MIDORI: Building Connections Between Music and the Human Condition
Ever since her debut as an 11-year-old violin prodigy, when she was invited by Zubin Mehta to perform at the New York Philharmonic’s 1982 New Year’s Eve Gala, Midori has been a household name with audiences worldwide. Dropping “Goto,” her surname, after her parents’ divorce signaled Midori’s early vision towards creating a unique brand, later adopted by other Asian top stars, like Yundi (Li) and Yuja (Wang). Midori counterbalanced her public visibility and international performance career with her activism in support of humanitarian and educational goals. What stood out for me, when talking to Midori over Zoom while she was in Turkey, was her adventurous spirit and openness to change.
“It was literally the last thing I did before the lockdown,” says Midori about her all-Beethoven recording released this October on the Warner label. The recording includes Violin Concerto, op. 61 in D Major and his two Romances for violin and orchestra, op. 40 in G Major and op. 50 in F Major.
art work credit: @annetteback / www.annettebackfineart.com
Recorded in early March, the album had been slated as a live concert recording launching a planned international tour in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Midori had teamed up for the first time with the Switzerland-based chamber orchestra Festival Strings Lucerne and its artistic director, the Australian-born Swiss violinist Daniel Dodds. Due to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lucerne concert and following tour were cancelled on short notice, except for its first leg, a concert performance in the UK, which still took place. Given that rehearsals in Lucerne were already in full progress, the Swiss government gave its permission for a local studio recording in lieu of the originally planned live recording.
The result is a lyrical rendition of Beethoven’s only concerto written for the violin.
At times, especially in the opening section, one misses some of the dramatic energy often presented in the work. Its forward-driven direction is slightly diminished in favor of a more extenuated, delicate approach. Midori still sparkles, true to herself, in finely calibrated passages and a minutely detailed account. More variety and intricate interlacing of instrumental sections become apparent in the concerto’s second movement and its dance-like variations, leading into the glorious finale. Here, one can follow her own description more clearly when she says: “I get lost in the music of Beethoven–forget time. He takes me out of the realm of my world, and I can’t even remember a time I did not know these works intimately, except for the G Major Romance, which I learned a little later,” she says. Remarkably–given her international performance career spanning more than 35 years during which she has clearly lived with Beethoven’s pieces–the recording constitutes Midori’s first ever soundtrack fully devoted to the composer.
“To record a work, even if it is in your hands, poses different practical aspects. It does not always come together easily in respect to timing, and usually needs to be planned out well in advance,” she explains. “And then your repertoire also keeps evolving, performed with different partners at different times; we always keep discovering new things. That’s what makes it so engaging.”
She is thankful that it worked out this time. “We worked very collaboratively with the orchestra, it felt more like playing chamber music together, where one reacts intensely to the other, listening to each other through the context of these beautiful pieces,” she says.
Whether addressing her recent recording experience or discussing her long-established and continuously growing advocacy and educational projects, Midori has an energetic and refreshingly openminded approach. One recurring aspect of her discourse, which confirms her true leadership, is her evident realization that she cannot do it all alone.
When she founded her first nonprofit, Midori & Friends, in 1992, unlike today there were limited numbers of advocacy programs in New York City, and her activism has impacted the transformation of how the arts are integrated into local schools. “There was no ‘blueprint’ in existence,” she says, referring to the generally accepted guidelines designed by the Department of Education and Culture for teaching music. “Now,” she explains, “things have improved tremendously, but it was different when we started, and efforts are still needed.”
“I am so happy to see how much things have changed since I started with a true grassroots approach,” she says. “Today there are many wonderful organizations dedicated to the arts and motivated to make things better. Because of that, we are a richer community. I believe the key today is about creating meaningful collaborations instead of creating more and more new organizations: the standards change, our awareness changes, we constantly evolve. And it’s important we keep revaluating our achievements and realize how our current situation will translate into the future.”
Geared to provide music education for students in Pre-K through Grade 12 at schools that have little or no access to the arts, Midori & Friends serves over 70 schools in the city, offering instrumental instruction, performance, and workshops, as well as programs for young children not yet ready for formal instruction, expanding minds with musical interaction in song and games.
Instead of compiling different projects under her initial organization, Midori realized early on that to stay true to each of the diverse missions she wanted to pursue, each initiative had to stay its own entity, each equally important to her.
Midori’s organization Music Sharing began as the Tokyo branch of Midori & Friends and was certified as an independent organization in 2002. Focused on Western and Japanese music traditions alike, its ambition is to foster global connectivity by building relationships that transcend kids’ own culture. Working with the United Nations, charitable groups, and government agencies, Music Sharing has taken Midori and selected young musicians for workshops and performances beyond Japan to Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Mongolia, Laos, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and India.
With Partners in Performance (PIP), Midori aims to stimulate interest explicitly in classical music, co-presenting chamber music concerts throughout the US, especially in areas outside major culture centers. Midori and pianist Jonathan Biss perform with musicians from PIP’s young artist program with the aim of attracting audiences and donors to stimulate performance presentation. While PIP focuses on chamber music, Orchestra Residencies Program (ORP) was designed by Midori as a means of supporting the American youth orchestra and establishing its presence within the communal context.
In contrast to Midori & Friends, both PIP and ORP focus on classical music and forging opportunities for young musicians, built in line with Midori’s own approach to teaching classical repertoire and mentorship.
Midori holds the post of Dorothy Richard Starling Chair in Violin Studies at the Curtis Institute of Music and operates a teaching studio in Philadelphia. During the pandemic, Midori has begun charting the terrain of online instruction, previously unknown to her. “I had to find out that I am technically not as well equipped as I thought. I am usually very hands-on in my instruction, which makes it a bit difficult for me to be removed. … We are all still trying to figure out the technical limitations, time delayed sound transmission, and, for example, not being able to see the whole body when close enough to the camera to get a better sound projection. With most of my students returning home to Asia, it becomes hard to accommodate the different time zone.” Despite the challenges, Midori finds meaningful context in her online teaching, as she does with every aspect of her musical pursuits. She says, “I am able, even when travelling for performances in Europe, to keep up with continued lessons, which I feel is especially important.”
Midori’s personal goals vary for her teaching, the many projects she engages in, and organizations she has founded, but she approaches all of her endeavors with enormous passion and enthusiasm. Her extraordinary devotion to community engagement has been awarded twice, first in 2007 when she was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace, and again in 2012 when she was presented the prestigious Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum in Davos.
“I strongly believe that music can provide the context that can bring people together and make important things happen,” says Midori, and her record and recognition clearly illustrate her belief in this vision.