Midori enjoys the kind of fame that allows her to be introduced simply by her first name. A child prodigy, the Japanese-born American violinist is today an acclaimed musician and an educator, who has performed on many continents and engaged with thousands of students of all ages. At the heart of her long and varied career has been her absolute conviction that music can serve as a profound meditation on our shared humanity, and a bridge that can connect people from all over the world. It is this conviction that brought her to Sri Lanka, where she dedicated her concert on September 26 at the Lionel Wendt to raising funds for the Chamber Music Society of Colombo’s Education Fund for Exceptionally Gifted Music Students.
Below is an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times.
- (ST) It’s often remarked upon that you received your first standing ovation after your debut with the New York Philharmonic when you were just 11. After so many decades of performance, what do you remember best about that concert?
(Midori) I was always very excited as a young girl to go on stage and to perform, and playing in New York in 1982, my debut with the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta was no different. I always love that feeling of walking out on stage, in fact, this is a feeling that hasn’t changed today.
There is something very special, so unique, that I feel with my entire being, to be able to go out and make music. It’s something that, I can’t quite describe with words, but it’s a kind of excitement. I think it’s something that is actually much more than excitement. This is something that I’ve always had, including when I was a young girl, and today, after almost 40 years of performing.
- (ST) What influence did your mother’s career have on you?
I think the biggest influence my mother had on me, was, of course, the fact that I started to play the violin. I began playing the violin because I wanted to play the same instrument that she was already spending a lot of time with. If you’re specifically asking about how my mother and the violin influenced me, it’s a pretty big influence, but I think I had other inspirations as well, influences, and family I think plays a very important role, it’s not about just being a violinist, but the whole approach to life, the philosophy of life gets very much influenced by family. My mother and I are very close and we don’t actually talk about music at all these days. We really haven’t spoken much about music in my adulthood. My mother is very well read, we talk about literature, current events, the news, and particularly, history, which we are both very interested in. There’s always that strong common interest that we have that brings us together.
- (ST) When it came to writing your 2004 memoir Simply Midori, you chose to be very open about your struggle with depression and anorexia. Was it a difficult decision to share something so personal? What encouraged you to take the step?
(M) When I was asked to write a memoir by a German Publishing House my conditions were that I would only be truthful, and that I wouldn’t write the things that they felt would make it exciting and that made good headlines. I was going to write honestly, as the memories floated into my head, and I also said that I wasn’t going to have a ghostwriter, I would write it myself. I only needed a translator, I was not interested in a co-writer. I believe strongly in sincerity. I believe strongly in honesty. I have nothing to hide, it is who I am. All memories in time lose their tone of being positive or negative. They are all classified in my mind as moments. They are what they are, and they all actually get intertwined into this fabric of memories. And the more memories I have, the more experiences. It is intricate, detailed and complex in a beautiful way, my fabric of experiences, and so, if you’re asking me to
write about and to talk about my life, there is no way for me not to talk about what I felt about myself. So I just wrote it honestly, and it wasn’t to actually make my life seem exciting or beautiful, or only about my concerts and being on stage and travelling and meeting different people, it was about my life and the many different elements within.
- (ST) Could you tell us about your work with Midori & Friends and any current community engagement projects you are involved in? Why should music be more of a priority in mainstream education?
(M) I am involved with all the organizations and projects that I started, Midori & Friends, Music Sharing, Partners in Performance and the Orchestra Residencies Programme. They keep me very engaged. Through Music Sharing, there’s an ongoing International Community Engagement Program (ICEP) with which I will be going to Cambodia with three young musicians in December, and to Japan in June next year.
Midori & Friends and Music Sharing are getting close to celebrating the 30th Anniversary. Our world is changing, our meaning of peace is changing, the meaning of music is changing, the standards of music education, the standards of education in general. We always continue to re-evaluate our programmes to stay up with the times. Both these organizations have changed quite a bit since inception, and we’re also working quite a bit now with the elderly at Music Sharing in particular, not just with children.
Just to clarify, Music Sharing is based in Japan and does quite a lot of work in Japan and Asia, not just focusing on classical music, but also in traditional Japanese music and South American music. Midori & Friends is based in New York City working through the schools in the City. Again not concentrating just on classical music, but bringing the value of the Performing Arts and Music in particular of different genres into the lives of children and their families. I’m also quite involved with Partners in Performance, I’m one of their main performers in what might be called Community concerts.
We’re partnering with Community-minded presenters of music in the United States, concentrating on smaller towns and less urban areas, mostly in rural America. The Youth Orchestra Project and all these projects and my work for the United Nations as a messenger of peace, they keep me very involved in life.
- (ST) What has occupied you in 2019? What projects or engagements have proved particularly exciting or rewarding?
(M) I think this year has been very exciting and rewarding for me, to be able to live this music, to practise these works, to spend time with them are a pleasure to me. They stimulate and inspire me. Life in general also inspires me, I don’t need anything that is actually out of the ordinary. I don’t have to go to a special place, to go and see a special thing, or hear special sounds in order to become inspired. I find inspiration in every day and in music. I place a very important role in what I hear from the pieces I work on, from what the composers have given us in their scores, and what they may have meant, why they decided to go that way.
These are all the things that interest me and keep me curious. In terms of my travels, I’ve gone to many places that are very interesting. Some of them were return trips. Some places were new. In the next few months I get to do something that I appreciate very much, I’m looking forward to concentrating on some modern works. This is a project in which I am going to be playing five pieces, all by living women composers, including one commissioned by the Library of Congress. This is an interesting and exciting project for me. The process of commissioning was fascinating as well. Working on this piece, learning it, giving it life, and then introducing it out to the public for the first time. In December, I will be visiting Cambodia through my Music-Sharing project, a nonprofit organization that I started some 30 years ago. We will be going there with three young musicians, and we are very much looking forward to sharing our music and being in the presence of that culture for a few weeks, and also to listen, watch and interact with my students. That’s always very meaningful to me.
While we are talking about 2019, I’m also very excited about next year, 2020. We are going to be celebrating a special anniversary year for Beethoven. I have several different projects coming up, the complete sonatas for Piano and Violin, the Violin Concerto, a special commission, and Beethoven Trio concerts. All this is going to keep me occupied for a good part of the year.
What is also particularly important in 2020, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of one my mentors, Isaac Stern, and this is a very important occasion for me, because I think of him as one of the people that strongly shaped my character, and made me into the musician that I am today.
- (ST) What first drew you to Sri Lanka, and what brings you back?
(M) Back in the 80s, I knew a couple of friends from Sri Lanka, and through them and with them, I lived through the current events with what was going on in Sri Lanka. It’s a country that I have always had in my consciousness, interested in what was going on, and engaged, so to say in this country.
When I first had the chance to visit a year and a half ago, it was a very special treat, and back then I came with a group of my students from the University of Southern California, we were interested and very focused on reaching out to the community and working with different populations, both musicians and non-musicians, and bringing music and enjoying it together. This was all coordinated beautifully from the Sri Lankan side by the Chamber Music Society of Colombo. We were able to travel around the country and visit hospitals and schools up north, down in the south and in Colombo. It was a beautiful trip and it was so memorable, my students experience as well was incredible. We had gone to other countries, we had worked quite extensively in Los Angeles where we were all based in. But Sri Lanka was something special, and to be spending that much time and to get to know the culture, the tip of the iceberg, of course, was something that made a great impact on everyone.
It was such a pleasure to return to Sri Lanka again, this time to play a full recital in support of the new Chamber Music Society Education Fund, it brings so many different interests of mine together of supporting music education and interacting with music. I will always cherish the opportunity to return to Sri Lanka. Not just Colombo, but also Jaffna and Galle, or just anywhere. I’m not particularly interested in travelling as a tourist, I would say it is the combination of being able to be within the communities and music, this is what I enjoy.
- (ST) Why did you decide to personally support the CMSC Education Fund for Exceptionally Gifted Music Students? What difference do you hope such a programme will make?
(M) Young people. I remember when I was one of them, we survive and we grow because we’re supported, and it’s not just about family support, it’s also about social and financial support, it’s the combination, it is so important that we are given this opportunity that we benefit from this opportunity. It’s not possible to learn only on one’s own in the privacy of a practice room. Music education is important, to understand the concepts and information. Interaction with other musicians and non-musicians, to experience life through music.
This can be quite expensive, so I think having the CMSC fund makes it possible for young musicians to have more access to education that is so critical for their growth.
- (ST) What would be your advice to young performers hoping to follow in your footsteps?
(M) I think one of the important questions that any musician has to ask is about his or her relationship to the music itself. This is something that is constantly being asked, that should be constantly asked, and it doesn’t have to be the same answer all the time. But at any given time, I think that it helps to have that clarity. It could mean different things to different people; for me, music supports me spiritually and psychologically, music also allows me to express myself, music gives me the tools with which I can bring people together. I connect with people to share myself, and so, this is what music means to me.
First published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on October 6, 2019. By Smriti Daniel.