One of America’s greatest violinists will be honored at the 43rd Kennedy Center Honors in May. It’s difficult to realize that, as long as she’s been in front of the public, she’s still very much in mid-career. The decades since 1985 have seen Midori emerge as a teenage star at 14 years old, deepen her artistry and repertory, found a nonprofit for educating underserved children in the U.S. and Japan in classical music, earn a master’s degree in psychology from NYU in 2005, while still performing, and become a highly beloved teacher at USC’s Thornton School of Music (earning the title of distinguished professor in 2012) and, in 2018, at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
She has had challenges, which she related in her memoirs, written in German (and still, unfortunately, untranslated into English). Having left the Juilliard precollegiate division to turn pro in 1987, she became ill with anorexia and in 1994 was hospitalized for treatment of the disease. That experience fostered her interest in psychology. Read more in SFCV’s profile piece by Mark MacNamara.
As a violinist, Midori is one of the most exciting players of her generation, passionate and free-spirited. As she reaches her 50th year, she has shown a thoughtful, reflective side that results in transcendent performances with her entirely in the zone. That’s why she was performing so often, until in-person performances stopped. She is the recipient of many awards, including a Suntory Music Award (1993), and an Avery Fisher Prize (2001). She was also named a U.N. Messenger of Peace, in 2007.
Midori is low-key about all of this and often seems to be passed over in press coverage. Her recorded legacy consists of 26 commercially available albums, two of which are compilations. They all show her trademark tonal clarity and ease with her instrument. Here’s just a selection to start off with.
Paganini: 24 Caprices (Sony, 1989) Midori’s first album was recorded when she was 17, released when she was 18. Midori’s youthful assurance and febrile interpretations just make the pieces fun.
Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (Onyx, 2015) For the life of me, I don’t know why these well-reviewed, spectacularly played performances of Bach don’t get more attention. Check her out playing the famous Chaconne in the castle of Cöthen, where the pieces were written, to see what I mean. Tempos are perfect and flexible, all the parts of the performance are perfectly fused. Words fail.
Mendelssohn, Bruch: Violin Concertos (Sony 2001). There are so many recordings of the canonic Romantic concertos that there are no “greatest ever” performances. Midori became a star playing this repertory and worked with great orchestras and conductors while she was doing it. This recording, with Mariss Jansons conducting the Berlin Philharmonic is particularly excellent partly because it’s taken from live performances, and partly because the connection between soloist, conductor, and orchestra is so tight.
French Violin Sonatas (Sony, 2002). With accompanist Robert McDonald, Midori gives moving, yet energetic performances of sonatas by Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Francis Poulenc.
Encore! (Sony, 1991) Midori partners with pianist Robert McDonald on short works from the familiar (like Elgar’s Salut d’amour) to the rare and unusual (Cèsar Cui’s Orientale and Grazyna Bacewicz’s Oberek). 30 years later, people are still loving this album.
Bloch, Janáček, Shostakovich: Violin Sonatas (Onyx, 2013), Özgür Aydin, piano. A bit of a reach for beginners, these sonatas, which Midori sees as influenced by the experience of war, are lyrical and, in Shostakovich’s case, disturbing as well. But she’s equal to the emotional challenges of these works.
Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: Violin Concerto (Sony 1998). Tchaikovsky lovers who want more brawn and depth to the solo violin’s sound have demurred about this recording. And as Midori charts her own artistic course, it’s clear that she prefers measured gradations of dynamics in the midrange to dramatic, sustained fortissimos. But with Claudio Abbado leading the Berlin Philharmonic, there’s plenty of impetuous forward movement in the first movement of this concerto and Midori’s lyricism in the second theme and the following canzonetta is breathtaking. The same is true of her performance of Shostakovich’s rather darker concerto. Midori’s interpretation is distinctive for its meditative qualities. If you come to it without preconceptions, it’s a wonderful performance.