The Prodigy as Grown Up
So startling are the feats of a true musical prodigy that they are almost as impossible to believe as they are to forget. The wunderkind’s precocious talents are so at odds with our expectations about normal human development that attempting to understand such a spectacle can easily revert to explanations like reincarnation or devilish possession—or a twisted combination of both in the form of ungodly parental pressure. The prodigy may be a freak of nature, but is he a freak of nurture as well?
Like a circus performer, the tiny hands of the tiny girl with the tiny violin threatens to slip off the razor thin e-string that is the concert hall’s high wire and plummet into the abyss of failure. So uncanny are the sight and sound of someone so small taming the mighty virtuoso beasts of the classical repertoire before the disbelieving eyes of mass audiences, that it is also difficult to banish these images when the prodigy grows up. In the minds of those who have seen her youthful exploits, the prodigy will remain forever young. The wunderkind can never be allowed to grow up. In the first chapter of Maynard Solomon biography of Mozart, we read how the boy wonder was examined by the leading musical and scientific experts of the 18th century and pronounced a singular genius, a status that was all the stranger because the child was such an endearing, diminutive oddity. While the prodigy Mozart did grow into adulthood and wrench himself free from his father Leopold’s austere and exploitative control, even after his early death Mozart’s legacy was haunted by the myth of the eternal child.
The violinist Midori ranks as one of classical music’s greatest prodigies. Her performance at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the age fourteen doing Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade with the composer himself conducting is now the stuff of legend. In the midst of the tremendous gymnastics of the final movement the young girl, whose head barely reached to Bernstein’s cummerbund, broke the e-string on her 7/8ths-size violin. She calmly turned to the orchestra’s concertmaster and took his full-size Stradivarius and attacked the piece and the borrowed instrumented with renewed ferocity, quickly breaking the Strad’s e-string as well. Just as calmly she then exchanged that instrument for the associate concertmaster’s own prized antique violin (hardly a step down, as it was a Guadagnini) and finished off the concerto. So miraculous was the young girl’s ability to overcome these hurdles that the awed Bernstein knelt at her feet on the Tanglewood stage after it was all over.
Even if a wide swath of Midori’s fan bass still pictures the fourteen year-old girl in the green dress, the virtuoso has indeed grown up: all those concerts and recordings later she continues to pursue a daunting international career, alternating concerto appearances with the world’s greatest orchestras and chamber music evenings at more out-of-the-way places like Silver City, New Mexico and Fallon, Nevada—these recent concerts in the desert made possible by her foundation Partners in Performance. Gifted not just with musical talent, but energy and a searching mind, Midori went to NYU in her late twenties: so used to be the youngest, she was now older than her college cohort. Her education and broad-mindedness shows in her playing and her writing: she produces her own literate and illuminate program notes, something extremely rare among the international classical music aristocracy.
Midori is also professor of violin and head of the string program at the University of Southern California, though how much actual teaching this actually entails is hard to fathom given her grueling touring schedule, one that had her in St. Petersburg, Russia on the first of this month for Bach’s solo violin works, and in Ithaca, New York just four days later for a tour of sonatas with pianist Özgür Aydin; the pair had jaunted in from Montreal before heading down state for a series of concerts in to Greater New York, then to Fort Worth, Texas before Midori returned on her own to Europe to play the Bartok second concerto in Berlin and the Brahms concerto in Turin a couple of days later on November 28th and 29th. It looks like she’ll be giving Thanksgiving a miss this year.
Now in her early forties, Midori is small but not childlike in demeanor: the air miles and countless concerts show. Her musical gifts were recognized by her mother when she was just two-years-old and she made her debut with the New York Philharmonic at eleven. Thus her career already spans more than three decades. It is not that she looks prematurely aged, but she has the somewhat careworn aspect that must come with a life on the road. The range of her repertoire and the relentlessness of her performing and teaching schedule mean no rest. As she writes on her own website: “there is much to do, to learn, to practice, and to look forward to!”
For two hours this past Tuesday evening Midori played before a nearly sold-out Bailey Hall at Cornell University. The venue is a cavernous, early twentieth-century rotunda that holds something like 1,500 people. Wrapped around her Guarneri violin with coiled intensity she launched her music, and at times practically herself, into the void of the venue. If anyone can overcome the absurdity of playing chamber music for thousands of people it is Midori: grand gestures sail from her bow, the sumptuously shaped phrases pulling in even the most distant listener, each note of the bravura runs and arpeggios precisely audible even at two hundred paces. She crouches and lunges her way through the music, the scroll of her violin often pointed down towards the stage and her arms and wrists seeming to strain to get every last ounce of expression from her instrument. Her posture is a long way from the stoic military bearing of a Heifetz whose legendary accuracy she matches. Occasionally Midori assumes the classic position of upright poise as in the moments of lyric epiphany in Ernest Bloch’s “Poéme Mystique,” his second violin sonata from 1924. But in the midst of the piece’s revelatory raptures, ranging from the stentorian lower register to the soaring heights at the end of the fingerboard, she would bow down and then lunge ahead like a dancing prophet. But even the dramatic movements of her body and her music were insufficient fully to overcome the disparity between the enormity of the concert hall and the intimacy of the genre of the violin sonata, even when articulated in the mystical extremes of a Bloch. Her faithful accompanist, the suave and sensitive Aydin, rightly held back from full attack mode on the giant Steinway lest he overpower even Midori’s violin at full-bore.
The objective clarity and disarming beauty of Hindemith’s E Major sonata faired less well in the too-large venue, but even at a distance one hears that Midori is not simply a technical perfectionist and cogent musical phrase-maker: she also seems to understand, even to intuit, the essence of the diverse pieces in her repertoire: she can transform herself from the effusive priestess to the considered thinker whose truths are less demonstrative but no less profound.
The Mozart F Major Sonata with which she opened the program was like a parade of operatic characters, each fully costumed and distinctly profiled. Such demonstrative playing, even when done tastefully, also seems calibrated for the big audiences: Mozart’s the gallantry and humor gets somewhat laden down by the need to be understood in the expanse. There are moments in a Midori sonata evening when less could be more; yet less is not possible before such a large audience, and, failing support of her foundation, only such a large audience can afford a Midori.
Against such architectural obstacles, Midori nonetheless found in the lush landscape of Fauré’s Sonata in A Major unbounded natural splendor: the rushing momentum of its rivers of melody; huge vistas of emotion, from the tender lament of the second movement to the skipping pastoral playfulness of the Scherzo and the impassioned exuberance of the finale.
In closing with Schubert’s late Rondo brilliant, Midori surveyed with thrilling virtuosity the range of her program as a whole. She leapt back and forth from the bravura chordal pomp and rocketing runs of the opening to disarming naiveté of the lyrical second theme. Even this long and emotionally varied work coming after two hours of exactitude and exertion could not exhaust her physically or musically. Her reserves appeared not even to have been touched. That so much varied music could emanate from this single soul and body was another demonstration of Midori’s prodigious talent and a vast potential she is still pushing herself to fulfill.
The audience’s standing ovation drew from her no encore, and none was needed. Perhaps some in the audience would have been cheered by a Paganini Caprice like the one she had dashed off at age six. But the time for prodigious miracles had passed, even if they cannot be forgotten.