Music in the balance

Violinist Midori has left her naysayers searching for words, maturing from a child prodigy into an adult with many interests and many successes.

January 04, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

She's a woman with one name, but multiple lives.

Midori's fame as a violinist reveals only part of her story. In addition to a steady schedule of concert engagements, including a stint playing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week, she is heavily involved with the nonprofit organization she founded to enhance music education in New York City public schools.

She also plans to add violin teaching to her schedule next fall, joining the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. And having recently earned a bachelor's degree from New York University - not in music, but psychology - she's working on a master's in the same field, which she expects to complete in 2002. She doesn't rule out the possibility of starting work on another degree after that.

"There are many different fields that interest me," she says between sips of tea at her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. "Architecture, communications, sociology. I'm not so much into pure science, like chemistry - oooh! But I love, love, love school. It has given me such a grounding force."

Evidence of that grounding comes through in the articulate way she talks about herself. When she says, "I think I'm well-centered," there's no doubt how focused Midori is, how comfortable she is with who she is and the choices she has made.

"The reason I got interested in psychology initially is that I'm fascinated by how the mind works," she says. "And it's so practical. I can apply it to so many parts of my life. Psychology is a way to explain what's already there, what you already do anyway. I'm interested in finding out how much of what we do is the work of nature and of how much of nurture."

Midori herself might be called a well-nurtured force of nature.

Born Goto Mi Dori in Osaka, Japan, she received her first violin lessons from her mother and gave her first public concert at 6. Five years later, she made her New York Philharmonic debut.

At 14, she hit the front page of the New York Times, having caused a sensation during another appearance with the Philharmonic. In the middle of playing Leonard Bernstein's "Serenade," with the composer conducting and watching her incredulously, she broke a string on her violin, borrowed the concertmaster's fiddle, broke another string and borrowed another fiddle - never missing a note of the music and maintaining perfect composure throughout the performance.

In short order, she debuted on the world's major concert stages and on television (including a special taped at the White House during the Reagan era). Midori became the most celebrated prodigy in years, hailed not only for the jaw-dropping technical wizardry - precise pitch, supple fingering, warm tone - but the mature expressiveness behind her playing.

Despite many predictions that she wouldn't make a successful transition to adult artist, Midori has had naysayers changing their tune. At 29, she remains a major classical music star.

Sitting in a dining nook next to the kitchen of her flat, which she shares with a female roommate and two affectionate dogs, Midori couldn't look more un-starlike. No makeup. Hair uncoiffed, held back by a simple headband. Barefoot. A long, plain skirt.

But behind the disarming appearance, something about the eyes - the steadiness and intensity of the gaze - reflects the seriousness and sincerity that separates Midori from the merely talented. Her artistic gifts have only ripened with time. And whatever scars she may carry from the prodigy years, growing up largely under public scrutiny, she hides well.

"When you are 11, 12, 13, you are trying to gain a sense of identity," Midori says. "But when you're a prodigy, you're constantly being told what your identity is, and you are put in a position of being someone who can do no wrong. At the same time, you are told that being a prodigy is not so positive."

Balanced life

While some musical prodigies, like some child movie stars, have ended up estranged from their families, Midori enjoys good relationships with her mother, stepfather and 13-year-old stepbrother (also a violinist). They live in the same building.

The violinist learned early on that "there is so much disparity between what is real and the pedestal you are put on as a child performer." But she was not allowed to stay on that perch.

"I was very lucky," Midori says. "I had a very balanced environment. I was not excused from school or from the basic responsibilities of being a child. I wasn't chauffeured to school in limousines."

Looking back now on her early years, Midori expresses neither bitterness nor regret.

"As my brother says, `Without pain there is no pleasure, and without pleasure there is no pain.' Without both sides you don't become a balanced being; you can't really be who you are right now without having those experiences."

Midori, who says it's impossible to "filter out everything that can potentially harm you," sums up her childhood experience matter-of-factly.

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