Tag Archives: Midori

Review: Minnesota Orchestra and Midori in Britten, Sibelius, and Debussy

Confession time: I live in small-town Wisconsin, and it’s driving me crazy. This year I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Minneapolis metro, and while doing so I’ve discovered beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m actually a big city girl at heart. (Well, bigger city girl, anyway. I realize that some people don’t consider Minneapolis to be a big city. However, I invite those people to move to western Wisconsin, live there for twenty-two years, and then visit Minneapolis. I can assure you they will reconsider their opinion.) Nothing else fulfills me – artistically, emotionally, spiritually – like the kind of world-class performances you find so often in the Twin Cities. Every time I walk down Nicollet Mall to Orchestra Hall, drunk with the throbbing energy of the city, dizzy with the thought that any minute now I’ll be in the big hall with the big orchestra and the big soloists, I feel like a magical new dimension of life is opening up before me. So you can imagine how thrilled I was this week when the stars aligned and I had the opportunity to see the Minnesota Orchestra and Midori in an 11AM program of Britten, Sibelius, and Debussy. The concert exceeded expectations in unexpected ways; I learned more about orchestral music in one morning than I’ve ever learned at a single concert before.

The concert began with the haunting Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. I haven’t listened to much Britten, and I’m not sure why; I invariably love whatever I hear, but I just never take that next step to seek out more. Note to self: more Britten. This is lovely, powerful, weirdly unsettling music, soaked through with misty moonlit atmosphere. I love it. The orchestra played beautifully, although I don’t recall any individual standout moments. (Upon reflection, this may have been because I was too busy fangirling and thinking “oh my God I’m in Orchestra Hall! and look! there’s Osmo Frigging Vanskä! and Erin Keefe and Sarah Kwak and Sam Bergman and Peter McGuire and Tony Ross and all the others oh my God!” to pay as much attention as I should have to the actual music.) I did, however, get the general impression that the Britten was, more than anything else, serving as a curtain-raiser for the event that the orchestra website and brochures have been trumpeting for months: the return of Midori to the Twin Cities.

This is not my first encounter with Midori; I saw her in July 2010 in recital in Winona, Minnesota, and I wrote after that concert that “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.” This time I was way out on the side of Orchestra Hall in the seventh row, so I had a chance to test out my July 2010 hypothesis. Turns out my doubts as to whether her sound could carry out to the corners were well-founded. Her playing was anemic, and it wasn’t a matter of mere acoustics; concertmaster Erin Keefe pierced through much more effortlessly during her brief solos in the second half of the program than Midori did in any of the Sibelius. In an attempt to get another perspective I listened to the MPR broadcast of Friday night’s concert, and I heard the same thing there. In both the broadcast and in real life, certain brief passages came across as clear and loud and gutsy, as if a technician had turned up a mike, but then within a few measures the sound would invariably, mysteriously, fade away again. I’d noted the same disconnect in her sound between the main body of her program and her encore in her July 2010 recital; it’s a very odd phenomenon. To add to the awkwardness, one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s trademarks is a huge dynamic range. Usually, of course, this is a divine treat, but in this particular performance, it almost became a liability as various players struggled not to obliterate their soloist. Whenever a tutti came and they were cut loose to do their wild magnificent thing, it ended up sounding like a toddler was futzing with the volume dial on a very expensive speaker. They never did find their balance, at least not from my seat. I’m sure part of the problem is that I’ve never heard the Sibelius live, and I’m spoiled with unnatural balance on recordings, but my gut’s saying it was more than that, that another player could have pierced through more often. Hopefully someday I’ll get another shot at hearing the Sibelius live, and then I’ll see if this was just a fluke, or if everybody vanishes so far away into the texture. (And who knows, maybe someday I’ll realize I owe Midori an apology for expecting superhuman volume.)

Aside from the projection issues, there were a couple of strange interludes in the first and second movements where everything seemed to slow down, where I didn’t quite understand where she was headed, where my thoughts wandered, where my attention was drawn to the second violinists, or audience members up high in the tiers, or the sheen of Erin Keefe’s hair underneath the spotlight. (Although to be fair, Erin Keefe does have gorgeous hair.) I heard a lot of passion in what Midori was playing, but I felt absolutely none of it. It felt very odd – almost voyeuristic, as if I was in the same room with someone who was crying over a love letter that I’d never be allowed to read.

Clearly, for whatever reason, our two souls didn’t quite connect that morning. Question: why do some performances grip you; assault you; touch, burn, something raw and searing and elemental deep within you – while others only make you think “hmm, impressive” and nod appreciatively while the bravos are shouted and the bows are taken? I know, I know, music is subjective, even (especially?) at the very highest levels of performance. It’s probably part of the reason I love it so; I enjoy being frustrated by ambiguity. But it’s still mind-boggling to me how I can be in the same room with two other much more experienced listeners and apparently hear a totally different performance.

Now it sounds like I’m coming down hard on a great violinist, which I don’t mean to do. There were elements to her performance that I really liked, too, like the dozens of little details she put into that ethereal opening, and her beautiful yearning shifts. Her technique felt solid, aside from a couple of passages in that beastly third movement where just about everyone struggles. She clearly has the chops. But based on my experiences seeing her last year in-recital, and hearing various mind-blowing Vanskä Sibelius performances over the radio, my pre-concert guess was that the orchestra itself would be the real star during the concerto…and I was right. I wish there had been a solo encore so I could hear how she sounded without having to compete with the orchestra. Maybe she’s just one of those violinists whose strengths are best appreciated in a recital setting.

After intermission came an orchestral arrangement of Clair de Lune. Vanskä has a habit of striding onstage and starting the orchestra before the buzz of the acknowledging applause has entirely dissipated in the hall. I’m not sure if he’s frustrated with audiences taking too long to clap as he comes onstage, or if he’s just that excited to get to the music, or what. That quick transition from applause to music didn’t work so well here; the weird result was that the entrance to Clair de Lune sounded jarring. The orchestra played beautifully (of course), but the arrangement itself struck me as rather cloying. I suppose it didn’t help that I watched Twilight last week and there’s that awful scene where Edward and Bella stand around in Edward’s bed-less bedroom for approximately eight hours while blankly stammering and breathing at each another, before randomly, improbably, bonding over their mutual appreciation for (you guessed it) Clair de Lune. (Note to self: don’t ever watch Twilight before going to see a Debussy performance. It will ruin it for you.) (Actually, just to be on the safe side, don’t ever watch Twilight again, period.)

Erin Keefe had a small solo during the piece, and now seems as good a time as any to mention that she is total dynamite. She approaches her new job with the precision and body language of a chamber musician, and she clearly has technique and musicality to burn. I hope her coworkers love her as much as I do. Halfway through the program I even caught myself imagining how amazing it would be to play in her section, and that has certainly never happened before. I’m itching to see if she can deliver the goods playing a concerto gig. Minnesota Orchestra programmers: get on this.

An arrangement of the piano piece L’Îsle Joyeuse came next. This piece was much more satisfying in orchestral form than Clair de Lune was. What a sweep of elegance and excitement! In the program Eric Bromberger mentioned that Debussy worked on the piece while vacationing with his mistress on the Isle of Jersey. Hmm. I’d heard the story before, but I never would have made the connection between the Isle of Jersey and L’Îsle Joyeuse; it certainly lent a whole new dimension to the defiant, bittersweet exultation that permeates the piece. I love enlightening program notes.

The last work on the program, La Mer, was the highlight of the morning by a million miles. Lushness, color, beauty, everything, and lots of everything. Sweeps and slides galore – touches of gorgeous schmaltz – washes of pure sound, followed by perfectly articulated clarity – astonishing, impossible dynamic contrasts. Phrases of only a few notes had (and I’m not exaggerating) five or more dynamics. Every single phrase was gorgeously shaped, especially in the lower strings; principle cellist Tony Ross in particular was a total standout. The whole concert I was really struck by all the principles, and how they interacted with one another and with Vanskä. For whatever reason, the entire orchestra gave off the vibe of a chamber group, and it was such a joy to watch. Music students: watch and learn.

There was a big moment toward the end of the first movement when a bold brass fanfare soared through the hall, and I felt as if I was on the top of a cliff overlooking a choppy salty sea, hair whipping across my face, coat whipping against the wind, totally absolutely against-all-odds invincible. Right away the tears began to prick at my lashes. Okay, I admit it – the brass made me cry. Not the violins, not the violas, not the cellos…the brass. So kudos to them for making this brass-averse string-player tear up. They were just magnificent. From now on whenever I listen to that portion of La Mer I know I’ll remember the way that the notes surged out above me, and how they so brilliantly, so miraculously, encapsulated everything I felt that morning – the relief of escape, the glory of the ecstasy of sound, the exultation of being in a big bustling city crowded full with interesting people who share my obsessive quirky passions. What a breathtaking experience.

So if you have the chance to see a great orchestra and haven’t yet taken advantage of it, for God’s sake, stop putting it off. Go into the city – find a friend to split the costs – take a very long day-trip – just do it. Find a way to make it happen, because I guarantee you that no CD or DVD or Blu-Ray or state-of-the-art surround-sound system can deliver inspiration with the same intensity that a world-class ensemble like the Minnesota Orchestra can. Trust me on this one.

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Midori, July 2010

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.

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