Midori is one of those people who are so famous they don’t need a last name, like Madonna or Ronaldinho. So it was a major coup when the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, an otherwise low-profile regional ensemble, snagged the superstar violinist for a pair of performances this weekend at Schlesinger Concert Hall on the Alexandria campus of Northern Virginia Community College.
Granted, Midori’s own profile has faded a bit since her child prodigy days. As a teenager, she caused jaws to drop at her Tanglewood and Carnegie Hall debuts. But that was two decades ago, and the pressures of adolescent stardom took a toll. A sudden cancellation of all concerts and hiatus in the ’90s sparked rumors of a mental breakdown brought on by too much tiger-mommying; it was, in fact, a medical emergency brought on by anorexia. She recovered, remaking herself as a performer-educator with a teaching post at USC, dedicated to cultivating other young musicians in, one imagines, a healthier manner than what she experienced.
So at first glance, Midori’s week-long residency with the ASO has the appearance of a David Justice-Oakland A’s kind of arrangement. Yet she still can, and does, play bigger gigs with bigger orchestras—-her last performance in D.C., in December, was with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. Turns out this is part of Midori’s long-running “Orchestra Residencies Program,” in which she selects two regional orchestras each year (the other one this year is Oregon’s Eugene Symphony) to visit, in partnership with local public schools. Over the course of the past week, she split her time between rehearsals with the ASO and visits to T.C. Williams, Wakefield, Washington-Lee and Yorktown high schools, leading master classes and workshops with music students.
Some of those students got to share the stage with ASO players for one piece, though not with Midori herself. ASO director Kim Allen Kluge had written a new composition for the occasion, a tribute to the victims of the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami. But Midori, presumably overcommitted, punted. Instead, she had one of her USC doctoral students perform the debut, a violinist who goes by Moni—-who is actually a white guy (real name Simeon Simeonov), though on Sunday he was wearing one of those Chinese tunics Steven Seagal likes to wear when he’s pretending to be Asian. The composition, titled “Meibuki,” is gentle and pretty, tracing a melodic arc from mourning to post-disaster reconstruction. Moni played it cleanly, handling relatively few technical demands except for one section played entirely in harmonics.
But it was Midori who had drawn D.C.’s classical fans out to the ‘burbs for two sold-out shows, and she was predictably wonderful. Her solo piece, Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in E Minor,” is surely one of the most beautiful works ever written for the violin. Most had probably heard it multiple times, but in Midori’s hands it was memorably her own. She took it at her own tempo, lingering on some notes that suited her and rushing past others that didn’t. It wasn’t flawless, nor totally integrated with the orchestra—-at times she was too understated, and it was almost by happenstance whenever they matched. But the final product was gripping, airing the full emotional range of a fellow former child prodigy’s master work.
Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite opened the program. The ASO delivered it with verve that at times lacked precision but made up for it in thrills, with a standout job by the woodwinds. Midori and Moni returned for an encore duet, Leclair’s “Sonata number 5 for two violins.”
NOVA Community College won’t be graced with this kind of talent again for some time. For the ASO and high school musicians in Alexandria and Arlington, this was the equivalent of winning the Mega Millions, a onetime experience that was a pleasure to witness.