Photo credit: Sergio Veranes
By Jill Girgulis
Interview completed in March 2021
Published in June 2021
For baroque cellist Jessica Korotkin, it’s fair to say she was somewhat of a late-bloomer when it came to her instrument. As a child, her focuses were primarily theatre, acting, and modeling — it wasn’t until witnessing a cello performance at a high school assembly in her junior year that she truly started to consider giving music, and specifically the cello, a try.
“It really took my breath away,” she recalls of the performance. “I found a teacher who was willing to help me prepare for conservatory auditions when I was 17, and at the time didn’t even know how to read music … I felt like I had to catch up with all of these kids who were studying their instrument since age three!”
Korotkin confesses that she was “totally directionless” at the time when cello first entered her life, but thanks to music, within two years, she was busy pursuing a bachelor’s degree in modern cello at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. It was here that she also began to dabble in early music, eventually adding a minor in historical performance to her undergraduate degree.
“I knew I loved playing cello, but I didn’t know exactly what career path I wanted to take,” she says. “It became pretty clear to me, once I had entered the conservatory, that the orchestral path wasn’t necessarily the one that was best for me, and neither was the solo cello path.”
While still searching for an avenue to better reflect her relationship with the instrument, Korotkin became introduced to early music somewhat unceremoniously during her sophomore year of college.
“I didn’t know anything about early music at the time,” she admits, before going on to explain how she progressed from casually trying out historical instruments because she was dating a harpsichord player, to finding her place in the baroque world. “My relationship didn’t last, but my love for the instrument has been strong to this day!”
Baroque music was an encapsulation of everything that had attracted Korotkin to music to begin with, and she quickly realized it was a natural fit.
“The baroque period is often referred to as the golden age of rhetoric, and the musical style is supposed to be very expressive and dramatic,” Korotkin explains, also citing how the role of the cello in baroque music is primarily a supportive one. “You’re just laying down that foundation for everybody...that’s a role that I really love playing in music — being the glue that helps everything stay together.”
After graduation from Peabody, she then progressed to graduate school, first completing a master’s degree at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio, before embarking on a doctorate degree at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. Korotkin is currently in her second year and had just wrapped up her coursework at the time of this interview. Her main research is centered around performing her original compositions on baroque cello that are inspired by Bach’s method of parody.
Photo credit: Sergio Veranes
“It’s not all about archival research anymore,” she explains. “In my project, I’m learning to compose in the style of Bach, and it enables me to have this perspective on Bach that’s uniquely mine, and it can only be done through this kind of practical research.”
For her thesis, Korotkin is essentially writing six additional Bach cello suites in the style of Bach, taking his cantatas and transforming them into a cello line, while aiming to preserve the polyphonic qualities of the music.
“You can do original research through creating something true to you. I feel empowered when I’m able to share something that I composed. Even if it’s in the style of Bach — it’s something I created. Bach didn’t write it,” Korotkin points out. “It’s something that I can take ownership of, and use to inform my understanding of how to play Bach’s music, which is great, because I love Bach!”
Throughout her doctorate, Korotkin has worked closely alongside her teacher Susie Napper, whose interdisciplinary approach to sharing baroque music with wider audiences caught Korotkin’s attention back when she was searching for a doctorate program.
“I asked myself, who would really be supportive and want to help me with more radical ideas having to do with historical performance?... And then I found Susie Napper,” says Korotkin. “Especially as a late-bloomer, I am grateful for the support of family, friends, and teacher. I hope that I can be someone else’s ‘Susie Napper’ one day.” It’s clear that Napper — whose career centers around composing new music in baroque styles, reconstructing lost works, and revitalizing historical works — has been a very positive mentorship presence in Korotkin’s life.
“I really like that she takes this new approach to perform historical music, where there’s this freedom to bring back these historical ways of playing, and then try to make them as relevant as possible to today,” Korotkin says of her teacher.
As part of her goal of increasing the relevance of early music, Korotkin always aims for human connection and relatability.
Photo credit: Sergio Veranes
“If you can’t present it in a way that is interesting to a broader range of people, then I don’t think it’s important, and I cannot personally connect with that. So, if I can’t even connect to it, as the person who is doing it, then I don’t expect my audiences to care at all,” she emphasizes. “Wherever my career ends up, I want it to be this fusion of historical music and new music, centered upon this larger goal of connecting with audience members as honestly as possible.”