The great are sometimes very great and sometimes very small. Inthe soaring space of a symphony hall, the violinist Midori looks momentarily lost. But on any stage, she has presence.
In her presence, a roomful of young musicians at the Peabody Conservatory last spring grew silent as Dean Eileen Cline and Rebecca Henry, chair of the preparatory string department, introduced Midori. She had made her concert debut at age 11. Now 19, Midori Goto (she never uses her last name in public) stood at the foot of the stage in North Hall with its high windows and bare wood floor to talk with schoolchildren, high school boys, adolescent girls, at least one of whom, like Midori, hopes fervently to grow taller than her mother.
Midori laughed as she shared that wish later, walking across a plaza where the warm sun beamed down. During the group interview, her remarks had been more to the point. Who is her favorite composer? Performer? ''Well,'' she prefaced each response and then smiled: she really likes them all.
How much does she practice? Practicing, she tells them, is just like reading or other pleasures. ''If I'm home, I like to practice all day.''
What does she do when she is not practicing? She reads, cooks, knits, listens to music:
''. . . always, the music is going on somewhere.''
she has a collection of 2,000 compact discs. In New York, concerts abound. For the 85 concerts she gives each year, she studies eight or nine concertos. The life and work of each composer, the style of each period, the interpretations that notes and dynamics invite. She plays music as happily as she plays with her little brother, her puppies, her friends. Clearly, she is happy, the emphasis on the present tense.
We think of music as a matter of the past tense. Most musicians have long careers behind them; much of the classical repertoire is centuries old. But music schools like the Peabody Institute, a division of Johns Hopkins University, remind us that music plays a role in the present. Of the 5,000 students enrolled this year in Peabody programs, 543 are registered in the Conservatory and more than 2,000 pre-college youngsters take lessons in the Peabody Prep.
Few among them will attain the stature of Midori or of 23-year-old Joshua Bell, who performs Mozart with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tonight, though 11-year-old Hillary Hahn, a former Peabody pupil now in her first year at the Curtis Institute, is to make her debut with the BSO on Dec. 21.
Fame, however, is not the end of music study. Performance is the plum, and performance is decidedly a matter of the present )) tense. There is a tension to live performance that is immediate and wonderful.
''I feel most myself when I'm on stage,'' Midori told the young musicians, and they nodded their heads. They, too, love to perform. Artistic performance is a coveted and fleeting thing, a work of art that hovers for just moments -- and then is gone. Technology beguiles us into believing we can hold fast the present for the future, but we cannot. Technology only replicates. It is art which represents.
For the duration of a song, a cantata, a march, a symphony, the present, embodying the past, fans out, suffused with the tension that comes when one stretches a span of time to be apprehended. As though it were brand-new, the work of Bach, of Mozart, of Copland, of Eubie Blake washes like waves across sand until the sound disappears and all is silent again.
Peabody gives to all its young musicians a chance to learn to re-present. It is a gift of rare worth. The artistic act is elusive. The art of making art resides in artists, and they live only the length of a lifetime. They teach the young in order that artistry not die. Midori, who now lives in New York, came to this country to study at Juilliard. Joshua Bell studied with Josef Gingold.
''I treasure,'' Joshua says, ''his link to the past generations of great violinists: Ysaye, Kreisler, Heifetz, Elman.''
Musicians come to Peabody from all over the world and also from all walks all over Maryland. In North Hall before Midori sat young violinists and their teachers in a week when recitals were in progress, as they are this season.
Such performance at Peabody is a culmination of lesson upon lesson. Teachers pass to their pupils as a legacy all that they know to teach. Great teachers effect great change through matters very small. A teacher watches a tiny, cramped hand scrape a bow across a string. Through waves of memory, the teacher feels her hand cradled by still another, reaching even farther back through a sea of remembrance to the feel of fingers curved into an arch.
''Ah,'' says the teacher, gently shaping small knuckles. ''Soften your fingers.'' The hand relaxes and draws the bow again. The strings ring. An unbroken flow of pedagogy winds through the oceans of time.