It seems like only yesterday that Midori was a child prodigy. Today, she is almost a senior stateswoman of the violin. I’m sure that an earlier generation felt similarly about Menuhin.
Last night, Midori played an unaccompanied recital at Zankel Hall (the downstairs venue at Carnegie Hall). I flashed back to 2002, when Maxim Vengerov played an unaccompanied recital in Carnegie Hall’s main auditorium. Unusual, excellent, astounding event.
A year or so later, I wrote a piece about the business of music. The health of the classical-music industry. (“Tending the gardens of music.”) Robert Harth, who was then the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, said this to me:
Let me ask you something. What’s a successful concert? Carnegie Hall has 2,800 seats. For Vengerov, 2,000 were in attendance. I said to my board, “Is it not a success because 800 seats were empty? Or is it a success because 2,000 were filled?” It’s absolutely a success, if it’s a great concert and those who were there had a wonderful time. It becomes an unsuccessful concert when, as an administrator, you budget to sell 2,500. But if you budget to sell 1,500 or 1,800, you’ll be happy.
The audience in Zankel Hall last night was certainly happy. Midori played three works of Bach: the Sonata No. 2 in A minor; the Sonata No. 3 in C major; and the Partita No. 2 in D minor (which ends with the immortal Chaconne). Interspersed with her Bach, Midori also played two works by living composers: Thierry Escaich, a Frenchman, and John Zorn, an American.
In 2001, Escaich wrote Nun komm, described in our program notes as “a short, phantasmagorical rumination on the Lutheran chorale ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.’” A smart piece, and phantasmagorical indeed. Freaky-deaky. Midori played it with a controlled aggressiveness.
She applied a similar quality to Zorn’s Passagen, written in 2011. He dedicated this work to Elliott Carter. To her Bach, Midori brought intense concentration. Focus is one of her specialties. You saw this, heard this, in the Zorn. (And in Nun komm.)
John Zorn was present in the hall, duly acknowledged by the performer from the stage.
About Midori’s Bach, I will offer some generalizations. Her Bach was neat, logical, and beautiful. It often gave the impression of being private, or at least inward. Midori did nothing for display. This was “good, honest playing,” to borrow a phrase from a pianist I once knew.
In technique, Midori was solid. Meticulous. There was a slip or two, but then, we were not listening to a studio recording. Ornamentation was intelligent. I’m not sure I had ever heard a turn at the end of the C-major sonata, and, last night, it was delightful.
Any complaints from me? Hardly. Here and there, I would have liked more variation in dynamics. A greater contrast. Here and there, I would have liked a richer, plumper tone. But Midori did nothing stupid. She was a pure servant of the composer, a transparency for his intentions and genius. Listening to her, I heard Bach, and nothing extraneous.
Our program booklet contained a little essay that Midori wrote about Bach and his violin works. Obviously, she is a clear thinker, who writes very well. This essay is much like her playing. Correct, with ample soul.
Violinists have been known to play the Chaconne—to repeat the Chaconne—as an encore. Midori did not do this. She played no encore at all. On her second curtain call, I believe, she had the house lights turned up. And then she simply left. A classy move, on a classy evening.
A footnote, if you will. For twenty years now, some of us have written about, and complained about, the “Zankel subway.” The subway is loud and often disturbing in this hall, and it is never more so, I can testify, than during an unaccompanied violin recital.