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Midori became nothing less than an international sensation after serving as a surprise guest soloist at age 11 at New Year’s Eve gala with New York Philharmonic in 1982. Though she is not yet 50, the violinist has been performing publicly for more than 35 years.
“It sounds so long,” she said via e-mail, “but of course, much in our world has changed since I made my debut almost four decades ago. How time moves and how we internalize the changes that happen around and inside us, are understood by each one of us subjectively and uniquely. In the scope of history, the changes we have had are on a continuum from the past to the future, but I feel grateful to have experienced what I have, and to live along inside the changing world. At the same time, with certain issues, I also feel disturbed, concerned and ashamed how little we, collectively, or I, personally, have been able to do against the atrocities of the status quo, that continue, or that are newly created.”
Despite a somewhat lower profile these days, Midori nonetheless maintains an elite international career, performing with top artists and orchestras and continuing her innovative entrepreneurial initiatives that support young performers and new audiences. Chicago audiences will get a chance to see her in action April 14 when she joins pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet as part of the Symphony Center Performances Chamber Music Series. The recital is part of a cross-country itinerary that begins April 6 at the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Center for the Performing Arts and takes the duo to five cities, ending on April 15 at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. “This will be our first tour together,” the violinist said, “and I am very much looking forward to it.”
The two musicians had considered another project together but settled on this program after they exchanged ideas for possible repertoire. The French-tinged lineup consists of Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1, Fauré’s Violin Sonata No. 1, Debussy’s Violin Sonata and Romanian composer George Enescu’s Sonata No. 3 in A Minor (in Romanian Folk Style), Op. 25 (1926), which Midori describes as “colorful and at times haunting.” This final work, dedicated to the memory of violinist Franz Kneisel, ranks among the French-trained Enescu’s most frequently performed works.
As part of the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth in 1918, Midori has given multiple performances of the composer’s Serenade (After Plato’s Symposium) (1954), a five-movement work for violin and orchestra. Celebrated violinist Isaac Stern permiered the piece in 1954 at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice with the Israel Philharmonic and Bernstein on the podium. In a cable to his wife before the debut, Bernstein wrote, “Isaac plays the Serenade like an angel. If it all goes well tomorrow, it should be a knockout.”
In 1986, Midori made her debut at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass., performing the Serenade with Bernstein conducting. She was only 14 years old, and that fact alone would have been impressive enough. But during the performance, she broke the E string on her violin and unperturbedly switched her instrument with the concertmaster’s. She broke another string on that instrument and had to make a second exchange with the associate concertmaster. Her calm under fire earned her a front-page story in the New York Times.
“Prodigious talent for a performing musician has three components: technical skill, artistic mastery and rarest of all, that strange combination of pluck and luck that allows the artist to triumph in sudden crises,” wrote music critic John Rockwell. “Mi Dori [the spelling of her name at that time], a diminutive 14-year-old Japanese violinist who studies at the Juilliard School in New York, pulled off just that triple play Saturday at Tanglewood, astounding the audience and the Boston Symphony itself with her aplomb in a situation that might have daunted the canniest veteran.”
Despite her unique history with the Serenade, Midori had had little contact with the work since she performed it in 1992. “I am glad to have been able to bring it back to my repertoire,” she said. “I feel greatly fortunate to have been coached and mentored on this piece by both the composer and the person who premiered it [Isaac Stern, whose 100th anniversary falls in 2020]. Both not only helped me in the process of my learning it, but both were there at the rehearsal at Tanglewood in 1986.”
After living for 15 years in Los Angeles, where she was on the faculty at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, Midori moved last fall to Philadelphia where she has begun to teach at the respected Curtis Institute of Music. She will continue at USC in a visiting-artist role.
“These few months have been a period of adjustment,” she said. “I was psychologically prepared for the cold weather (though maybe not for the frozen dishwashing liquid in my kitchen) but I was not expecting so much rain. … I miss my avocados (they look similar but taste very different) but love being able to do everything I need to get done within walking distance. I am enjoying working with my students at Curtis. Life continues to be one of appreciation, rewards, discovery, learning and self-reflection.”
Midori also is as busy as ever with what she calls “projects.” Among the best known is Midori and Friends, a non-profit organization she founded in 1992. The program provides music-education programs to New York students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. It emphasizes long-term partnerships with participating schools and community organizations. Midori and Friends has reached more than 200,000 students and currently works with 40 schools. Other initiatives include the Orchestra Residencies Program in which Midori spends five to seven days working with two youth orchestras each year and Partners in Performance, which has co-sponsored more than 20 chamber-music concerts in small communities with few financial resources for such offerings.
“I have always enjoyed bringing people together, and it always seemed such a natural part of what I do to have music serve as a catalyst and a binding force,” she said. “Also, becoming aware of social issues from very early on in my life was one of my family’s traits shared over generations. I see that over the last 30 years, my emotional life has been greatly enriched by the experiences of connecting with others, in my effort of sharing music with them.”