Violinist Midori does justice to centuries of classical music

by Brent Reidy | 4/11/05 5:00am

Virtuosa violinist Midori, along with pianist Robert McDonald, performed on Saturday night in a concert that was simply inspiring. Midori delivered everything that was expected of her. Ever since she made her debut at age 11 with the New York Philharmonic, she has been gaining rave reviews and praise from the critical press, and Saturday's concert demonstrated why she is considered one of today's most expressive and evocative violinists.

Midori's presentation was as unique as her name. For instance, the concert program, besides listing the pieces she was to perform, also featured a personal note from her that had nothing to do with the music itself. In the program, Midori stated that her performances were ideally described as an amalgamation of all the threads of her musical and personal experiences. According to her, Saturday's performance would become another thread in the fabric of her life, and likewise, she hoped that the concert would add a thread to each audience member's own quilt as well.

It was hard not to be affected by this note, since such candor is unusual for an artist. Words like this are occasionally shared while onstage or in post-concert discussions, but it's a bold move to deliver an open letter to the audience in the program.

One thus senses an immediate connection between Midori's style and the mysticism that characterized such musicians as Scriabin and Rudhyar, who also believed in the otherworldly power of music. The more skeptical in the audience might have seen the note as a calculated and false attempt at creating a sense of mystery, but yours truly accepted it as a sincere testament to Midori's personal beliefs.

Midori's performance was striking in terms of the range of pieces that was presented. Midori started the concert with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's well-known "Sonata for Piano and Violin in B-flat Major, K. 454," from 1784. However, the next piece in the program, Maurice Ravel's "Sonata for Violin & Piano in G Major," was written more than one hundred years after Mozart's time. And this was all just before the intermission.

Johann Sebastian Bach's "Sonata No. 2 in A minor" kicked off the second half of the concert, transporting the audience back to the early 18th century. A short piece by the contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara was next, followed by Karol Szymanowski's "Notturno e Tarantella for Violin and Piano, Op. 28"

A program like this represents an audacious statement of purpose. Not only does Midori make clear that she is a connoisseuse of music both new and old (which is a surprisingly hard thing to find among performers), but she also asserts her ability to perform this music, in spite of the intimidating fact that she is covering what amounts to over three centuries of music history.

The program notes, written by Midori herself, reveal the sort of wisdom and actual knowledge of her field (gasp!) that one does not usually expect from a performer. She even quotes scholars such as H.C. Robbins Landon, referring to him as a "great musicologist." This combination of virtuosity and historical knowledge is to be lauded, because it is unfortunately rather rare these days.

All these factors amounted to truly excellent playing, as Midori handled counterpoint, tonality and polytonality with extraordinary success.

It was suprising that Midori chose to open with her weakest piece, the Mozart sonata. Midori's performance of Mozart's work was lackluster, and the music was anything but enchanting. Luckily, she more than made up for this with excellent takes on the pieces that were to follow.

Some of Midori's finest moments were the long, drawn-out breaks she took in some phrases, most notably during Bach's "Andante" and Szymanowski's "Notturno."

Some might have been turned off by her modern approach to Bach and Mozart, but I would respectfully disagree with these critics, at least in regards to Bach's sonata. She was sporadically off-pitch and sometimes missed leaps, betraying a hint of nervousness. Regardless, I found this less-than-perfect approach endearing, and a refreshing take on a piece that could otherwise have come off as stale. She was most succesful with the "Andante" -- the "Fugue" suffered a bit as the dialogue between fugue and counter-fugue lost some of its clarity.

The highlight of the evening was the interpretation of Ravel's "Blues: Moderato" movement from the "Sonata in G Major," as both her inflection and glissandi were flawless. In fact, if any one piece on the program seemed ideally suited for Midori to tackle, it was certainly the Ravel. She managed to bend the major thirds down towards the minor (as the violin isn't boxed by the well-tempered compromise of the keyboard) and in the process achieved a true vocal blues inflection.

Rautavaara proved to be the only rotten egg in the bunch. While the Finnish composer's short composition appeared to possess the makings of a great piece, the monotonous chords of the second section quickly became tiresome. Midori and McDonald tried their best and gave an admirable performance, but the material failed them in the end.

The star of the evening was undoubtedly Midori, but a word must be reserved for McDonald's performance. He was not perfect, of course. His interpretations were not nearly as affecting as Midori's, and his touch was sometimes too heavy for the more delicate sections of the works played. This was a shame because Midori, who could affect the most beautiful of pianissimos, was at times overpowered by McDonald's thick chords.

Yet for the most part, his playing was clear and crisp, and he usually displayed an exceptional evenness of touch. Despite some missteps, McDonald effectively complemented Midori's style overall.

The staff of the Hopkins Center is to be commended, as the last three concerts -- Mariza, Bobby McFerrin and Midori -- have featured some absolutely powerhouse performances. Each played to packed auditoriums. The number of seats filled is never indicative of quality, but they went hand-in-hand this time around. Even my most positive reviews tend to contain a splash of acid, but Midori, like the two who came before her, left very little room for complaints. Bravo.