Knowing that violinist Anne Akiko Meyers frequently includes contemporary music on her programs, I expect to harvest some telling remarks from her on the subject. Perhaps she will come up with an impassioned defense of new music. Perhaps she will explain why concertgoers tempted to walk out on a piece should, instead, stay and listen. Perhaps she will lay bare the mental gymnastics required to cope with music of strange sonorities and idiosyncratic notation.
Meyers responds to my probing with dazzling candor. “It’s funny that you think there’s a difference,” she says in a telephone interview from her New York City apartment.
Meyers collaborates with pianist Rieko Aizawa in a concert Saturday, February 25, in the Mount-Burke Theater at the Peddie School in Hightstown. Their program consists of works by Mozart, Janacek, Schubert, and Somei Satoh.
The 1980 Satoh piece is entitled “Birds in Warped Time II,” a violin concerto that Satoh composed for Meyers, recently released on the Camerata label.
Meyers’ playing of “Birds” actually played a role in the projected World Trade Center Memorial. According to Meyers, Michael Arad, the winning architect in the design competition, had heard Meyers perform the piece during her interview on NPR’s “Music Today” in November, 2001. When it came time to present his design to the jury, Arad selected “Birds” as background music.
Proud to have played a behind-the-scenes role in the evolution of the memorial, Meyers also has an ongoing relationship with “Birds,” often including it in her concerts. For her, the composition evokes reactions that extend beyond music. “It feels like you’re watching a pond,” she says. “The music is shimmery and watery. The piece is meditative; it makes you feel as if you’re floating. There’s a Zen Buddhist quality to the music.”
Satoh never wrote a “Birds in Warped Time I,” and Meyers proposes a Zen-like explanation, kind of like one hand clapping. “A composer can name a piece whatever he wants,” she says. “Calling it ‘Birds in Warped Time II’ is his way of showing his birds.”
The piece attempts to simulate the sound of the shakahuchi, the traditional Japanese wooden flute, which has a unique purity and immediacy. When she plays “Birds” Meyers uses a sharp attack and then settles into a mellow sound, creating a somewhat unexpected sonic atmosphere.
Still, there’s nothing outside the normal range of violin sonorities in Meyers’ playing of the piece, and perhaps this is what she means when she finds it funny that I ask about the difference between contemporary and classical music. “I think of contemporary music as classical. It’s a newer use of language and it has different colors. But either one reflects what’s going on in my life day to day.
“Classical music and contemporary music have the same vocabulary. I need the new music in order to fuel and feed the romantic and baroque music of the traditional repertoire. And traditional repertoire helps fuel and feed contemporary music. It goes both ways.”
‘People seem to cringe when there’s a new piece,” says Meyers, who believes that the cringing is unjustified. She singles out a recent successful program with the Rochester Philharmonic that consisted solely of contemporary compositions. The program included music by William Shumann, some Richard Danielpour dances, the chaconne from John Corigliano’s “Red Violin,” and a piece by William Walton.
“Music that speaks readily and is accessible is music of today,” Meyers says. “All music was new at one time. It’s important to show what’s going on today. Hopefully, the music will be played in 100 or 200 years.”
Nevertheless, Meyers is selective in choosing contemporary music. “I’m not into serial or atonal music,” she says. “I have to love the music myself to be able to share it with the audience.”
Meyers believes that the person with whom she shares the stage in recitals is a collaborator and not merely an accompanist. Her management specifies that Meyers and pianist Aizawa are to receive equal billing. Curtis Institute graduate Aizawa earned a 1996 masters degree from New York’s Juilliard School. She has toured extensively with Music from Marlboro.
“I need a collaborator onstage and offstage,” Meyers says. “Offstage, I need my collaborator as a friend. We have to travel together. We spend a lot of time together. Hopefully, you like the person you’re making music with.”
The collaborative friendship that Meyers seeks with her pianist partner welcomes unpredictability, rather than rigid performing prescriptions. “We surprise each other and create magic on stage,” she says. “What matters is the emotional depth of the performance. It’s a matter of flexibility, and keeping our ears open for variations and subtleties.”
Meyers was born in San Diego in 1970. At the time her father was president of Pasadena City College. Her mother, who grew up in Tokyo, is an artist, working in oils and watercolor. The couple now live in St. Louis, where Meyers’ father is president of Webster University. He has been the head of several other academic institutions. “You could interview him if you wanted,” Meyers says as we decide not to tally the entire list. Meyers’ mother invented a handle, EZE Grip, that helps distribute the contents of a bag to be carried. “The invention came from living in New York and having to carry a lot of stuff,” Meyers says. “We’re a very enterprising family.” Her sister, Toni, an eye surgeon, is finishing a fellowship in glaucoma at Emory University in Atlanta.
Three years after beginning her violin studies at age four, Meyers was performing in public, appearing with a community orchestra. Soon after, she was studying at the Colburn School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles. Her Los Angeles Philharmonic debut came at age 11. The following year, 1982, she performed with the New York Philharmonic.
Looking for a new teacher at age 14, Meyers turned to Josef Gingold of the University of Indiana in Bloomington. “My father took a job in Oregon,” she says, “and my mom followed me to Indiana.” Mother and daughter stayed in Indiana for six months. “It was very difficult,” Meyers remembers. “I was less than 15, and my colleagues were mostly graduate students in their late 20s. There was a disconnect.”
An invitation from Juilliard’s exceptional pedagogue, Dorothy DeLay, came while Meyers was in Indiana, and she began private studies with her in New York City on scholarship. “DeLay didn’t tell me how to do anything,” Meyers told NPR. “She tailored lessons to each individual and taught you to teach yourself. I learned that the bow was the most important weapon in my arsenal. I re-learned how to play, using different bow pressures.”
Combining her junior and senior high school years, Meyers graduated from New York’s Professional Children’s School. By then, she had signed with the management firm International Concert Management (ICM). “I had a full plate of school work, concerts, and travel,” she says. Graduating from Juilliard in 1990, she was one of very few who already had management while pursuing her studies there.
Increasing international commitments in Europe, America, the Far East, and Australia followed her graduation, as did a growing discography. In 1993 she was the sole recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant, an award that recognizes excellence and requires no application process.
As a seven-year-old Meyers dreamed of being a concert violinist. Her evolution into a full-fledged concert artist was a seamless transition, bolstered by her family. “I studied with great teachers, collaborated with great conductors, and played chamber music,” she says. “It became an organically-grown career. Before you know it you’re living day to day doing your craft. I had the absolute support of my parents and family in California and in Japan.”
All that support, however, did not solve the problem of finding a Stradivarius or Guarneri on which to perform in public. “For a long time I got violins on loan through patrons and foundations,” Meyers says. “The problem of having a violin on loan is that it will be taken away from you. I knew I would have to win the lottery or rob a bank to get the kind of violin that I wanted.
‘I really wanted an instrument of my own so I bought a Villaume,” Meyers says, “and made recordings with it.” Villaume was an early 19th century French violin maker, respected if not venerable. “I was very happy with it, but I was used to the loaned Guarneris and Strads that I played.”
Then, with no warning, a 1730 Strad came into Meyers’ life. When I ask how she found the instrument, Meyers says, “It found me. The violin had belonged to the husband of a lady in New York. He had died long before, and she was reluctant to sell the instrument. The woman went to my Carnegie Hall concert and decided that I was the one to have the instrument. She contacted me through a dealer. I wasn’t looking when the opportunity to buy the instrument surfaced. I fell in love with it, and sold the Villaume to get it. It just all worked out. I may end up homeless but I own a Strad.”
Anne Akiko Meyers, Saturday, February 25, 8 p.m., CAPPS, Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown. An internationally renowned violinist, Meyers has appeared as a soloist with the Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Berlin Radio Orchestras, Moscow Philharmonic, and Tokyo’s NHK Symphony. $20. 609-490-7550.