Midori: From Prodigy to Artist : Unlike many <i> Wunderkinder, </i> the Japanese violinist has made the transition from lollipops to limousines


It isn’t a typical Saturday morning rehearsal for the American Youth Symphony and conductor Mehli Mehta.

This time mothers and aunts--most of them Asian--hover the orchestra rehearsal room at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall as strains of Sibelius waft into the corridor. They listen idly. But their eyes keep drifting in a different direction to an adjacent room where, behind a closed door, the 18-year-old Japanese violinist Midori practices alone before her session with the student ensemble.

She is the magnet compelling their attention, the paragon of musical talent that Mehta claims “comes along one in a million.” She is the dream they secretly dreamed for their own child, whose accomplishments--while swelling parental hearts with pride--are light years away from that of the virtuosa soon to appear.


“I don’t usually come to rehearsal,” says one mother, her eyes shining with enthusiasm.

Ten minutes later, the conductor puts down his baton, finished temporarily with his spirited goading. For 2 1/2 hours, the spry, amazingly energetic 81-year-old father of Zubin Mehta had put his charges through their orchestral paces.

Now would come the concerto for this all-Sibelius program. He waves Midori in, offering profuse thanks to her for accepting the solo spot on the AYS’s 25th anniversary benefit to be performed at the Music Center.

After all, she added this engagement to a calendar that regularly takes her to world-class orchestras and important recording dates--a career in full bloom, one that never so much as paused between lollipops and limousines.

Midori has survived the fate of most puffed-up prodigies--those who simply lose their specialness as the years take them to adulthood, those who have to rack up competition wins to stay visible in the music market and those who must build slowly along a modest trail of performance venues.

She’s leaped past the protective arms of a mother-pedagogue-management team to that of an independent artist and managed, somehow, to merit a place on the A-level concert circuit.

The players, most of them the same age as Midori, applaud as she enters. And as this slip of a girl stands before them--she wears Size 1 jeans rolled at the ankle and a silk blouse that reveals her delicate frame--Mehli Mehta reflects the awe that she inspires.


“Anything you want, tell me,” he implores as she picks up her Guarnerius del Gesu and unfurls a large white protective hanky, placing it on the instrument. “Slow, fast, loud, soft. We’re here to follow you.” Sensing her respectful reticence, he adds, with deliberately exaggerated humor: “Tell me to go to hell, if you like.”

The smiling cherub nods in amused assent and they begin to make music. Midori--who, until the launching of her professional career five years ago was known as well by her last name, Goto--is suddenly transformed from a skipping child innocent to that of a worldly sage. All in the power of a few bars.

First comes the orchestral introduction. Then she raises her bow. Her head ducks down toward the violin, her eyes clench shut, her smooth brow furrows slightly with fierce concentration. Her little body convulses with each phrase accent as she summons all 90 pounds of her strength to a single interpretive end.

And the orchestra members, when not being called upon to play, look at her in shy wonderment. How can it be? How can one small, youthful being embody musical expression of such depth?

It’s a question that has been asked countless times. Observers have always pondered the child prodigy and the path each takes from remarkable technician to full-fledged artist.

It’s also a phenomenon that elicits powerful responses--even from weary veterans and seasoned sophisticates. Norman Carol, longtime concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was said to cry when he heard Midori play.

Encountering a Wunderkind can move people “the same way witnessing a wedding can,” says Juilliard’s acclaimed violin teacher Dorothy DeLay, who taught Midori for five years.

In music, the term often connotes considerably more than the feats required for other disciplines, according to experts in the field. A stellar gymnast needs technique above all. A stellar musician merely begins with virtuosity; after that must come the profound understanding and architectural grasp and ultimately the ability to project the soul of the music.

The signs of this maturity often begin early. At age 2, Midori already laid claim to her mother’s violin, showing an eagerness ordinarily reserved for toys.

“And in the case of a parent who teaches the instrument to the child (which occurred in the Goto household) something extraordinary transpires,” DeLay says of Midori and others. “The intensity of involvement is like a love affair. It’s probably the single greatest spur to growth one can have.”

Mehli Mehta, a mentor to many and who still teaches violin when not conducting and counseling other instrumentalists at his UCLA-based American Youth Symphony, sees another side.

“Often, mothers can be the culprit,” he says. “Too many of them think they have budding Heifetzes. A few others actually poison desire by pushing and mishandling.”

Mehta cites Lilit Gampel, the local prodigy who, at 13, played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony in 1972. But within a few years she gave up, abruptly left Juilliard and has not been heard of since.

“That girl was a rare talent,” he recalls “like Midori, the real thing. She had the imagination and fire in her playing. But the mother (Eva Gampel) harassed her. She sometimes hid her violin. It was a troubled atmosphere.”

Mrs. Gampel declined to comment. But Lilit, whose whereabouts are unknown, phoned and stayed on the line just briefly. She mentioned, in a quavering voice: “I have not spoken to my mother in quite a number of years.”

Indeed, the stresses put on children in the name of developing their gifts have been great. Yehudi Menuhin, in his 1975 autobiography, “Unfinished Journey,” describes how he “cringed at the sight of another child carrying a violin case to a music lesson as to conviction and sentence, gritting his teeth through the three obligatory daily practice hours.”

But the case of Midori and a few lucky others is different. The positive bonding with her teacher-mother left little room for the usual antagonism of a force-fed child.

“In the first place,” says Zubin Mehta, who auditioned Midori at age 10 and has been a mentor ever since, “these Wunderkinder are like sponges--they learn everything with ease and as quickly as it can be taught. Not just music, but math, language, science.”

He remembers the day Midori toddled into Avery Fisher Hall where the conductor had just concluded a rehearsal with his New York Philharmonic.

“Mrs. (Setsu) Goto trailed behind, carrying her daughter’s fiddle while Midori led the way, a stuffed Snoopy dog tucked under her arm. And then this tiny girl played the big Bartok Concerto (No. 2), completely from memory (with piano accompaniment). And not just the notes, but the surging passion.

“I brought her on a New Year’s Eve program as a surprise to the audience and they went wild, of course. But it was important not to take unfair advantage, so I sent her back to school.”

By that time everyone--artist manager Sheldon Gold, violin gurus Isaac Stern and Pinchas Zukerman and DeLay--was hailing the 10-year-old as some kind of genius. They knew, however, the importance of sheltering her from premature publicity and exploitation.

What happened next, given an era of youth adoration and the instant recognition of the girl’s exceptional prospects, was predictable: Juilliard granted a full scholarship and Gold, president of ICM (International Creative Management), arranged for the Gotos’ financial support.

It’s July, 1986, at Tanglewood and the diminutive virtuosa, who called herself Mi Dori at age 14, has just launched into the complex, final movement of Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade.”

Bernstein himself is conducting the Boston Symphony. What occurs in the course of that movement not only lands Midori’s photo and review on the front page of the New York Times next morning, but makes headlines nationwide:

Mid-phrase, her E string breaks.

The story just begins there. Its news value comes in the absolute unflappability of this teen-ager--part flint, part flower. Without a moment’s hesitation she turns to the momentarily bewildered concertmaster. He finally figures out that she wants to exchange violins and accommodates her.

Several bars later, it happens again--such is the heat of her attack--and another instrument, also full-size rather than her own seven-eighths violin, is dispatched to Midori. She does not drop a beat. (“I just didn’t want to stop the music”), waiting instead for a pause to snap on her chin rest.

For her heroism, she is smothered in kisses by members of the orchestra. Bernstein falls to his knees and hugs her. Naturally, the media descend. This is one of those stunning flukes that has everyone lining up for interviews.

What the publicity director does is crucial.

“Suddenly I found myself fielding requests from TV, magazines, newspapers,” Lee Lamont says. “But we knew how important it was to just sit quietly and discourage the kind of publicity that could turn obscene.

“It would have done Midori a disservice. Regardless of the spotlight it provided, we decided on a wiser option: to carefully time the moment and to allow her to make an impression based on her gifts, not some extramusical incident.”

In the five years Lamont has personally handled Midori she has seen “the drive and dedication, as well as unquestioning focus”--all of which seem peculiar to these extraordinary artists.

“Somehow,” says the manager, “the most talented people have a deep knowledge of their gifts and that knowledge impels them to overcome all the obstacles that can shatter confidence.

“In the case of Midori--who can handle whatever we’ve set out for her (in the way of concert engagements and recordings)--the pace is quicker than it might be for others. If anything, we have to hold her back.

“She has such good instincts that I find myself listening to her arguments. When we disagree the matter gets resolved through discussion. She is amazingly mature and reasonable.”

Midori answers the phone with a chipper “Good morning,” presuming the caller’s identity. Five minutes later she arrives in the restaurant of her Westwood hotel wearing the same jeans and silk shirt from rehearsal two days earlier. An old hand at traveling, she prefers light.

The waiter seats her and asks for a drink order.

“Hot chocolate,” she says. “But is it from a packaged mix?”

The answer is yes.

“Then I’ll have orange pekoe tea.”

“Sorry, we’re out of that one.”

“You are? Then please just bring me some strawberries with half-and-half.”

Nothing wishy-washy about this teen-ager, obviously used to unfamiliar locales and, now, to touring unaccompanied. Her mother, divorced several years ago and remarried, is at home in New York, caring for an 18-month-old child.

“She weaned me gradually,” Midori says, explaining that recently, her mother determined “it was time” to let her independent-minded daughter go off alone to concert engagements in Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.

Things are vastly changed since the two arrived in the United States eight years ago. But even then, Midori says, she took after her mother, who, besides being concertmaster with an Osaka orchestra, “is, and always was, a courageously liberal woman”--often at odds with the traditionally sexist Japanese culture.

“I hardly knew my father,” says the violinist. She dropped the surname that links her to him, using just Midori (which means green in Japanese and is also the name of a melon liqueur). Without any sign of disaffection, she suggests that he was simply not much of a presence in her life, nor in her mother’s.

Her parents had an arranged marriage, Midori explains, one with little happiness. But because of the work structure in Japan, a system that keeps men at their jobs all day and at all-male business “conferences” until late at night, her father was a virtual stranger.

It was an unhappy marriage, Midori explains. “It was always just the two of us, my mother and me.”

When Mrs. Goto noticed her 2-year-old clambering onto the piano bench, reaching with sticky fingers for her prized violin and singing a Bach concerto with perfect intonation, she began teaching the child.

“And she still teaches me. I have so much respect for her. Why? Because of her dedication to me. When she decided to bring me here--for the study opportunities, for a school like Juilliard--we had no money and could not even speak English.

“It took amazing conviction to come alone to a foreign country with a little kid, and to go against the family’s wishes. I like to think I have some of that strong-mindedness.

“Recently I bumped into Zubin Mehta’s secretary, who had made a tape of my audition with him. She gave it to me and what I heard all these years later was me whimpering like a sheep: ‘Mommy, mommy.’ But I wasn’t the submissive girl who quietly did what she was told. Each time he asked me for another piece I would make my ‘mommy’ protest (not wanting to comply at first).

“And even then you could see good instincts for survival. When he wanted a Paganini caprice I played just the middle section of the fifth one, because it was the only part I did well”--according to her own severe standards.

In June, Midori graduates from the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, but “will not attend college right away” as she had planned, simply because of her concert career--80 engagements a season, recordings and so on.

It was three years ago that she left Juilliard and DeLay “because of personal differences I am not ready to talk about yet.” Both Midori and her teacher speak respectfully of each other, honoring a pact not to elaborate on their differences.

Now, after leaving Juilliard, the young artist sees time as the principal dividend of ending her formal training.

“I never realized how much time was spent on those two lessons a week,” she says. “Kids start lining up for Miss DeLay at 9 in the morning and often she doesn’t appear before 4 o’clock. She always took me first, but that (favorite-student position) made me uncomfortable.

“Between school homework, rehearsals and practice there was no time for anything else. Since dropping out of Juilliard the world has opened. I go to concerts and movies and have a special curiosity to hear how this one plays and that one plays. I love it.”

Just the way any other person her age eagerly discovers new interests. In fact, Midori finds the tag of prodigy off-putting and discourages it.

“It’s a word that has little meaning for me,” she says, “except as a negative, because it usually translates to snobbish, neurotic, self-centered. Actually, I hate the label for those reasons. So do my friends Matt Haimovitz and Gil Shaham, who are also stuck with it.”

But she’s fast outgrowing what for her is an epithet. For even though she still looks like a young 13, Midori has transcended the prodigy category.

When autograph hounds spotted her in an audience and asked her to sign another artist’s program book, she demurred. “It’s inappropriate at someone else’s concert,” she said. “The same as being asked to autograph a score. I’m not the composer. It would be like signing the Bible.”

Another tag, thrust on her by the media, she says, is protegee. It links Midori to Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman, Zubin Mehta--all of whom, indeed, have helped her.

“When I was 6 years old I had a big poster of Zubin hanging in my room. He was very handsome. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately (she laughs), he looked different when I met him.

“Everyone watches out for me and I am so grateful. But Zukerman is very much a mentor--he brought me to ICM. Maybe because he went through the prodigy thing he wants to save me from making similar (career) mistakes. When I left Juilliard and was going through a whole depressed time he helped me sort out the issues and to have my own thoughts.

“It was so confusing. The idea that I wouldn’t find the same musical and intellectual stimulation away from Juilliard was pretty believable. But staying on meant holding back (performances), which seemed wrong to me.”

Since that decisive moment there’s been no retreat, although Midori allows that “my mother and Lee (Lamont) still try to put on the brakes” to keep her from performing too often. More and more, however, Midori is making her own decisions and creating her own musical aura. Her single name, for instance, chosen because she does “not know yet what name I will finally have. Miss DeLay kept saying, “Are you sure that’s what you want?’

“One thing that’s still not part of my life is boyfriends,” she says, with a fleetingly thoughtful look. “Because I have so much release in my music. Maybe someday. But I sure would be mad if someone tried to help me with that.”