality for the residents, including Koh and Young, who lived in the same building. They resorted to communicating through Facetime or Zoom, but as the days passed, the isolation grew increasingly challenging.

After six and a half weeks of solitude, they decided to meet in person, even though the fear was palpable due to the uncertainty of the virus’s transmission. Koh vividly remembers the emotional impact of that encounter, describing the chemical reaction she felt when interacting with another human being after such a prolonged isolation.

During the pandemic, Jennifer Koh’s creative spirit remained vibrant. She conceived the “Alone Together” project, featuring 40 works by 20 composers, within three days of the shelter-in-place order. It was a response to the unique challenges posed by the pandemic. Nina C. Young contributed to the project, composing “There Had Been Signs, Surely” for solo violin.

Koh and Young became each other’s “pod mates” during this challenging period, providing the only human interaction they experienced. The connection they developed through their friendship was a source of comfort during a difficult time.

The genesis of the violin concerto that Koh will premiere this weekend began before the pandemic. Commissioned by LACO and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the concerto was originally conceived as a collaboration between Koh and Young. Koh had been captivated by Young’s music years earlier when she heard one of her compositions performed by the American Composers Orchestra (ACO). This initial connection led to further collaborations, including performances and recordings of Young’s work in the Limitless project in 2018-19.

The pandemic’s influence on art and music is evident in compositions created during and after this unique period. Works like Missy Mazzoli’s “Violin Concerto: Procession,” which Koh premiered in 2022, reflect the pandemic’s impact. Initially, the concerto was intended to explore the concept of society’s progression toward fascism. However, the pandemic’s profound influence shifted the focus toward healing rituals and human resilience.

Nina C. Young’s “Violin Concerto: Traces” has undergone a similar evolution in meaning. “Traces” signifies multiple elements, including the remnants humans leave behind, memories, and ideas. The concerto is composed of four interconnected movements, challenging Koh with its complexity and virtuosic demands.

Jennifer Koh looks forward to her collaboration with LACO, having worked with the orchestra on numerous occasions. She appreciates the dedication of the orchestra’s musicians and holds them in high regard. Her enthusiasm for performing in Los Angeles is also influenced by the city’s vibrant culinary scene, particularly its renowned Korean food.

In summary, Jennifer Koh and Nina C. Young’s creative partnership, forged during the pandemic, has resulted in the creation of “Violin Concerto: Traces,” a composition that reflects the challenges and emotions of the pandemic period. The premiere with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is an opportunity to experience this remarkable collaboration and its artistic expression.

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