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A Prodigy No More

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/22/1999 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Violin Sonata in A Major K526
John Corigliano: Violin Sonata
Arnold Schoenberg: Phantasie for Violin and Piano
Cesar Franck: Violin Sonata in A Major

Midori (violin)
Robert McDonald (piano)

Critics and audiences alike tend to apotheosize performers who die young. Niveu, Cantelli, Kappell and du Pre remain in the memory as truly great interpreters of the most glorious of all arts (to say nothing of Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison). Similarly there is a cult of personality surrounding the child prodigy, a phenomenon as appealing and mysterious today as it was in the best years of Leopold Mozart's purse. Midori was the most admired of the recent crop of wunderkinder, making an astonishing debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of eleven and recording a good deal of impressive sessions before her twentieth birthday. But there was always something different about her. Her intellectually intense approach to music of the twentieth century was the first sign that she was indeed something special, even in the rarified atmosphere of the very young virtuosa, and there is no question that she had considerably more innate musicality than other flashier children like Hilary Hahn or Sarah Chang. Now however Midori has grown up (so to speak) and at the doddering age of twenty-eight she can no longer be considered a novelty act. Perhaps this accounts for the relatively large number of empty seats at Carnegie Hall last evening, as she has, for better or worse, entered the arena of the gymnast or the figure skater and there the bloom comes off of the rose very early indeed. Additionally she earned the reputation in her earlier years of being unemotional and of "playing like a machine". This is one of the dirty little secrets in the classical world, but these pejoratives tend to be delivered by Caucasians and directed exclusively at Asians. It is the most odious form of jealousy.

So with all of this baggage, how does this old lady play? In fact, quite brilliantly. The Mozart sonata was a model of balanced simplicity and synchronicity with her able recital partner Robert McDonald. Several minutes into the piece this consummate professional stopped playing and began to retune her instrument. After satisfying her discerning ear, she turned to the audience and announced that, if it was all right with us, they would start again from the beginning. Almost anyone else could have gotten away with finishing the movement but Midori is obviously committed to the highest standards of quality.

I have never warmed to the music of John Corigliano and the early Violin Sonata seems not only dated in its politicized anguish (the Kennedy assassination) but also very imitative of Bernstein (one would think if one were going to steal someone's idiom they would pick a more viable composer). However, Mr. Corigliano, who was in attendance last night, must have been thrilled by this wild performance, showing a side of the supposedly cold and cerebral Midori apparently missed by the bulk of the Western press. Pearls before swine perhaps but very much appreciated by the eager crowd (although not a full house, it was an ardent one).

Midori is most impressive in the difficult music of Bartok, Berg and Schoenberg and her performance of the Phantasie was phenomenal. This late work of the Viennese master has always been incorrectly categorized as an old man's penitent return to tonality when in reality it is simply a logical next step in the orderly progression from tonality through pantonality to dodecaphonism and beyond. No one since Menuhin has played this amazing piece with such intensity and dexterity and members of the audience were audibly impressed with Midori's pyrotechnical virtuosity and supernova level of electricity.

Saving the best for last, this wonderful pair of musicians presented a very romantic reading of the Franck Sonata, a piece rather unjustly neglected in the standard repertoire. I have always loved this particular work and the last movement, so reminiscent of Schubert, must have been very well played indeed as I could no longer see this tiny violinist through the tears in my eyes. This is not a sad movement at all but such a beautiful one that I welled up anyway.

Those who stayed were treated to a fine program of encores in the style of the golden age of the fiddle. Pieces arranged by Heifetz and Kreisler are just the ticket to leave a crowd satisfied but wanting more and Midori has just the right flair for them as befits her advanced age and wisdom. Her performance of Kreisler's arrangement of The Dancing Doll seemed to be an emblem for her entire artistic life.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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