Magnificent Brahms from Midori
Midori, violin and Bramwell Tovey, conductor
Works by Brahms, Wagner, and Shostakovich - Orpheum, January 12, 2013
Many of us remember the sensational teenage performances of Japanese/American violinist Midori from the 1980’s. Following the breakthrough success of Kyung-Wha Chung in the previous decade, here was the next Julliard-trained young Asian female violinist destined for long-lived stardom, technically so spectacular but also with an artistic maturity far beyond her years. After a series of very well-received recordings up to 1990, the international spotlight however seemed to move off this artist and, a few years later, it would have been legitimate to ask ‘what is Midori doing now?’ It turns out that, in 1992 (at age 21) Midori had formed a foundation ‘Midori and Friends’ a product of her inspiration to bring the power and joy of music to disadvantaged children in both New York City and Japan. She has continued this broader inspiration to the present day and now a total of four ‘community engagement’ initiatives, reaching many parts of the world. She has also completed a graduate degree in psychology. Midori still performs over 100 concerts a year but a good number of these are for disadvantaged communities and groups that she wishes to motivate.
Midori sets a remarkable role model for a socially-conscious artist. What is even more remarkable is that, on the basis of this concert, she seems to have suffered no noticeable decline in violin technique over the years. Her playing has all the beauty, precision and ease that we have admired in the past; in fact, her interpretative strength seems greater. When Midori came on stage there was noticeably no trace of glamour or ostentation at all. All one felt is that here was a totally selfless musician whose only objective was to get inside the soul of the music.
The Brahms Violin Concerto is the longest of the ‘great’ violin concertos and requires the highest level of technical command, lyrical breadth, and emotional control. The extended first movement requires strong and decisive statement but this must be blended with both an easeful sweetness and a more forlorn melancholy. The movement is complex and difficult to carry from beginning to end. In some ways, Midori’s approach was controversial, taking the movement much more slowly than the norm. A challenging prospect, but Midori had such complete control over the movement’s tensions and lyrical line that it evolved as one continuously-revealing story. Many subtle changes in timbre and phrasing took us from its somber valleys to its glowing peaks with consummate ease, moments of struggle gently giving way to moments of pure sweetness and sunlight, and back again. Midori’s playing was often very delicate and inward, sometimes having a serene, intimate ‘speaking’ quality, sometimes having the classical purity of Bach or chamber music, but she would always step forward when the work needed attack. After the lovely woodwind theme that opens the second movement, we found the same depth and concentration; her playing tender and heartfelt throughout, always opening out interpretative space to find hidden beauty. The finale provided just the right release, wedding its spiky, rhythmical themes to the overall feeling of joy and energy. While there have been many more powerful performances of the Brahms Concerto than this, few have been as compelling and magnetic: a wonderful balance of wisdom and feeling.
Midori’s spirit proved beneficial to all. While conductor Bramwell Tovey has often favoured a more forthright approach to the orchestral accompaniment, this was simply not possible at Midori’s speed. What emerged was in fact a greater breadth and nobility in the orchestral statements and a quieter and more refined treatment of the woodwind and string lines. The standing ovation by the audience was a full standing ovation: I do not think anyone was left sitting. This teaches us again that one does not always need noise and spectacle to get an audience excited; sheer quality can do this at any volume.
© Geoffrey Newman 2013