By Greg Cahill | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Talk about perfect timing. In March, just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down concert halls and recording studios around the world, the violinist Midori marked the 250th anniversary of Ludwig von Beethoven’s birth by recording his Violin Concerto, complemented by his two Romances for violin and orchestra. The recording sessions had originally been planned around a performance with the orchestra at the KKL Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre, and subsequent concerts in the UK, Singapore, China, and Korea, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused the postponement of the entire tour—the Swiss concert was cancelled with less than 48 hours’ notice.
Midori and the orchestra were already in the midst of rehearsals.
“As everyone’s health and safety were of paramount concern, we were naturally obliged to follow official guidance,” she notes. “Nonetheless, we were grateful to receive permission to move ahead with our recording. Just beyond, a new and dangerous world was lurking—if still in hiding—and I now realize that there was not much of an idea amongst us of a new reality coming into being. In retrospect, the recording experience felt as if we were racing against the clock, to still be making live music, in direct company of each other, breathing in harmony. Through all of that, Beethoven guided my colleagues and me, his work focusing and inspiring us, our concentrations heightened, enveloped together in our musical efforts.
“Beethoven has provided a fortunate focus for me in such fraught times. I am reminded that he was a man of strong beliefs and a morality to which he fully committed as an activist who took firm stands on many major issues of his day. At the same time, he maintained the discipline that allowed him to create profoundly beautiful, often serene music, despite his many personal disappointments and struggles.”
The resulting album, on the Warner Classics label, features Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61, on which Midori plays the Kreisler cadenzas, as well as Romance for Violin and Orchestra in G major, Op. 40, and Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F major, Op. 50.
Upon the album’s release, Strings caught up with Midori in New York City, where she had been quarantining with family members.
You began the recording before the pandemic and were able to finish it after the tour was cancelled. The threat of the virus must have been prevalent during the recording sessions. What was the impact?
We recorded the CD as the pandemic was beginning to sweep across Europe, and just as lockdowns were being instituted. We were already in Lucerne rehearsing for the concert and the recording, which were to happen simultaneously. However, the concert—deemed a “public gathering”—was called off by the government the day before it was to take place. Because the recording was not considered a public gathering, we were given permission to go ahead with it, and we were able to capture the performance we had prepared but were not able to share with an audience.
Beethoven’s music, 250 years after his birth, continues to inspire and provide solace in troubled times. Why do you think that is?
Beethoven was and is one of us and amongst us—his music speaks, with the utmost sincerity, of struggle and love, which are integral to the human experience.
How does his music touch you?
His music, of course, leaves me in awe, for the courage and inspiration it emits, and it keeps me warm at heart.
You had recorded Beethoven just once before, the Violin Sonata No. 8, early in your career. Why did you decide to return to Beethoven, particularly these three works, at this time?
2020 was supposedly the year “we” were celebrating Beethoven. In retrospect—we came all too quickly to the year-end, which is, of course, human construct. I feel that he and his many composer and creator colleagues have actually come to rescue “us” and help us get through this challenging time. The recording was not long in the planning. It was supposed to be a recording of a tour with the Festival Strings Luzerne, and the repertoire for the tour was Beethoven.
Op. 61 was not well received when it premiered in 1806 but has become much-loved after its revival in 1844 with the then 12-year-old Joachim playing for an orchestra conducted by Mendelssohn. What is it that appeals to you about the concerto?
How has the quarantine impacted you? How do you pass the time?
I certainly think I have learned more about using technology in the last six months than in all the rest of my life! My teaching has all been online, and although being online is not the same as being with someone in person, I am very grateful that it has been possible for me to continue on with certain aspects of these “normal” activities. A big part of those activities is the work I do through my nonprofit organizations, all of which aim to bring music and people together in meaningful ways and to create positive change in people’s lives. Usually, that keeps me traveling much of the time, but during COVID, we’ve had to reimagine just about all of those in-person appearances, workshops, and performances as online events or create shareable video or audio content that can be used offline. Keeping those programs going in whatever way we can has been very important for me, because I think people need this now more than ever. For example, I generally visit a few youth orchestras over the course of a year to teach and to keep the young people, who may or may not wind up in music as a profession, inspired and engaged.
This year, during the pandemic, we’re offering a special support program for youth orchestras with workshops online. In another program, I travel to schools in Japan to provide access to high-quality classical music and share the beauty and power of it with them. Because the internet can be spotty in Japan, streaming is really not an option. Instead, we’re creating content for a podcast-like program, especially for schools and other social institutions. The goal is to spark their interest and to keep the music alive and accessible for the people involved. So, there is less traveling, but I am as busy as ever, maybe even more so. It’s only on very rare occasions—literally only a couple of times in recent months—I have been able to enjoy a socially distanced, in-person, café catching-up-with-friends time, and these in-person interactions have been precious.
Of course, there is always practicing. But now I have an added motivation, knowing that once the lockdowns lift, so much healing will need to happen, and I want to hit the ground running in terms of both concert performances and my humanitarian work.
The future of live concerts is uncertain. What’s next for you?
Through good times and bad, I continue to live a life of commitment and dedication and remain open to reaching out and to being reached. My hope is to always be actively involved in living life to its fullest, whether that’s music, education, family and friends, humanitarian work, or learning. I want to participate in the work that will bring healing to a world that needs it now so desperately, and to actively involve more and more people in making positive change in the world.