Meet the Alumni: Jennifer Koh (Violin ’02)

Get to know your fellow alumni beyond their Notations in Overtones! Curtis continues our series of mini-profiles designed to dig deeper into the Curtis alumni experience.

Recognized for intense, commanding performances, delivered with dazzling virtuosity and technical assurance, violinist Jennifer Koh (Violin ’02) is a forward-thinking artist dedicated to exploring a broad and eclectic repertoire, while promoting diversity and inclusivity in classical  music. She has expanded the contemporary violin repertoire through a wide range of commissioning projects, and has premiered more than 70 works written especially for her.

Find her full biography and additional details on her projects at her website, where you can also contact her about future collaborations.

Inclusivity, Equity, and Diversity

Jennifer’s two teachers at Curtis, Jaime Laredo (Violin ’59) and Felix Galimir, shaped her view of inclusivity, equity, and diversity through their own personal experiences—about which they were very transparent.

“I think one of the great things about Curtis is that you’re working with people who are also very active members of the music world and are not just simply pedagogues,” says Jennifer. “Both [Laredo and Galimir] shared their own histories while I was simultaneously having my own experiences as a younger musician. Felix had very, very direct experiences of racism when he was in the Vienna Philharmonic…and I would share with him my own stories of what I was coming up against. And because he had gone through…these struggles himself, he was able to share that with me.”

Jennifer spoke in June at the 73rd National Conference of the League of American Orchestras, addressing the importance of diversity in classical music: “[It is] necessary for an artist that is a minority and an unwanted presence—to exist, and to exist as a true, complicated artistic presence. This kind of truthful, complicated presence has the power to transform culture. This kind of presence has the power to inspire the imaginations of others like myself: girls, women, and people of color represented complexly and truthfully, giving them an opening to imagine and actuate a life in classical music.”

Jennifer advocates for women and people of color through a number of intentional collaborations, especially with living composers, working towards equity in music. “I think the more empowered I’ve become within the field, the more I believe I can advocate for change,” she says. Her recent New American Concerto project is a multi-season commissioning project that explores the form of the violin concerto and its potential for artistic engagement with communities that have not previously been reflected in programming. The goal is to curate a diverse collective of composers to focus on socio-cultural topics that are both personally meaningful and particularly relevant to American life today. For example, Vijay Iyer’s Trouble explores the issues of discrimination and the immigrant experience, specifically recalling Chinese-American Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in Detroit after being accused of stealing jobs from American industrial workers; Chris Cerrone’s Breaks and Breaks takes inspiration from poetry as a means to take solace from and reflect on our current stress-filled, high anxiety world. “I do believe in community,” she elaborates. “And I do believe in supporting my colleagues and advocating for them because I was lucky enough to have mentors who did that for me as well.”

“In the end,” she summarized in her League speech, “I have found that the most rewarding part of making music is truly listening, understanding, and communicating the voices and stories of people who are not like myself.”

Watch and Listen

Jennifer spoke at the League of American Orchestras’ 73rd National Conference in Chicago on June 14, 2018 (speech text begins around 3:04).

Jennifer’s recent New American Concerto project explores the violin concerto as a tool for engagement. So far, two concertos have premiered: Vijay Iyer’s Trouble and Chris Cerrone’s Breaks and Breaks.