Here’s another review from last summer that was originally published on violinist.com in July of 2010: Midori at the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. Here’s the link to the first part and the second part. (I split it in half because it ended up being so long. Oy!)
Tuesday afternoon I made the ninety-minute drive to the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minnesota, to see Midori in recital.
I remember the first time I ever heard Midori, many years ago. I was watching the Arts Channel – a collection of classical music videos pumped through a local television station over lunch – and saw this.
Needless to say, I stopped chewing. This is still one of my favorite performances of all time. I eventually found the disc of the rest of the concert at a second-hand shop. It was my first introduction to the lovely ebullient Strauss sonata, Debussy’s dreamy Beau soir, and Ernst’s wildly difficult Last Rose of Summer. These performances alone made me a big fan. But over the years, as I heard more and more snippets of Midori’s biography, I became even more impressed. She is a UN Messenger of Peace, she is passionate about many other things outside of music (she has a master’s degree in psychology), and she is committed to playing for audiences in smaller towns that might not otherwise have had the chance to see an artist of her caliber. Ever since writing an essay on the history of female violinists and the life of the first great female violinist, Wilma Norman-Neruda (shameless self-promotion; click here to read it), I have been thinking about the role that women have played in our beloved art, especially over the last hundred years since Wilma’s death. To me, seeing a woman like Midori – who is both a tremendous artist and a well-rounded human being – is more than just seeing a great musician; it is seeing a fulfillment of what those women a hundred years ago aspired to. Midori is taken seriously not as a woman violinist, but as a violinist, period, and she can do it all while pursuing the things that fulfill her not just as a musician, but as a human being. We’ve come a long way.
The concert was held in the 900-seat Somsen Auditorium at Winona State University, a surprisingly intimate hall from 1924. After some remarks from the artistic director, the stage door opened and out came Midori. She is a very tiny, very delicate looking woman – I read after the concert that she is four-eleven, and that sounds about right – but despite her size, she was clearly in charge from the minute she walked out onto the stage. She flashed a warm, welcoming smile at the audience before raising her del Gesu to her chin and beginning the fourth sonata of Beethoven.
She plays in a way that I would never advise a beginning violin student to emulate – she scrunches her shoulders for emphasis, and her scroll is usually pointing to the floor. I have always wondered how she and others who play in such an unnatural position (like Bell, Vengerov, Chang, etc.) don’t hurt themselves; it seems as if practicing that way for hours a day for years on end would take a great physical toll. But it obviously works for her, so I’m not criticizing. Her sound – at least as I heard it from the front row of the balcony – was clear, classic, elegant, beautiful, but maybe a bit small, and focused at the center of the hall, as opposed to extending out to the sides. It may have been the repertoire, or the acoustic of this particular stage, or my seat in the balcony, or that I am used to an unnatural violin-piano balance on recordings, or any other number of things; I don’t know. But even if it wasn’t a particularly large sound, it was always an exceptionally beautiful one. She brought a great deal of detail and character to the Beethoven, alternating between elegance and passion and fury, especially in the last movement with all of its rapid shifts in character. She was warmly applauded, and the buzz of the crowd below the balcony stepped up a pitch after she was finished.
The next piece on the program was the Ravel sonata. I have loved it for many years and I consider it to be a very dear musical friend. (Isn’t it funny how we often feel as affectionate toward beloved pieces of music as we do people?) I’ve never heard it live before. As we were waiting for Midori to return to the stage, I had a fleeting thought of how unnatural it is to know a work solely from recordings. Don’t get me wrong, I love recordings – without them, I’d never know the Ravel sonata, period – but I wonder what Ravel would have thought of me loving this work so dearly for so many years, without ever having heard it live. About the time that Ravel composed this piece, he was becoming very interested in the possibilities presented by recordings, so perhaps he wouldn’t think it strange or odd at all, but I never feel as if I really know a piece until I can be in the same room in which it’s being brought alive. Living in a place where I can see relatively few live performances of classical violin music, it’s so vital for me to stay connected with the performance side of the art, both as a listener and as a violinist. Analysis of the score – comparing recordings – reading biographies of the great composers: those things will only get you so far. A vital portion of the appreciation of these great works has to be done in a concert hall, in hearing them as they were originally intended to be experienced.
Midori wrote the program notes for the Ravel. Apparently this sonata was written for Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, a highly-regarded French violinist born in 1892. She asked for a concerto but got this sonata instead. (A Ravel violin concerto! Can you imagine?) I had always heard that Ravel was never one for romantic attachments, but, Googling about a bit, it seems that he may possibly (emphasis on the possibly) have had unrequited feelings for Hélène. There are even rumors that he once asked her to marry him, and she turned him down. At the very least, they were extremely close friends – they shared many interests, including a deep mutual affection for cats – and although she was not able to premiere the sonata due to arthritis, it was written for and dedicated to her. (Ravel seems to have been inspired by female violinists; Hélène also premiered his violin/cello duo and his lovely little violin and piano piece Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Faure – and of course Jelly d’Aranyi was the inspiration for Tzigane.) So even seventy miles away home and from my project of researching the great female violinists, I was given a new lead to follow up. Who exactly was this Hélène Jourdan-Morhange? What was she like? Who did she study with? What violin did she play? What kind of relationship did she really have with Ravel? Why when I Google her does her name appear to have been lost to history, even though she is the dedicatee of a major piece that most every violinist knows and loves? How could we as a community of violin-lovers have possibly forgotten her?
Midori’s performance of the first movement kept reminding me of water – water in a brook, ripples in a pond, rain trickling from eaves, puddles, waves, lakes… I’m not one for seeing visual imagery when I listen to music, so it was a very strange, very magical experience. There wasn’t much vibrato, and the shifts were clean and lean. If you have heard Midori’s Carnegie Hall recording (I’m thinking of the shifts in The Last Rose of Summer, and Milstein’s Chopin transcription in particular), you’ll know right away what I’m talking about. Once and a while she would really dig into a slide, anticipating that second blues movement. And as it should, everything felt like it was leading up to that glorious endless bow at the end of the movement. As the piano quietly wrapped up the theme beneath her, you could feel the audience collectively leaning forward. Even after the sound had died away, she stood motionless and left her bow on the string, giving us permission to linger in that achingly gorgeous sound-world for just a few more precious seconds. Funnily enough, it turned out that one of my favorite parts of this concert were the silences – the parts of the performance where the sound slowly died away and my attention was drawn out of the music toward the awed, appreciative reaction of the other concertgoers.
Then came the blues in the Ravel’s sexy, sexy second movement. Is there a more blatantly erotic movement in the violin-piano literature? If there is I’ve yet to hear it. Now that I have read that Ravel may have had some kind of attraction to its dedicatee, this movement…takes on a new significance, shall we say? I had never thought of this sonata as a love-story before, but dayum when I listen to it now… What a dialogue between the violin and the piano. All of those lilting arco lines on the fiddle – the slow slides – those gutsy, suggestively strumming pizzicatos… And then that blazing third movement, a meshing of violin and piano, ending in a brilliant unified ecstasy… There is that famous quote by Ravel that basically says that in this sonata he wanted to explore the differences between a violin and a piano, rather than minimizing them as other composers had in their violin-piano sonatas. I highly doubt he was also thinking of emphasizing the fundamental differences between men and women, but oh, it would have been so interesting if he had. It quickly becomes tempting to imagine this as a composer’s naughty daydream, with Ravel on the piano and Hélène on the violin.
Midori really sunk her teeth into the blues. Lots of slides, lots of swing in the snappy pizzicato parts. It was just delicious to hear. And she simply took everybody’s breath away in the third movement’s perpetual motion. Every single one of the flurry of the notes came clear and strong and graceful, even toward the end when the low notes on the G-string start coming into the picture, where some performers have a tendency to start blurring the sound. During the last few measures it sounded as if her del Gesù was about to go up in flames. Apparently during the sonata’s lengthy gestation, Ravel wrote to Hélène that he didn’t think it would tire her hand too much. Hopefully that was before this last movement came into being, because looking at the score, I can’t imagine a much more demanding exercise for the left and right hands alike. The audience loved it, and a few people even gave a standing ovation.
At intermission, I eavesdropped in the women’s bathroom – the best place for any classical music critic to get an unbiased review – and heard someone say, “She’s so good, she tires me out!” While waiting for me, my companion at the concert overheard another woman saying, “I sure wasn’t expecting that blues movement – but I loved it!” Indeed.
After intermission came Mario Davidovsky’s Duo Capriccioso. Before the performers came onstage, the resident piano lackey came out and disassembled the part of the piano underneath the music stand. So it was clear from the beginning that this was not your typical violin-piano duet. The piece was filled with a variety of novel violin and piano techniques, including – you guessed it – pizzicato inside the piano. It was interesting, to be sure, but at times I felt as if it was just a series of tricks. Gripping and atmospheric tricks, to be sure; but tricks nonetheless. I need to find a recording of the piece and listen to it a few times before passing final judgment; works that I’m not thrilled about at first hearing often later reveal previously unheard depths once I become more familiar with the score. Once again, Midori was committed to her performance a hundred percent. This music was obviously close to her heart and she was thrilled to share it with us, and that alone made me want to work as hard as I could to understand and appreciate it.
The last piece on the program, the Brahms third sonata, was actually the reason I wanted tickets for this concert in the first place. I instantly connected with this piece the first time I heard it, and to this day it’s still my favorite Brahms sonata – although, once again, like with the Ravel, I have never heard it performed live. The first recording I ever heard of it was David Oistrakh’s, with Vladimir Yampolsky on the piano. For some pieces, I don’t have a favorite recording; I’m happy with a wide variety of interpretations. With others, I find a recording that I fall in love with, and all subsequent versions feel a bit…wrong in comparison. The Oistrakh Brahms third is one of those recordings that I have completely and totally fallen in love with, and no other performance of the Brahms third satisfies me in quite the same way. Oistrakh’s warmth and sincerity fits in so perfectly with this intensely personal piece, and the slightly muffled sound quality of the older recording is just the icing on the cake.
No performance was going to live up to that one of Oistrakh’s for me, but Midori’s rendition was still very, very special nonetheless. In the first movement she brought a searing tone and a real rhythmic pulse, especially on those string-crossing passages that Oistrakh tended to linger over. Unfortunately there were moments, especially in the lower register, when her sound seemed to disappear into the piano texture. But this is nit-picking. It was extraordinarily beautiful and masterful playing.
The second movement was a real highlight of the entire concert. Finally hearing it live convinced me it must be one of the most beautiful things ever written for the violin. Midori left more space in between the notes than Oistrakh, to beautiful effect. Those yearning upward stretches in the violin – the whispered double-stopped thirds at the very end… As the music came to a gentle close, one could feel the silence just throbbing in the hall. And amazingly enough, that feeling didn’t release even after she finally took the bow off the strings; it lasted as she went into the third movement presto. That was pretty special. I’m quickly learning how an audience’s response is just as much of a part of the performance as what an artist does onstage. In a great performance, it really is a conversation without words.
Midori exploded through the double-stops in the last movement. Her sound, although always pretty and striking, remained a little bit small for my tastes, but once again, this is a nitpick. She obviously felt this music very deeply, and by the time that glorious F-sharp toward the end of the final movement – one of my favorite single notes in classical music – any reservations I might have had over a small tone were forgotten. I felt giddy with the beauty of Brahms, and that’s the definition of a great performance, right there.
There was a lengthy standing ovation. Finally she came, set the music-stand aside, and re-tuned. The del Gesù was being a tad picky and the crowd began to giggle. Finally she was satisfied and turned back to the audience. “We will play Souvenir of Moscow by Wieniawski,” she said. I wasn’t familiar with the Souvenir but the glorious thing about Wieniawski and Sarasate and Vieuxtemps is that you don’t really need to be familiar with them to fall in love with them. All those pyrotechnics – all that character – all the slides and various bow strokes… Talk about pieces that were written to be performed, as opposed to recorded! When she set the music stand aside and launched into those opening chords from memory, her sound totally changed. For the first time that night, I could firmly identify that instrument as a del Gesù, without a doubt. The sound just screamed stereotypical del Gesù – rich, throaty, a tad gritty, especially in the lower half. None of those characteristics were traits that I associated with Midori’s playing before, either in her recordings or during the rest of the recital. Was it the flashier repertoire, or the fact she was now playing from memory, or another reason altogether? I don’t know, but I heard a definite difference. As her fingers flashed up and down the fingerboard, I couldn’t suppress a wry smile as I remembered that Wieniawski had played a concert with Wilma Norman-Neruda in Moscow, and, after picking a fight with a general when he tried to convince the audience he was the better player, was ordered out of the city. I haven’t been able to find when the Souvenir was written, but it has an early opus number (6), and I wonder if it was after this little altercation?
In my twelve years of playing, I had never heard a great violinist take on one of the great showpieces live. Let me tell you, the difference between a live performance of Wieniawski and a recorded performance is the difference between fried chicken and tofu. There is an element of spice, personality – even danger – that is totally absent from a recording. One knows that in a recording, the strings will never break, and the performer will never have a memory lapse, and they will always hit each and every note each and every time – that kind of thing. But there are no such assurances for live performances. The audience teams up psychologically with the player in the hopes that he or she will make it through the piece unscathed. That bond is an incredibly powerful one, and for the first time I really began to understand emotionally what made these traveling Victorian virtuosi so beloved by their audiences. Nowadays these “parlor pieces” are considered light fare, musically suspect, not serious enough, but they are such an important part of our art, and they are received so enthusiastically by audiences, that I personally don’t think a recital program is complete without one. I would have been delighted to see one in the main body of the program.
As you can imagine, the subsequent applause and whoops and hollers just about brought the house down. She came out to bow again and again, ever gracious. She was greeting people in the lobby afterward, and I got her autograph and a picture. Her writing was just as bold and confident as her onstage manner.
Now whenever I listen to that beautiful recording of the Chopin Nocturne from Carnegie Hall, I will remember the sweetness and delicacy and beauty of everything I heard Tuesday night. There is simply nothing else in life like seeing a great violinist play a live concert. Absolutely nothing at all.
Except…maybe seeing one of the greatest orchestras of our time playing two Beethoven symphonies. Which is what I get to see tomorrow, when the Minnesota Orchestra takes on the fourth and the seventh in the closing concert of the 2010 Minnesota Beethoven Festival.