Not only is she a globally acclaimed musician, violinist Jennifer Koh is a passionate advocate for up-and-coming musicians and racial and gender diversity in classical music. She recently performed at GBH Fraser Performance Studio in a performance now available online. She studied at the Curtis Institute, where she worked closely with legendary violinists Jaime Laredo and Felix Galimir.

A first-generation Korean American of refugee parents, Koh shares her thoughts on new music, racial and gender diversity in classical music and her family history.

Do you remember your first encounter with a violin?

In Suzuki class, when I was about 3, we started on a simulated violin made from a Cracker Jack box with a ruler attached to it, using a dowel as the bow. I remember moving on to the violin and getting to eat the Cracker Jacks.

When you were 11, you performed as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony. What was that like?

I hadn’t played with an orchestra before and just to hear all of those sounds behind me, I was enveloped inside of it. To be inside this cushion of sound was really exciting to me. Speaking of memories, I also remember my first violin teacher, Mrs. Davis. I'm still in touch with her.

When did you know that you were going to devote your career to the violin?

I don't come from a musical family, so the thought of music being a career was quite a foreign idea. I played the violin during college and I met Galimir. It was a process of learning that was really rewarding, and I just wanted to continue learning.

Tell us about your family.

My parents were refugees during the Korean War. My mom was originally from North Korea, born in 1943 under the Japanese occupation, as was my father. From age 7 to 10 my mom and her family basically walked from North Korea down to Busan, where they lived in a refugee camp. She was able to get scholarships all the way through college and eventually got her Ph.D.

There’s a saying that it takes three generations to make an artist — the first generation pulls themselves out of poverty, the second educates themselves and only then are you able to have a generation that can go into the arts. I have so much respect for my mother because she did in one generation what usually takes two generations. She pulled herself out of poverty and she educated herself, so that I can be where I am.

You have a dedication to shattering stereotypes and bringing more diversity to classical music.

My whole life's mission has been about advocating for people who haven't been heard. It’s important to bring forward and to advocate for people of color, women and nonbinary people. It’s important to show that we’re all complex and full human beings. If I don't speak out, it's never going to change for the next generation. I feel I have a responsibility to speak out.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a project called "Everything Rises" that will premiere in April 2022 at the University of California Los Angeles and University of California Santa Barbara. "Everything Rises" tells the story of my mother and the mother of my co-creator Davóne Tines, who is African American. His great-great-grandmother was born a slave. I feel that it is important to show that solidarity across races and to bring forward that intersectionality of gender and race.

Learn more about Koh here.