The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Midori’s career started with a fleeting moment. It’s evolved into a lasting legacy.

The internationally celebrated violinist, activist and educator is one of five Kennedy Center honorees this spring

Violinist Midori will be celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors on June 6. (Elias Williams for The Washington Post)
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NEW YORK — For an art form so reliant on long stretches of attention, so invested in the value of patience and so deeply concerned with cultivating sublime arcs of time, classical music sure is big on moments.

Take the case of Midori, the internationally celebrated violinist turned equally renowned activist and educator — and, now, Kennedy Center honoree.

I’ll bet you a 1734 Guarnerius once owned by Bronislaw Huberman that you can’t find an interview or profile that doesn’t foreground some prominent mention of a certain landmark 1986 Tanglewood performance. That’s when a mostly unknown 14-year-old violin prodigy sliced through not one, but two E strings during a particularly scorching passage of Leonard Bernstein’s sumptuous and demanding “Serenade” — under the composer’s baton no less.

See what I mean? I just mentioned it. (And I’m happy to meet wherever is convenient for you to claim my violin, once you get it from Midori.)

In any case, there’s a reason we call them “defining” moments.

When the young “Mi Dori” (her mononym, still coming together; her sound, fully formed) reached for both of concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s replacement violins with the unbothered ease with which I reach for my coffee, she announced to the world a balance of talents distinct from the stereotype of the child prodigy: She’d mastered not just the space between the notes but also the pressure surrounding them.

In the flurry of interviews that followed, critics seemed united in awe over two of Midori’s most striking qualities: her skill and her chill.

“It’s quite something,” says acclaimed conductor Leonard Slatkin, who penned a short essay on Midori for the Honors’ program about his years working with her. “She is so respected by everybody in the field. I can’t think of anyone that I know who doesn’t have great things to say about her and how influential she has been over the years.”

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I met up with Midori recently in New York City — where she has been sharing an apartment with her mother during the pandemic — after walking the streets for hours listening to her most recent recording: a stirringly beautiful account with the Festival Strings Lucerne of Beethoven’s (only!) Violin Concerto, plus his two romances for violin and orchestra, made just after the covid shutdown.

In a wide-ranging chat at a cafe outside Union Square, Midori, now 49, smiles behind her mask while talking about her lifelong love of Bach, her equally devout fascination and rapport with contemporary composers, and how getting the call at the supermarket that she was a Kennedy Center honoree felt, more than anything, like a sign of spring.

“We’ve had this very, very dark period,” she says, careful not to sound too relieved as she fusses with the fit of her mask. “We’re not out of it yet. It’s going to take even longer for recovery, but we can’t just be happy to see the light. We have to work to make that light come true.”

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What might sound like general pep-talk fodder for the averagely scheduled person is actually just pragmatic paraphrase for Midori, whose prodigious musical talent was merely the first movement in a career that has extended into music education, community outreach and arts advocacy.

She founded her Japan-based nonprofit Music Sharing to bring Western classical and traditional Japanese music to young people in Japan and developing regions of Asia. She launched Partners in Performance in 2003 (in response to cuts in arts funding) to team up with community-based arts organizations to present chamber music concerts outside major urban centers. And through her Orchestra Residencies Program, Midori collaborates directly with youth orchestras. (On June 1, she’ll perform Derek Bermel’s concertino “Cadenzas” in West Windsor, N.J., joined by the Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey.)

And before any of the others, there was her namesake flagship organization, Midori & Friends, which now partners with more than 75 New York City public schools to increase music access and education. She launched it when she was just 21.

“I didn’t think twice about it,” she says. “It has always been our mission, our goal, to have a variety and diversity of music. I wanted systemic change; I wanted the ability to mobilize different genres and musicians.”

Midori usually lives in Philadelphia, where she is the Dorothy Richard Starling chair in violin studies at the Curtis Institute of Music — a commitment that could easily cut into any musician’s ability to perform regularly. But then again, so could recording, mentoring youth orchestras, teaching students abroad and keeping a full schedule of in-person and virtual concerts. Onstage and off, she makes the most of every moment.

Born in Osaka, Japan, in 1971, Midori grew up hearing (and humming) the musical influences that remain with her today: Bach, Paganini and her mother, Setsu Goto, herself a professional violinist. (Her younger brother, Ryu Goto, is a violinist, as well.)

Midori’s most consequential debut came five years before her name-making triumph at Tanglewood — when in 1981, she appeared at the Aspen Music Festival at the invitation of acclaimed instructor Dorothy DeLay (who had heard a tape of her performing at age 8). This led to maestro Zubin Mehta inviting her to perform as a surprise 11-year-old soloist with the New York Philharmonic for its New Year’s Eve concert in 1982 (where she took on the first movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with ease).

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The year after Aspen, the family moved to New York, where Midori studied with DeLay in Juilliard’s pre-college training program. She excelled, but to the documented chagrin of most in her circle, she left early. By 1987, she was playing professionally.

It was the first in a string of independent moves that seemed to work out well for the young star, as Midori’s musical career has since been a landscape-altering sequence of stunning heights and historic peaks.

In 2007, she was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace. In 2012, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and granted the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum at Davos. Midori has been awarded the Avery Fisher Prize (2001), the Kennedy Center Gold Medal in the Arts (2010), an honorary doctorate from Yale (2012) and the 2020 Brahms Prize.

She also is a voracious reader; an accomplished student (she received her master’s in psychology from New York University in 2005); and an erudite writer, having penned tens of thousands of words’ worth of program notes, available on her website, delving into a vast repertoire of classical and contemporary works.

Taken in the fully unrolled context of her career, the fact that she started so young seems like its least interesting aspect. It’s actually quite practical considering how much Midori has on her to-do list.

Still, despite all she does and all we’ve heard, despite how wholly she inhabits the music — be it a Bach partita or a searing contemporary concerto like Peter Eötvös’s “DoReMi” — there remains what can only be described as a Midori mystique. Her sound, too, balances mastery with mystery; her recent recordings of those partitas and sonatas for solo violin trace Bach’s lines with a touch that feels like exquisite, if singular, penmanship.

Slatkin — who holds laureate posts with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and led the National Symphony Orchestra from 1996 to 2008 — was touring Japan with the SLSO in 1983 when he, and Midori’s future mentor, Isaac Stern, heard her perform.

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“She was different. She had something,” Slatkin says. “And that was true personality.”

(Stern was inclined to agree, though with a bit more ice. He told the New York Times in 1991 that “her technical ability is so strikingly mature that she gives the impression of greater musical maturity than at this point exists.”)

Slatkin recalls the intense technical precision with which Midori attacked the acrobatics of Paganini’s first violin concerto while recording with him and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1987. But he remembers it less as a capture of her mastery than as a point of departure — a glimpse of a youthful perfectionism that he has seen soften in service of constant growth.

“You never got the feeling she’s doing it out of the wanting to be a technically precise artist,” he says. “I think musicians don’t grow for technical reasons. They grow for expression, for trying to search out the meaning of the music.”

Over three decades, Slatkin has heard an honesty and introspection grow ever more evident in Midori’s playing; an attentiveness to the music and her fellow musicians that extends far beyond the purview of her solos; and rich parallel senses of humor and compassion that channel humanity into her “extraordinary” bow arm.

Her success also played a key part, he notes, in helping encourage wider musical exchange and influence between West and East. “We talk about increasing diversity,” he says. “Well, here’s Midori doing it 35 years ago.”

But more than anything, Slatkin admires the trajectory of Midori’s growth as an artist, more outward than upward, no longer the wunderkind, mining for meaning each time she takes out her bow.

“She walks on the stage, and it’s clear she loves every note she’s about to play you. I’ve always felt that,” he says. “There’s also this intensity when she plays. She’s so focused on what she wants to accomplish. But it’s very clear it all comes out of love.”

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This fall, Midori will premiere a commission that seems to entwine her twin affections for classical and contemporary repertoire: “An die Unsterbliche Geliebte” is the second violin concerto from the German composer Detlev Glanert and takes as its inspiration the letters Beethoven wrote in 1812 to an unidentified “Immortal Beloved.”

A new work based on an old flame feels like a fitting way to take full advantage of Midori’s investment in the past, her faith in the future and her own immortal beloved.

“As Mr. Stern used to say, we’re the middle person,” she says. “We are just the messengers. And we honor the music.”

But it is leadership — a word Midori only recently became comfortable using in reference to her work — where she is truly coming into her own. If, after all these years, she possesses any whit of performance anxiety, it has to do only with living up to the legacy of those who showed her the way.

“To lead means to serve,” she says with a kind of etched-in-marble certainty. “I think of this as an invitation to serve, even more wholeheartedly.”

The Kennedy Center Honors will air at 8 p.m. June 6 on CBS.