Pulitzer-winning composer Virgil Thomson, in his inaugural piece for the New York Herald Tribune in 1940, famously declared Jean Sibelius' music “vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond all description.”
This week, conductor Joana Carneiro and the Berkeley Symphony open their 2014-15 season with violinist Jennifer Koh playing Sibelius' Violin Concerto Op. 47, proving once again that first-rate works survive the most incisive of detractors and criticisms.
Awarded the top prize at the 1994 International Tchaikovsky Competition, Koh offers a case for the piece: “We often think very critically of contemporary music and how it's played, but that wasn't the tradition or even how composers expected the music to be played at all. The expressivity and the warmth was there, even in Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.”
After his only concerto premiered unsuccessfully in 1904, Sibelius rewrote it, removing difficult sections before sending it to Richard Strauss, who conducted it in Berlin. It was given its American premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1906 with violinist Maud Powell.
Koh, who learned the demanding work at 15, says, “I'm not of the belief that only the music-making of the past is interesting, that it's all down the drain now. There's a tradition of playing this concerto in a very Romantic way, but I see the Sibelius as a very forward-looking work — a lot of the jaggedness, the uncomfortableness, is often looked over, but it's all there in the score.”
The first musician of her family, Koh says she is “incredibly grateful” to her first violin teacher, Jo Davis, who noticed and nurtured her talent with warmth and care. Koh says, “She actually found another teacher for me, then came and drove me to all of my lessons for a year.” They remain in touch to this day.
Also featured on Thursday's program are Edward Elgar's “Enigma Variations,” a set of variations portraying the English composer's wife and friends, and the world premiere of Oscar Bettison's “Sea Shaped.”
Last seen at Cal Performances' presentation of Philip Glass' “Einstein on the Beach” in 2012, Koh has some distinct memories of the Bay Area: “Nobody could fly home to New York after 'Einstein' because of Hurricane Sandy. I feel so badly about this, but the 'Einstein' people ended up spending every single night at Chez Panisse!”