Classical music may be finally reaching beyond its traditional listenership, but it was decades ago that violinist Midori homed in on “trying to access those populations that might have a difficult time accessing us,” as she put it when she was appointed to the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music four years ago.
It was no doubt this sustained belief in the artist as someone with a responsibility to underserved listeners —as a humanitarian — that recently helped bring the Philadelphia-based Midori a 2021 Kennedy Center Honor along with Joan Baez, Garth Brooks, Debbie Allen, and Dick Van Dyke.
But who is Midori the musician these days? She came into public consciousness as a wunderkind. If her Friday evening Philadelphia recital is any gauge, it’s clear now that, at age 49, she is in her artistic prime. This last concert of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s season was on paper a traditional one: Dvorak, Debussy, Brahms. In execution, though, it put a magnifying glass on Midori and pianist Ieva Jokubaviciute as two highly charismatic personalities operating with a single vision.
The recital at the American Philosophical Society, near Independence Hall, capped a pandemic-era PCMS season that could be experienced live or online (some of the society’s concerts next season will continue to be streamed). Friday I chose live and in person with about 40 others, with perhaps a couple of thousand listening live and later from around the globe.
Revisiting the concert online the next morning, it wasn’t nearly as satisfying. Part of the difference is the pleasure of being in the room when the reduced population of bodies does wonderful things for the acoustic. The piano in residence there, a Hamburg Steinway previously in use at Carnegie Hall, has a floating quality that opens up in the emptier space. Jokubaviciute, with her great sense of fluidity, made the most of it.
The you-just-had-to-be-there aspect of this concert also had to do with the violinist herself. Midori has an intensity to her playing that doesn’t shout but that draws you in and reveals itself in layers. She has a way of bringing you around to her way of hearing things.
It happens even when she defies your conception of how a piece goes. My own hardwired view of the Brahms sonatas for violin and piano was formed by Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recordings with pianist Lambert Orkis in which the violinist takes a lot of liberties. Midori’s approach is not that. In the Sonata in D Minor, Opus 108, she carefully managed the drama. There was no exaggeration. But there was a kind of rolling fervor, and when she introduced emotion, it really meant something. The arc seemed to build over four movements, reaching an apex in the last one. It was, as the movement’s marking suggests, truly agitated.
Midori has an incredible sound, to be sure. But which one? In Debussy’s Violin Sonata there were a dozen colors, and the portamenti (slides from one note to the next) were carefully calculated. Violinist and pianist tapped into a depth of emotion in more than a couple of spots.
I admit to not particularly looking forward to the Dvorak. His Sonatina in G Major often strikes me as a little bland. But the two players found so much to love between the notes that it seemed like a different piece. Midori treated each phrase with a high level of detail — a dry sound here, a saturated sound there — yet she retained the overall sweep. The way she introduced just a hint of hesitation into the springy rhythm of the last movement was beautifully nuanced and sophisticated.
More than once during the evening, though, I found myself captivated by the simplest musical building block: this violinist holding a single note for a few seconds. Sound was as a living thing, and in these moments Midori the musician and Midori the humanitarian seemed to fuse.
Midori’s PCMS recital is available online through 6 p.m. Monday. For one week, from May 30 through June 6, PCMS is making available online nearly all of the concerts that originally streamed from January through the end of the season. pcmsconcerts.org.