I remember the first time I ever heard Midori, many years ago. I was watching the Arts Channel - a collection of classical music videos pumped through a local television station over lunch - and saw this.
Needless to say, I stopped chewing. This is still one of my favorite performances of all time. I eventually found the disc of the rest of the concert at a second-hand shop. It was my first introduction to the lovely ebullient Strauss sonata, Debussy’s dreamy Beau soir, and Ernst’s wildly difficult Last Rose of Summer. These performances alone made me a big fan. But over the years, as I heard more and more snippets of Midori’s biography, I became even more impressed. She is a UN Messenger of Peace, she is passionate about many other things outside of music (she has a master’s degree in psychology), and she is committed to playing for audiences in smaller towns that might not otherwise have had the chance to see an artist of her caliber. Ever since writing an essay on the history of female violinists and the life of the first great female violinist, Wilma Norman-Neruda (shameless self-promotion; click here to read part one), I have been thinking about the role that women have played in our beloved art, especially over the last hundred years since Wilma’s death. To me, seeing a woman like Midori - who is both a tremendous artist and a well-rounded human being - is more than just seeing a great musician; it is seeing a fulfillment of what those women a hundred years ago aspired to. Midori is taken seriously not as a woman violinist, but as a violinist, period, and she can do it all while pursuing the things that fulfill her not just as a musician, but as a human being. We’ve come a long way.
The concert was held in the 900-seat Somsen Auditorium at Winona State University, a surprisingly intimate hall from 1924. After some remarks from the artistic director, the stage door opened and out came Midori. She is a very tiny, very delicate looking woman - I read after the concert that she is four-eleven, and that sounds about right - but despite her size, she was clearly in charge from the minute she walked out onto the stage. She flashed a warm, welcoming smile at the audience before raising her del Gesu to her chin and beginning the fourth sonata of Beethoven.
She plays in a way that I would never advise a beginning violin student to emulate - she scrunches her shoulders for emphasis, and her scroll is usually pointing to the floor. I have always wondered how she and others who play in such an unnatural position (like Bell, Vengerov, Chang, etc.) don’t hurt themselves; it seems as if practicing that way for hours a day for years on end would take a great physical toll. But it obviously works for her, so I'm not criticizing. Her sound - at least as I heard it from the front row of the balcony - was clear, classic, elegant, beautiful, but maybe a bit small, and focused at the center of the hall, as opposed to extending out to the sides. It may have been the repertoire, or the acoustic of this particular stage, or my seat in the balcony, or that I am used to an unnatural violin-piano balance on recordings, or any other number of things; I don’t know. But even if it wasn’t a particularly large sound, it was always an exceptionally beautiful one. She brought a great deal of detail and character to the Beethoven, alternating between elegance and passion and fury, especially in the last movement with all of its rapid shifts in character. She was warmly applauded, and the buzz of the crowd below the balcony stepped up a pitch after she was finished.
The next piece on the program was the Ravel sonata. I have loved it for many years and I consider it to be a very dear musical friend. (Isn’t it funny how we often feel as affectionate toward beloved pieces of music as we do people?) I've never heard it live before. As we were waiting for Midori to return to the stage, I had a fleeting thought of how unnatural it is to know a work solely from recordings. Don’t get me wrong, I love recordings - without them, I’d never know the Ravel sonata, period - but I wonder what Ravel would have thought of me loving this work so dearly for so many years, without ever having heard it live. About the time that Ravel composed this piece, he was becoming very interested in the possibilities presented by recordings, so perhaps he wouldn’t think it strange or odd at all, but I never feel as if I really know a piece until I can be in the same room in which it’s being brought alive. Living in a place where I can see relatively few live performances of classical violin music, it’s so vital for me to stay connected with the performance side of the art, both as a listener and as a violinist. Analysis of the score - comparing recordings - reading biographies of the great composers: those things will only get you so far. A vital portion of the appreciation of these great works has to be done in a concert hall, in hearing them as they were originally intended to be experienced.
Midori wrote the program notes for the Ravel. Apparently this sonata was written for Helene Jourdan-Morhange, a highly-regarded French violinist born in 1892. She asked for a concerto but got this sonata instead. (A Ravel violin concerto! Can you imagine?) I had always heard that Ravel was never one for romantic attachments, but, Googling about a bit, it seems that he may possibly (emphasis on the possibly) have had unrequited feelings for Helene. There are even rumors that he once asked her to marry him, and she turned him down. At the very least, they were extremely close friends - they shared many interests, including a deep mutual affection for cats - and although she was not able to premiere the sonata due to arthritis, it was written for and dedicated to her. (Ravel seems to have been inspired by female violinists; Helene also premiered his violin/cello duo and his lovely little violin and piano piece Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Faure - and of course Jelly d’Aranyi was the inspiration for Tzigane.) So even seventy miles away home and from my project of researching the great female violinists, I was given a new lead to follow up. Who exactly was this Helene Jourdan-Morhange? What was she like? Who did she study with? What violin did she play? What kind of relationship did she really have with Ravel? Why when I Google her does her name appear to have been lost to history, even though she is the dedicatee of a major piece that most every violinist knows and loves? How could we as a community of violin-lovers have possibly forgotten her?
Midori’s performance of the first movement kept reminding me of water - water in a brook, ripples in a pond, rain trickling from eaves, puddles, waves, lakes… I’m not one for seeing visual imagery when I listen to music, so it was a very strange, very magical experience. There wasn’t much vibrato, and the shifts were clean and lean. If you have heard Midori’s Carnegie Hall recording (I’m thinking of the shifts in The Last Rose of Summer, and Milstein’s Chopin transcription in particular), you’ll know right away what I’m talking about. Once and a while she would really dig into a slide, anticipating that second blues movement. And as it should, everything felt like it was leading up to that glorious endless bow at the end of the movement. As the piano quietly wrapped up the theme beneath her, you could feel the audience collectively leaning forward. Even after the sound had died away, she stood motionless and left her bow on the string, giving us permission to linger in that achingly gorgeous sound-world for just a few more precious seconds. Funnily enough, it turned out that one of my favorite parts of this concert were the silences - the parts of the performance where the sound slowly died away and my attention was drawn out of the music toward the awed, appreciative reaction of the other concertgoers.
Then came the blues in the Ravel’s sexy, sexy second movement. Is there a more blatantly erotic movement in the violin-piano literature? If there is I’ve yet to hear it. Now that I have read that Ravel may have had some kind of attraction to its dedicatee, this movement…takes on a new significance, shall we say? I had never thought of this sonata as a love-story before, but dayum when I listen to it now… What a dialogue between the violin and the piano. All of those lilting arco lines on the fiddle - the slow slides - those gutsy, suggestively strumming pizzicatos… And then that blazing third movement, a meshing of violin and piano, ending in a brilliant unified ecstasy… There is that famous quote by Ravel that basically says that in this sonata he wanted to explore the differences between a violin and a piano, rather than minimizing them as other composers had in their violin-piano sonatas. I highly doubt he was also thinking of emphasizing the fundamental differences between men and women, but oh, it would have been so interesting if he had. It quickly becomes tempting to imagine this as a composer’s naughty daydream, with Ravel on the piano and Helene on the violin.
Midori really sunk her teeth into the blues. Lots of slides, lots of swing in the snappy pizzicato parts. It was just delicious to hear. And she simply took everybody’s breath away in the third movement’s perpetual motion. Every single one of the flurry of the notes came clear and strong and graceful, even toward the end when the low notes on the Ging start coming into the picture, where some performers have a tendency to start blurring the sound. During the last few measures it sounded as if her del Gesu was about to go up in flames. Apparently during the sonata’s lengthy gestation, Ravel wrote to Helene that he didn’t think it would tire her hand too much. Hopefully that was before this last movement came into being, because looking at the score, I can’t imagine a much more demanding exercise for the left and right hands alike. The audience loved it, and a few people even gave a standing ovation.
At intermission, I eavesdropped in the women’s bathroom - the best place for any classical music critic to get an unbiased review - and heard someone say, “She’s so good, she tires me out!” While waiting for me, my companion at the concert overheard another woman saying, “I sure wasn’t expecting that blues movement - but I loved it!” Indeed.
Watch out for the riveting conclusion of “Midori Visits Minnesota, Part II,” in which I continue my rambling about my concert-going experience. The second half of the program included Mario Davidovsky's Duo Concertante, as well as Brahms‘s third sonata, along with a surprise virtuoso encore, so stay tuned...
I agree with you on recordings vs. live performances. I know exactly what to expect from a recording of stuff on my ipod, but it all comes to life in the concert hall! I also saw Midori about a year ago here in MD. Amazing!
I hope the hall was packed with Minnesotans, Wisconsonians, and Iowans, and that the festival organizers are thrilled with their success. Midori should also get lots of credit for her educational and outreach programs. She's one of the most generous in the business with both her time and money.
Thanks for writing the review and giving us so much background knowledge about the music and the people associated with it. I will listen to these pieces and hear a lot more in them because you gave me the background.
A few years ago, I saw an exhibit of childrens' (elementary and middle school) responses to the question, "Who is a woman you admire and why?" I had a hard time thinking of a response to that question, but after reading your blog, I'm thinking of Midori, Rachel Barton Pine, and Maud Powell.
Thank you everybody for your kind words!! And Hadelich's version is beautiful, too. So many ways to interpret this piece!
@ Pauline - You're welcome for the background. I love digging out music history, and even more than that I love sharing. I'm researching Bartok's first concerto now (there will be a blog entry on it eventually), and it's amazing how much I appreciate the piece now, knowing the background of it. It's fit for a novel; you'll see when I eventually get the entry written. Background can make all the difference in the world.
Laurie, I have no idea if I'll be able to find much more about her! I wish I could. Just about all there is on the Internet is where and when she was born and that she had early-onset arthritis and was a dear friend of Ravel's. It's maddening! How can people have forgotten her? Maybe I could make a dual entry on her and Jelly d'Aranyi - "Ravel's Muses", perhaps? I'm finding slightly more information on Stefi Geyer (Bartok's first love, who inspired the first violin concerto), so I'll probably get to her first. But I'll definitely keep checking back on the Internet over time to see if there's more information on Helene.
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