Violinist Midori on the Role of Bach in Her Life, and Teaching His Music to the Next Generation

By Laurence Vittes

Midori Gotō, whom the world knows as simply Midori, holds magna cum laude bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from New York University and the Jascha Heifetz Chair at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California. Together with her 1734 “ex Huberman” Guarneri del Gesù violin, Midori stars in a brilliant new recording of Bach’s solo Sonatas and Partitas.

Bach has been in Midori’s DNA since her mother took her to concerts as a toddler, and they listened together to LPs and radio broadcasts.

I wrote in the March 2016 issue of Strings that Midori’s new Bach record “subtly spontaneous, quasi-improvisational style” suggested “that Bach had not meant his scores as rigid guides to sounds, speeds, and phrasings, but as departure points for highly personal music making.”

I spoke to Midori in her office at USC’s Thornton School, where she has a teaching studio. She was preparing for a March recital tour with pianist Özgür Aydin that would take her from London to Berlin. Her performances included two starkly diverse recitals in Vienna. On March 15: Liszt, Elgar, Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss. March 16: Xenakis, Kaija Saariaho, Schnittke, Mario Davidovsky, Stephen Hartke, and John Adams.

Why does Bach’s solo violin music remain so important to you?
When one practices Bach, one learns how to produce sound, how to use and train our ears—our ears do get very trained by practicing Bach!—how to breathe, how to improvise, how to follow—so many different things.

From Bach, we learn about the shaping of a phrase, and how to play music. And also,
of course, about big-picture violinistic skills, not just about particular Bach pieces. It is why we think of Bach as the core of our literature.


Why did you feel this was the right time to record the cycle?
I have lived with these solo works of Bach’s for almost as long as I can remember: Before I actually even learned to play the violin, I listened to my mother practicing Bach.

These works are at the very top of our repertoire, and in 2012, on the 30th anniversary of my debut with the New York Philharmonic, I felt eager to take on the challenge of taking the complete set on tour for the season. The recording at the West German Radio studio in Cologne followed.

What kinds of preparations did you make for the recordings?
I did not have to make any preparations. I’ve been playing them for so long, even before the idea of the tour came up.

What edition did you use?
I went back and forth between the Bärenreiter urtext and the complete facsimile of Bach’s own manuscript included in Ivan Galamian’s International Edition. In the beginning, players didn’t have an urtext. I started with a completely different edition, Patelson’s or Peters.

The final step in any recording is the editing process. How intensive was it?
Since these were originally made for radio broadcasts, I did not embark on an intensive editing process. In any case, I generally don’t engage in neurotic splicing tendencies on my recordings. I like keeping the takes as complete and undisturbed as possible.

I wrote in my review that your ‘embrace of the traditional and the authentic pays an abundance of dividends.’ How important is it for modern violin students to know something about early-music style?
I listened to early music by many composers from my pre-teens on, and I would say that this listening has influenced the way I hear and think about music, Baroque and beyond.


It is not possible to say exactly how and where it made the impact, but now for me it is like the air one breathes in life. It has been a natural, ongoing process through which I explore, experiment with, and experience this repertoire.

I cannot even say that this change will ever stop, and I expect to keep working and playing this music for the rest of my musical life.

Do you integrate your work on Bach into your teaching?
I have this Bach Project with my students every year in the spring. We have a syllabus, and the main assignment is that every student must play a complete Bach sonata or partita, with all the repeats, and with embellishments or ornaments of their own in those repeats.

They are required to perform their choice a minimum of three times. Some opt
for more than three, and some even opt for more than one sonata or partita—but if they do two works, they also have to play both works at least three times.


Who books the student performances?
We [university staff] make the arrangements. Students also come up with opportunities, and recently I’ve been collaborating with colleagues at other studios around town to find additional opportunities.

The goal is to give performance opportunities to as many students as possible. In each studio we work with, of course, the faculty makes up the rules. In mine, for example, you can’t play just the D minor Chaconne—you have to play the whole D minor Partita.

What is it like working on Bach with a new crop of students every year?
I love playing and working on Bach, and working with my students on their Bach. Of all the composers, Bach has the widest range of being right in some way, so to be able to hear what my students find in his music, and how they come up with their interpretations, is incredible. Beyond that, it’s wonderful to share and exchange ideas with them.

And how do students respond to today’s internet-fueled torrent of stylistic and historical influences?
Times are changing. I was very much influenced by early music—early-music wind players especially. And that was considered leading edge. Now we have musicians who play only early music. We’re in the midst of a continuum. We’re not leaving tradition behind.