Midori's goodness reaches beyond violin

Concert: The musician -- once a child prodigy -- gives her time and effort to help kids get music education.

October 20, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But there are exceptions to that rule -- people so good that they're incapable of being corrupted, such as the violinist Midori.

She's got the power to charge one of the highest fees in classical music and draw sellout crowds no matter how high the ticket prices. That's why the Peabody Conservatory wanted to engage her for the benefit recital that the violinist and her longtime collaborator and Peabody professor of piano, Robert McDonald, give tonight in Friedberg Hall.

With tickets going for $50 and $150, even if Midori charged her usual fee, the Peabody would clear more than $100,000.

But the possibility of Midori charging an educational institution for playing is on the order of the president of the Sierra Club chopping down California's oldest Sequoia. She's got a talent for giving money away that matches her ability to play the violin.

She turns down dozens of concerts each season to devote herself to the work of the foundation she has created, Midori and Friends, which currently brings complete four-year music education programs -- at no cost -- to every child at eight inner-city schools in New York, where Midori makes her home and where she plans to expand the program to six years and extend it to several other schools.

"I love working with kids," says the violinist, 27, who also spends two weeks every season playing for school children in her homeland, Japan, from which she departed as an 8-year-old to attend the Juilliard School.

"They're so direct," Midori says of children. "They tell you immediately why they like something and why they don't. They're quite wonderful!"

That she loves children is undeniable. The way she goes on with uncontainable delight about the achievements of her 11-year-old brother, Ryu (or J.R., as he prefers to be called), also a violinist, makes her sound like a Jewish mother.

"He's so talented! And unlike me -- I'm a klutz -- he's such a good athlete. He's an adorable little boy -- though he would die if he heard me say that."

Violinist Isaac Stern says it's relatively easy to explain Midori's devotion to good works.

"She has all the gifts that one person could possibly have -- she's beautiful, she's talented and she has a brilliant, inquisitive mind," Stern says. "But to whom much is given, much is expected -- and Midori feels that expectation keenly."

That her energies are directed toward young people is even easier to explain, Stern says.

"The reason for her all-consuming love of children is that she was one of the most extraordinary child prodigies since Mozart," he says. "She loves kids because she was never around kids when she was a kid."

Indeed, it must seem to some people that Midori was never young: a much-talked-about New York Philharmonic debut at age 10; a front-page headline in the New York Times a few years later ("Girl, 14, Conquers Tanglewood with 3 Violins"), occasioned by her unfazed, flawless performance of Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade" -- with the composer himself conducting -- on a third borrowed violin after successive string breaks on her own violin and a first replacement violin.

Violinist Pinchas Zukerman vividly remembers the first time he heard Midori at the Aspen Festival.

"Here is this child who walks out with a stuffed animal and a half-sized violin almost as big as she is, and she plays the Bartok Violin Concerto so beautifully that I began to cry," Zukerman says. "Then I ask her if she plays anything else and she says, `Yes, the Sauret cadenza of the Paganini concerto.' Less than 10 years old and she already plays the Sauret like only a few people in the universe can do at any time -- and I'm talking about forever!"

But while she may have played with the uncanny authority of an adult, Midori was indeed a child when she became famous, and making the transition to adulthood is difficult enough without having to do it in public.

"I had reason to be concerned for her in the past," Zukerman says. "And I didn't breathe easily until she came out of the woods a few years ago."

An eating disorder and subsequent treatment forced Midori to cancel four months of appearances in the fall of 1994. Until her illness became quasi-public knowledge, people used to be charmed by Midori's slenderly ethereal, almost bird-like appearance and the fact that she seemed only to eat salads and desserts.

But many teen-age girls and young women suffer from such an affliction, and Midori is not convinced that her life as a much-publicized prodigy made growing up more difficult than it might have been otherwise.

"That's very difficult to know," she says. "We all have our blessings and afflictions. We have our set of good things and bad things that we have to go through in order to mature."

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