Midori Does It All, and Well

Jeff Dunn on February 8, 2010
Violinist Midori proved Saturday in Herbst Theatre, under the auspices of San Francisco Performances, that a healthy musical diet can consist almost solely of works written in the 1990s. Her superb musicianship and faultless programming instincts produced one of the best recent-music chamber concerts I have heard in some time. And I mean produced, for not only did Midori plan the program and perform, she also gave master classes and lectures on it at the San Francisco Conservatory, and even wrote a fine set of program notes. Midori is an A to Z concertizer.

The evening began with Huw (Welsh for “Hugh”) Watkins’ Coruscation and Reflection (1998). His music is new to me, and shows high craftsmanship and close attention to instrumental timbre and blend. His 2005 Double Concerto for viola and cello (an excerpt of which you can hear on his Web site) shows that he’s a fine orchestrator, too. I’m not sure “Coruscation” is quite the right appellation for the first of his two numbers, which may have been named solely for the suddenness of its brisk sections that alternate with more lyrical passages. I was expecting to hear something a little more glittery and brilliant over the three-minute time span. Nevertheless, the movement and its companion were enjoyable, if a bit faceless — understandable, since Watkins was all of 22 years old when he composed it.

Impressive, Ear-Catching Sonata

Midori, good for you

Krzysztof Penderecki (pronounced “k-SHISH-toff pen-der-ETS-kee”), born in 1933, the former avant-gardist who became famous for his 1959 Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, mellowed into a more derivative style of expression in his later years. His Sonata No. 2 (1999) was next on the program, melding the despair of Dmitri Shostakovich with some of the harmonic and melodic contours of Sergei Prokofiev. I especially appreciated the formal qualities: the five-movement symmetry of Béla Bartók with some honest-to-God sonata-form sections. No one seems to write in sonata form nowadays, except in school. I do hope this venerable procedure will come back into fashion someday. The last decent, traditional sonata-form movement I know of was written by the Norwegian Johan Kvandal for his 1979 Violin Concerto.

Like Kvandal, Penderecki employs a powerful, ear-catching motive both as a unifying element and as a springboard for development. In the Sonata, it’s a downward-hopping phrase that reminded me very much of one used in a hit symphonic dance by the Brazilian Oscar Lorenzo Fernández in the 1940s, called Batuque. Also beguiling the listener are two beautiful short melodies in the keystone middle movement, “Notturno.” The themes return in the fifth-movement Andante, building a satisfying epilog to this 35-minute masterpiece. Along the way came some thrilling virtuoso passages, which program-master Midori executed in stunning fashion.

After intermission the audience heard three highly contrasting works: fairly mainstream ones, considering the vast variety of things being written today. First up was Toshio Hosokawa’s Vertical Time Study III (1994). The forbidding title from the era of abstract expressionists belied pleasant musical content. According to Midori, silence and sound are weighed in equal importance in this piece, and performers and listeners are supposed to not focus “on the chronological sequence of sounds,” but rather to examine “all the tones and colors of each single note and the gaps between them.”

I dutifully followed the instructions, yet (a) heard little silence between notes (there were only two major gaps) and (b) perceived that the notes were hardly individualized, but instead fell easily into distinct groups of common character. As noted earlier, the result was pleasant, though the theory seemed off the mark. Morton Feldman is a composer Hosokawa ought to study if he really wants to achieve the aims of his étude.

Candy Too Small

Next in the second half came a couple of minutes of James MacMillan’s After the Tryst (1988). This music impresses with both beauty and brevity, leaving the listener panging for more. No wonder it was inspired, as Midori noted, by William Soutar’s poem “of an intensely passionate yet expiring love.”

Toward the other side of the spectrum of piece length vs. inherent interest came John Adams’ Road Movies (1995), which ended the evening. The highlight of its music was its second movement, “Meditative,” which kept returning to a low F note on Midori’s violin. The low string is normally tuned to a G, but retuning it to the lower F makes it slightly wobblier. Midori accurately characterized the effect of this sound as a “languid nonchalance,” an appropriate addition to the blues-inflected discourse. The outer movements, “Relaxed Groove” and “40% Swing,” were intricate and motoric, making a lively conclusion to the evening. Nevertheless, I couldn’t escape the impression that Adams’ self-described “road music,” despite all its driving, kept going in circles and never really got to a destination.

Minor complaints about some aspects of the music should not in any way detract from Midori’s achievement at Herbst. Her program was extremely well-chosen, offering plenty of variety despite the close modernity of composition dates. Moreover, her performance, as well as that of her accompanist Charles Abramovic, was technically flawless and highly expressive when called for by the music.

Throw out the Atkins Diet — it’s the “Midori Diet” that her peers should imitate.