Violinist Midori performs in Princeton in two different roles in three separate events on Friday and Saturday, January 15 and 16. The former child prodigy, now a mature artist and activist for humanitarian causes, plays a violin recital with pianist Charles Abramovic in Wolfensohn Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study at 8 p.m. on Friday, and Saturday, January 15 and 16. She also leads a violin master class on Saturday, January 16, from 2 to 4 p.m., in Taplin Auditorium at Fine Hall on the Princeton campus.
The concerts are part of “The Harmonic Series,” the Edward T. Cone concert series curated by Derek Bermel, the Institute’s Artist in Residence. A talk from the stage follows the Friday concert. The Saturday concert is preceded by a pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m. Tickets to the fully-booked events are available to those whose names work their way to the top of a waiting list.
The master class is part of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s BRAVO! Series, now in its fourth year as part of the PSO’s education program, which matches up emerging artists in the region with master performers. Students in the Midori master class are Princeton University junior Alyse Wheelock, who plays the first movement of Johannes Brahms’ violin concerto; Princeton sophomore Ian Wong, who presents the Allemande and Courante from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin; and 16-year old Cheryl Peng, a student at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, who performs the third movement of Jan Sibelius’ violin concerto.
Barely home from Ulan Bator, Mongolia, which she visited as part of her International Community Engagement Program (ICEP), one of the non-profit entities she has created, Midori responded to questions by E-mail. She considers both performance and teaching part of her job description.
“Giving master classes while on tour has always been my custom,” she says. Typically, Midori has no input into choosing master class participants. Local teachers and the presenting organizations select the students. “Teaching and performing go hand-in-hand as methods of sharing music and engaging with others. Fundamentally speaking, all forms of performance, first and foremost, require listening skills. The same could be said of teaching. Both recitals and a master class necessitate direct personal interaction on the stage, but one must also be aware of the listeners and learners in the audience.”
Teachers who dare to give master classes tiptoe on a high wire: they must simultaneously give meaningful advice to the student participant, and provide both engagement and entertainment for listeners. Midori’s strategy is to focus on the individual needs of the performing student. “Every student is different,” she says. “A master class can be quite different from an individual’s ongoing private lessons. In either case, what we focus on is tailored to each individual’s strengths or challenges with the performance. I try not to give blanket advice; rather, I hope that everyone present for the class can find something meaningful for their own studies.”
Midori prepares conscientiously for a master class. “I ask for the repertoire in advance of the class so as to have plenty of time to review the scores and pinpoint the trickier passages,” she says. “Because I often demonstrate my points with the violin during a master class, I am sure to warm up as I would for a rehearsal or a performance.”
Midori considers teaching in every context to be a collaboration between instructor and student. “My aim in any teaching context is to impart the best of my knowledge to the student so he or she can search for what makes that music special to him or her,” she says. “Teaching is as much about the learner as it is about the teacher.”
Similarly, she views her recital performances as a collaboration between pianist and violinist. “I choose the programs in consultation with the pianist,” Midori says. “The balance of styles and sounds is extremely important in a recital program. We enjoy performing repertoire that is worthy of hearing, but is not necessarily familiar to presenting organizations and their audiences. Equally important are the message of the music as well as the quality of the delivery. In addition, it is important for the flow of the pieces from one to the next to be smooth, and interesting. A program is like a journey.”
The voyage that Midori makes for the Institute of Advanced Study performances with pianist Charles Abramovic is the product of a partnership of some seven years. “Charlie is a brilliant pianist, and we work very well together as recital partners,” she says. “He thinks out his interpretations with great care, and his expressive playing engages the listener in the music. We see eye-to-eye in selecting repertoire and rehearsals.” The pair played four of the five works on the IAS program previously in Germany.
The IAS concerts visit contemporary music exclusively. They belong to the group of concerts that Midori calls her “New Music Recitals.” “The idea was to personalize them by having them consist of the music of my time. They include only works written after I came to a musical consciousness, which was sometime in my pre-teens.” Since Midori was born in 1971, that amounts only to music written since the early 1980s.
Born in Osaka, Japan, Midori’s musicality came to the attention of her mother, violinist Setsu Goto, when she noticed that her two-year-old was humming a Bach theme she had practiced a few days earlier. Within a year, mother Goto began teaching Midori violin.
Midori gave her first public performance at age seven, playing Paganini. Approaching age 11, in 1982, she and her mother moved to New York City where Midori started studying with Juilliard’s renowned Dorothy DeLay. The year of her arrival in New York, she made her debut with the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta.
Her using a single name for her career was an accident. “When I first began giving concerts here, American journalists would often mistake my full name to be Mi Dori. The error was eventually corrected in the press but the public had not known my surname — Goto — for so long that I came to be known simply as Midori.” Realizing that her surname can be divided into the two English words “go” and “to,” Midori uses “gotomidori” as part of her E-mail address.
In 1986 the frailness of the violin’s highest string landed Midori on the front page of the New York Times. After the E string on her own violin broke during a concert at Tanglewood, she borrowed the violin of the concertmaster; when the E string on his violin broke, she borrowed the violin of the assistant concertmaster. The headline in the Times read, “Girl 14, Conquers Tanglewood with 3 Violins.”
A child prodigy faces problems both while being thought of as a freak for his or her talent and, later in the attempt to be accepted as a mature artist. “Society’s application of the ‘prodigy’ label to a child does not mean that he or she thinks of himself or herself in those terms,” Midori says.
“Naturally, feeling the gaze of others is especially tough on the typical self-conscious teenager as he or she finds their place in the world. This is true of most children as they grow up. The so-called prodigies are not exceptions to the toils of human development. Not all child prodigies want to continue the same career path into adulthood, and those that do face an uphill battle to represent themselves as a mature artist. In either case, the individual must have the freedom to make his or her own decision.” Midori chose to pursue a musical career broadened by community involvement.
In 1992, when she was 21, Midori formed Midori and Friends, a non-profit organization that brings quality music education to inner-city children in New York City. Since then she has established other non-profit entities to introduce music in places where it might not otherwise flourish. She has developed performance programs for disabled children in Japan. In addition, she has developed exchange programs based in Japan that bring Japanese musicians to other countries in east Asia.
Midori has managed to shape a unique transition to adulthood. In the year 2000, when she was almost 30, she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from New York University, graduating cum laude. In 2005 she earned a master’s degree in the field from NYU. Despite a heavy international concert schedule, she holds the Jascha Heifetz Chair at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, where she serves as chair of the strings department. She lives in Los Angeles.
As for her dreams for the future, Midori is intent on pursuing the unreachable. “I consider myself a learner for life,” she says. “I have so many goals, musical and otherwise: learning new repertoire, commissioning music, teaching, so many desires and ambitions — the list goes on and on! Then there are all the unexpected experiences and lessons that will arise along the way. However, my ultimate goal is to seek to become as selfless as I can. To be rid of oneself is an unattainable aspiration. Recognizing the inability for me to be completely aloof from my vices should continue to motivate me to seek perfection of being.”
Edward T. Cone Concert Series, Institute for Advanced Study, Wolfensohn Hall, Einstein Drive, Princeton. Friday and Saturday, January 15 and 16, 8 p.m. Midori on violin performing a program of contemporary music. Sold out. Waiting list. 609-951-4458. www.ias.edu.
Master Class with Midori, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Taplin Auditorium, Princeton University. Saturday, January 16, 2 p.m. Violin master class led by violinist Midori. Ian Wong, a Princeton University junior, plays the first movement of the Brahms concerto; Ian Wong, a sophomore, plays Allemande ad Courante from Bach Partita No. 2; and Cheryl Peng, 16, from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, plays the last movement of the Sibelius concerto. Register. Free. 609-497-0020. www.princetonsymphony.org.