From prodigy to master
Midori made her professional debut at 11. Twenty years later, she says she has finally faced down the legacy of that little girl.
LOS ANGELES — Midori's fingers race firmly up and down the neck of her violin; her slight frame whipsaws with every phrase. Her face shines with sweat, but she is calm and intently focused. The violinist dispatches the devilishly detailed Barber violin concerto with a fierce flourish and then takes a tiny bow.
There is no applause. The vast Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is empty. This is, after all, a rehearsal. That fact, however, doesn't alter the intensity with which Midori plays.
As she says later in her dressing room, there is always something new to hear or learn in a piece of music, paying patrons or not. Applause aside, her playing evoked quite a response, as the stunned looks on the faces of rows of Los Angeles Philharmonic veterans testify. "She ranks with the greatest of all time," says first violinist Tamara Chernyak, as she leaves the rehearsal stage.
"Very few can play like that," says the Russian musician. "She plays every note like a diamond and at twice the speed."
Observing Midori through the various phases of her two-week Los Angeles residency offers a nicely rounded picture of the artist the former wunderkind has become.
When she was 11 years old, violin great Isaac Stern dubbed her the greatest child prodigy he'd ever seen. Legendary violin teacher Dorothy DeLay trotted her out for journalists as a musical phenomenon. New York Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta introduced her to the world at the orchestra's 1982 New Year's Eve concert when she was a preteen wearing Mary Janes. A new international star was born.
But as she enters her 20th anniversary tour, Midori has finally, and with great mental effort, faced down the legacy of that little girl and become in her words, her own person.
"Now," she says with a look of conviction, "I do what I want to do, rather than what people tell me to do, which for many years was to play and remain silent."
She is, she adds, with a slight smile and firm nod of her head, "not quiet anymore."
The L.A. residency is a good example of the new Midori in action. Originally set up as a two-week stay with two performances and visits to local schools, it blossomed into a series of master classes; community partnerships; joint performances with local, young musicians; and inspirational talks with local educators. "She helped expand our vision of what was possible," says Los Angeles Philharmonic managing director, Deborah Borda.
Her foundation is another demonstration of her foresight. The 10-year-old organization, Midori & Friends, began by offering concerts for the schools but it has matured into a well-oiled educational organization that brings teachers and curriculum into New York City public schools, reaching some 100,000 children annually. "My passion lies in the direction of children and education," says Midori.
This vision was partially born out of her early experiences of going to schools as a guest artist. "You just get dropped in at 11 a.m. for a 45-minute performance," says Midori's manager, Byron Gustafson. "You walk onstage, maybe something magical happens, and you leave, with no follow-up," he says. "Midori became very worried that this was not a healthy approach," either for local institutions or for the use of her time.
Midori's own childhood has played perhaps the most profound role in shaping her conviction that music should help people have a more fully rounded life.
In many ways, she says, she has spent her adult life pushing to create the normalcy she missed as an international child star. Her image as a prodigy was carefully cultivated by those around her. "They would tell me things like, 'You have to say you like classical music, you never listen to anything else.' "
When Midori decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in psychology, she says her family and friends discouraged her. "They said, 'You're a big star, why do you need to do that?' "
Some even suggested that pursuing so many outside interests meant she didn't respect her gifts. "But I needed to," she says, "for myself."
What has emerged is a serious, committed artist, says Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, not a self-absorbed diva. "She's incredibly demanding of herself," she says, adding, "there's no attitude being flung around with anybody else, including the conductor."
"I've been dealing with artists for 30 years," says Kathryn King, who handles publicity for Midori in North America. "She's the most un-Divalike person I've met."
However, this search for her own sense of self has produced the occasional misstep. A review of her recent performance in Minnesota noted the boldness of approach to a Sibelius concerto work, but said that "it didn't work."
But for Midori, it's the process that counts. Midori says she even has questioned her own place in the classical music world. "Music had been given to me by default," she says. "It was not something I had chosen, it was simply given to me."
The struggle peaked during her last year of college, three years ago. She had the option of entering a highly competitive graduate program in clinical psychology and she had to clarify her priorities. "If I had gotten in, it would only be fair to have plans to go into the profession," she says. "I couldn't do that."
Now, she says she views music as a privilege that she is finally willing to embrace as a choice.
Midori is still pursuing a master's degree and works on her thesis between concerts, recitals, master classes, rehearsals, speaking engagements, and working with the three students she teaches in New York. That's on top of several hours of daily practice to prepare new repertoire for coming engagements.
One might easily ask, what is left to practice for a musician who mastered much of the basic violin repertoire while still in sleeper pajamas? "Listening," says Midori.
Far from becoming complacent with familiar repertoire, Midori says she only goes deeper. "Music seems very vivid to me these days," she says.
Midori's quest for wholeness has a way of inspiring the musical and nonmusical community alike. During the Los Angeles residency, she performed with members of the American Youth Symphony.
"I want to be just like her," says Sharon Park, a 16-year-old violinist who performed a difficult Dvorak piece with Midori. "With all the things she does, I don't know how she has time for herself, but I want to work with young musicians just like she does."
Speaking to a group of Los Angeles educators, Midori was passionate about the power of music to give children self-confidence. She surprised everyone when she added, "I needed that self-esteem, too."
"If someone of that stature can talk about the need for wholeness, that helps us all," says Adinah Solomon, a deputy from a Los Angeles city councilman's office. Indeed, Midori's gift is not just about being onstage, says Llewellyn Crain, director of educational initiatives at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "It's about her wholeness as a human being," she says. "Her total involvement in that pursuit contributes to her artistry."
History may tell Midori's story differently from that of many other performers of her abilities, suggests critic and author Michael Steinberg. "There is a purity there that is very admirable and lovable," he says. "I sometimes find her more fascinating as a total human being than as a violinist or even interpreter of great literature."
When it comes time to assess her impact, these factors may play a bigger role than her musicianship alone, he adds. Which, no doubt, is the way Midori would like it.
In the end, she says, music is not about learning to be a professional performer. "It's about learning to have a human life," she says.
"It is a privilege, but on the other hand, it's something we should all be able to take for granted."