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Midori, violinist

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Violinist Midori plays a new tune in Los Angeles

  • Article by: David Ng
  • Los Angeles Times (MCT)
  • January 30, 2013 - 8:40 AM

 

Since she made her solo debut at age 11 in 1982, violinist Midori has grown up — and grown middle-aged — under the full glare of the media.

Reporters dubbed her a child prodigy when she first stunned audiences as a last-minute substitute with the New York Philharmonic. They chronicled her ascent to superstardom, a status cemented when, at age 14, she went through three violins in a single Tanglewood concert. The media continued to follow her as she matured into a venerated soloist.

The latest chapter in the Midori saga is perhaps the least flashy but may be the most unexpected. It could simply be titled “Midori, Angeleno.”

Six years ago, the Japan-born violinist picked up and left New York, the city where she grew up, and settled in Los Angeles, the city she now calls home.

For musicians of her fame and caliber, “home” is often just a glorified layover between international flights. For Midori, however, L.A. has come to mean much more than that.

In 2004, Midori was named a professor at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. After a period of bicoastal commuting, she settled full-time in L.A. in 2006. She was promoted to the head of the strings department the following year.

“I have to say it was so unthinkable for such a long time to move out of New York,” she said. “More than anything else, people identify me as someone from New York. But I’m very happy here. So much of it is tied to this job, and I’m very happy in this job.”

The L.A. chapter of Midori’s fascinating, complicated life has seen the violinist transform herself into a full-fledged academic. Among her students, she is known rather formally as Professor Goto. (Her full name is Midori Goto.) Her USC title — the Jascha Heifetz Endowed Chair in Violin — sounds exalted, but much of her time is given over to administrative duties, ranging from admissions to budgetary matters.

She even takes care of the occasional student disciplinary problem. “I like to know what’s going on with students. I have to stay involved,” Midori said.

The concert side of her career — what “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer described in a 1992 profile as “a road trip without end” — is nowhere near as grueling as it was during her teenage years. But she continues to perform, with more than 70 concerts and recitals last year alone.

Midori has been practicing a concerto by Peter Eötvös on and off for several weeks. “I’m having a great time learning it,” she said. The piece “has me playing quite often in the high registers, so yes, it’s challenging. Is it unplayable? No. It’s very idiomatic.”

Midori also will perform the piece later this year at the BBC Proms and with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, co-commissioners of the work with the L.A. Philharmonic.

Midori said she personally chose Eötvös to write the piece after he was recommended by conductor Christoph Eschenbach, a close friend. “I take anything he suggests very seriously,” she said.

It can be difficult to believe that Midori is 41. At the same time, this former wunderkind has been famous for so long, it’s hard to believe she’s only 41.

Still petite, she could easily be confused for a college student. But in terms of temperament, Midori has shed most traces of the woman-child “moppet” that her harsher critics called her during her youth.

If anything, she gives off the focused intensity of a midcareer workaholic. She arrives at her office at 6 a.m. and she’s usually still going well past midnight.

Most semesters, Midori spends a significant time away from campus on global concert tours. Her colleagues say that she makes every effort to fly back to L.A. between concerts, even if it’s just for a few days, and that she gets work done through e-mail.

Midori is talkative and amiable, but there are parts of her life that she clearly doesn’t like to discuss. A question about the “child prodigy” label elicited a curt response: “I don’t think much about it.” She also declined to open up about her private life except to say that she lives by herself.

Her reticence might have something to do with lingering public interest in her turbulent 20s, when she battled anorexia and depression, resulting in a number of hospital stays.

Her personal difficulties were not made public at the time, but she recounted them in her 2004 memoir, “Simply Midori,” which has not been published in English.

After recovering, she pursued a life outside music, studying psychology and gender studies at New York University. Her master’s thesis, tellingly, was about pain research.

“All pain is subjective. It’s how you perceive it,” she said.

Midori eventually returned to the stage and took a teaching position at the Manhattan School of Music in 2001. She said moving to L.A. has provided her with a “new adventure” at this point in her career.

“I love my students — they motivate me,” she said.

Midori already has her eyes on a new commissioned piece for 2014, but she could not discuss it. During the next two months, she is scheduled to perform in Germany, Britain and Spain.

In between, she will return to L.A. for work and because, as Midori simply puts it, “it’s where I live now.”

© 2014 Star Tribune