Jennifer Koh returns to Fresno Philharmonic with recipe for a flavorful Bernstein ‘Serenade’

Virtuoso violinist is helping to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth

Jennifer Koh played with the Fresno Philharmonic way back in 1996, so you’d forgive her for being a little hazy in the memory department when it comes to details. That was more than two decades ago, when the youthful talent was busy whipper-snapping her way into the elite ranks of the world’s concert violinists. Throughout the course of her significant career, she’s played lots of places.

It might come as a surprise, then, that as she returns to play with the Fresno Philharmonic on Sunday, Feb. 25, Koh’s recollections are crystal clear about one particular detail from her Fresno visit. Not to be too dramatic about it or anything, but it changed her life.

jennifer koh
Jennifer Koh returns to play with the Fresno Philharmonic on Sunday, Feb. 25. Photo / Juergen Frank

The music director of the Fresno Philharmonic at the time was Maestro Raymond Harvey. During rehearsal week, he invited the young Koh — a college student finishing up at Oberlin whose resume included making her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11 and winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1994 — to dinner at his Fresno High School-area home. He cooked a marvelous gourmet dinner for her, as he was known to do.

She was impressed. “How do you cook so well?” she asked.

Then she admitted to him that she was a complete klutz in the kitchen. How bad a cook was she at the time? Think of her at a level of starting-a-fire badness. (That really happened once when she tried to cook a steak that was frozen. She didn’t know she had to defrost it first.) Koh might have been a virtuoso violinist, but her culinary skills were seriously out of tune.

Harvey had a solution. He gave her one of his favorite cookbooks: “The Silver Palate,” by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso.

Koh read it. And followed it. And treasured it.

“I learned how to cook from that book,” she says.

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All these years later, Koh looks forward to her Fresno return. (When I mention her first visit, she replies with a laugh, “Don’t remind me that I’ve been alive for that long.”) The occasion is an important one. As part of the worldwide celebration of the birth of Leonard Bernstein, Koh will play the composer’s “Serenade,” a daring five-movement concerto written in 1954.

It’s the one thing he wrote for solo violin.

“I’ve loved this piece for a long time, and I’ve been playing it for a long time,” Koh says in a phone interview from New York City. “I love how he incorporates literature and philosophy.”

Bernstein drew his inspiration from Plato’s “Symposium,” a short but memorable work in which a series of distinguished speakers at a drinking party — those ancient Greeks certainly did like their wine — offer a dialogue in praise of love.

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Rei Hotoda, the Fresno Philharmonic’s music director, also has a profound appreciation for “Serenade.”

“For those who think they know Bernstein, it’s a more serious approach to composing,” she says. “He’s more known for Broadway, such as ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Candide,’ and his score for the movie ‘On the Waterfront.’ ‘Serenade’ is quite difficult for both the orchestra and soloist. But it projects to the audience so much flair and enjoyment.”

Koh’s favorite movement is the fourth, titled “Agathon,” named for the Greek poet. Bernstein called this “perhaps the most moving speech of the dialogue … [embracing] all aspects of love’s powers, charms and functions.”

The movement reminds Koh of an underlying heartbeat. “It’s just beautiful to me,” she says.

Hotoda, meanwhile, counts the fifth movement, titled “Socrates,” after the Greek philosopher, as her favorite of the concerto.

“It starts off so dark, so serious,” she says. “There’s so much angst in the strings right away. Then it goes into the icon of jazz. He really epitomized his jazzy elements at the end of this movement.”

At the heart of both Koh and Hotoda’s appreciation of Bernstein is the facility with which the composer wove into his music a sense of the optimism and forward-thinking ability of his native land. Just as the U.S. is able to synthesize the cultural traditions of its hard-working immigrants into something new and profound, Bernstein managed to do the same with the nation’s musical personality.

In “Serenade,” Bernstein manages to fold together the Western philosophy of Plato with musical points that reference the African-American roots of jazz, the rhythm and harmony of Stravinsky (who became an American citizen later in life), and the melodic pull of musical theater.

“I do think there’s something quintessentially American about it,” Koh says.

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Koh and Hotoda share something else in common: They’re both passionate about contemporary music. That’s something they also share with Bernstein, who was an advocate for new American music.

“I see classical music as a living and breathing art form,” Koh says. “I know it’s comfortable to listen to things that are familiar. But we can’t only perform older pieces. Why wouldn’t you want to read newspapers from today, instead of only ones from 200 years ago?”

Her recital series and recordings include “Bach and Beyond” and “Bridge to Beethoven.” One of her best known projects is “Shared Madness,” featuring works from over 30 composers, including Philip Glass, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. She’s currently putting a lot of her energy into “The New American Concerto,” a multi-season commissioning project that “explores the form of the violin concerto and its potential for artistic engagement with contemporary societal concerns and issues.”

Hotoda is likewise known for her advocacy for contemporary music and for putting the spotlight on American composers. For her, Bernstein symbolizes those passions.

“He has been a huge influence on my life,” she says. “I love conducting his music. I find it challenging, but there’s an incredible groove to the music.”

Bernstein’s love of American music is reflected in the rest of the orchestra’s program at the Sunday concert: John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” and Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3.

There’s also a tangential connection between Hotoda and Bernstein through two of her musical mentors: Marin Alsop and Gustav Meier. Alsop, now the music director at the Baltimore Symphony, was mentored by Bernstein, and she often shared stories about his memorable idiosyncrasies. (In the photos above, you can see the connection: On the left, Alsop works with Bernstein; on the right, Alsop works with Hotoda.)

While studying the “Serenade” score, Hotoda had a conducting question. She emailed Alsop, who promptly replied.

“I felt like I was emailing Bernstein himself,” Hotoda says.

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A lot has changed in Koh’s life since that 1996 performance in Fresno, of course. Along with her innovative musical initiatives, she’s remained a sought-after concert violinist who has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and many others. She is particularly well known for her performances of Bach.

She’s also become quite the cook. Her specialty is Indian food.

And she knows how to defrost a steak.

It all started with a conductor who was also a gourmet. For that, Koh will always have fond Fresno memories. Perhaps she’ll have time to try a taco or two while she’s here again.

And though in many ways she’s moved beyond that life-changing cookbook given to her by Maestro Harvey, it will always have a place in her heart (and stomach).

“I still use ‘The Silver Palate,’ “ she says.

Concert info

Jennifer Koh with the Fresno Philharmonic, 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 25, Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St., Fresno. $25-$79.

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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

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