Classically trained violinists are, generally speaking, a focused breed accustomed to long hours in the practice room refining a phrase down to static perfection. This is perhaps what makes the Oberlin and Juilliard-trained violinist Jennifer Choi’s seemingly voracious appetite to try new things so striking. From Brahms to improv to serving as the concertmaster for the pit orchestra of South Pacific, Choi seems unable, or at least unwilling, to sit still.
“I can’t get enough. Really, I can’t!” Choi admits, acknowledging that this personality trait is a driving force in her career. “People ask me, ‘Why do you do all this stuff? Just say no!’ But the thing is, it’s all music to me and it’s all an experience.”
Choi’s training began traditionally enough, with violin lessons at five and a more serious personal commitment to the instrument at twelve, a turn Choi attributes to the beauty of the concerto repertoire she was playing at the time. Contemporary music was also already within her sightlines, mostly through recordings of other violinists like Maria Bachmann and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, as well as the generous contemporary programming of her local orchestra, the Oregon Symphony under the direction of James DePreist. But it wasn’t repertoire she necessarily saw herself playing—yet. “The new music pieces are the ones that really drew me, especially the percussion and brass. I was really just blown away by all the different kinds of sounds,” she explains. “But I didn’t know that ‘new music’ is what I would really find a knack for.”
Eventually, however, the fit became clear. The repertoire attracted her both by its variety and its challenges. It wasn’t just music for violin and piano, but for violin and percussion, for violin and celesta. It wasn’t a performing life that involved playing the masterworks with an orchestra most weekends of the year, and that suited her perfectly well.
“I found more anxiety trying to play the Sibelius Concerto as perfectly as possible than exploring this new music,” she says, clarifying that “you do have to bring that same refinement to new music, so the difference would be that it hasn’t been interpreted as many times. There isn’t this comparison factor with new music, and I think that for me that’s been really liberating.”
Despite this attraction to performing on her own terms, Choi didn’t really start working without a net until she began improvising, thanks to an invitation from the composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra. She says that the world of improv was not something she even really understood until after she had finished at Juilliard and started performing professionally.
At first the experience challenged her, but through working with Ibarra and the pianist Craig Taborn, she found her footing and her voice. “Improv is the most amazing thing that any musician could do because here you’re allowed to just play,” Choi says, her enthusiasm audible. “I feel like in improv you’re really digging through your soul.”
Working in all these various genres makes it increasingly difficult for Choi to compartmentalize her various playing styles, though she says she can still pull out “that pristine Lincoln Center violinist” when the situation calls for it. The only thing she seems uninterested in is being only that, which makes her recent appointment as the new violinist with the ETHEL string quartet an especially sweet fit.
“I can’t even listen to a whole piece on the radio, a lot of times,” Choi confesses, laughing. “And that’s why ETHEL is perfect. They play music that you can’t classify so easily. So for me, I think I’ve finally found a space where I can stay for a while. That’s what I’m hoping.”