Music review: Midori plays new music as part of JapanOC

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At Midori’s recital in the Samueli Theater at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts Wednesday night, there was a table with copies of her two-CD set, “Essential Midori,” for sale. The stellar Japanese violinist has recorded pretty much all of the standard repertory, and “Essential Midori” contains excerpts from several of those discs. But I don’t like the word essential.

Did that make Midori’s extraordinary recital program, which was comprised entirely of new and recent music, unessential?


Her appearance was part of the Philharmonic Society’s JapanOC festival. She fits, because she was born in Osaka, although she has long lived in the U.S. and is currently based in Los Angeles where she holds the Jascha Heifetz Chair at USC. Plus she fit the festival by including a short, unmistakably Japanese work, Toshio Hosokawa’s “Vertical Time Study III.” Written in 1996, it is also unmistakably modern.

Given Midori’s fan base and the relatively high cost of tickets ($60 and $68) for the ideally intimate chamber venue, Midori could have easily, and might have expectedly, used the rest of the evening for conventional 18th and 19th century sonatas. It is unlikely that a lesser-known violinist would have filled the hall or attracted Japanese diplomats, as Midori did Wednesday, with such a program at these prices. But she clearly seemed on a modern mission.

With pianist Charles Abramovic as her impressive partner, Midori began with “Coruscation and Reflection.” The title well enough describes the short, richly textured but otherwise thin piece by a young Welsh composer, Huw Watkins.

That was followed by Brett Dean’s “Berlin Music,” written for Midori last year. It is a suite of attractive, short character pieces by an Australian violist who spent many years in the Berlin Philharmonic.

A berceuse rocks in the violin’s highest registers, as if evoking Berlin in a ghost-haunted fog. An oddly tuned upright piano adds to the whimsy of “The Last Practice Room on the Left.” “Beyond the Mirrors” sounds like falling down the stairs. The main movement (“Hauptsatz”) comes last, and here is where the violin’s sparklers are lit, especially with the virtuosic pizzicato passages.

Neither of these pieces fully showed off what Midori can do, but the stunning Hosokawa piece, after intermission, made up for that. The score is abstract and exotic. Violin attacks are sharp, sudden and often on more than one string. The piano complements with shards of intense bright sound.

Midori proved a study in concentration. She has always been known for her accuracy of pitch, clarity of tone and care with rhythm. She is intense and forceful but never showy. I know of no violinist with a more sensitive nor respectful sense of vibrato, which allows her to to let every note speak and none to over-speak. Thanks to Abramovic adding his own percussive and brilliant tone to the mix, the “Vertical Time Study” became a hypnotizing meditation on fire and ice.

The last two pieces were James MacMillan’s “After the Tryst,” a gorgeous riff on a Scottish ballad, and John Adams’ “Road Movies,” his 1995 violin sonata.

This was essential Adams. To hear both Midori and Abramovic play the Minimalist first movement, titled “Relaxed Groove,” without relaxation but with provocative pinpoint precision was a revelation. They did take “Meditation,” the second movement, at its word, allowing all that is unessential in musical expression to leave the room.

Midori is not a jazzy player, but then Adams’ last movement, “40% Swing,” is a percentage within her range. And she was unrivaled in the other 60%, the intricate and complex roadblock music that gives Adams’ sonata so much of its richness.

This new, modern Midori is a great gift to new music, and my wish list of essential composers she would turn to is long. If I could choose only one, that would be Morton Feldman, in whose long, patterned pieces she might weave a spell like none before her. -- Mark Swed