Photo: Timothy Greenfield
The timing couldn’t have been better for the Houston Symphony (and its audiences), which this past weekend witnessed Midori just days after the international superstar violinist was named a 2021 Kennedy Center honoree.
The other names receiving the award this year — native Houstonian Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Garth Brooks, and Dick Van Dyke — provide a hint of Midori’s cultural stature. Now 49, she made her professional debut with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic at age 11 and steadily advanced through the ranks of the planet’s most lauded and recognizable violinists. (Through her Midori & Friends foundation and other humanitarian endeavors, she has also made incalculable contributions to the field of music education.)
In Houston, her latest appearance amounted to a dream match-up of performer and repertoire, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major. Completed in 1806, around the time of his Fourth Symphony, his only violin concerto is a work of exceedingly rare beauty and warmth. Midori’s interpretation, in a word, was simply magical.
Introduced by a five-note tympani motif that recurs throughout the opening movement, almost like a knock, the concerto began with a long, flowing passage that radiated serenity and goodwill. This is peak Beethoven, the maestro at his most blissful and benevolent. Under the direction of Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director laureate of the Fort Worth Symphony, the orchestra cradled the melody as it built up to a resplendent crescendo.
Upon entering, Midori swirled that melody to the upper reaches of her violin’s register, her body tracing the music’s contours with a gymnast’s control. At times she seemed to grow taller the longer she held onto a note. Her interplay with Harth-Bedoya and the orchestra was so fluid Midori often seemed to be leading them through a maze, outcroppings of cello and winds providing the boundaries.
Her athletic performance was matched by an equally robust expressiveness; her tone remained luminous even during the most difficult parts. In the movement’s final moments, the orchestra all but dropped out as Midori broke down Beethoven’s original theme to almost a molecular level in a flurry of double stops (playing two strings at once) and slashing strokes.
When it was all over, she had worked over her violin so hard she had to retune before beginning the second movement.
Unhurried and serene, the middle of the concerto shone the spotlight squarely on Midori’s melodic gifts, often with minimal accompaniment. Cushioned by the winds’ fireside-warm harmonies or feathery pizzicato, her delicate and yearning solos created several stirring moments when the world just seems to fall away.
The final movement, a spirited rondo, began with Midori unspooling a merry tune that the orchestra quickly scaled up into one of those quintessentially Beethoven moments of thunderous joy. Back and forth it went until an extended cadenza that created a slippery river of notes feeding into an astonishing finish — one last melody from Midori, and a final pair of emphatic chords by the orchestra. No encore was needed; the audience was already speechless.
The concert opened with two shorter pieces by composers with distinct Texas ties. Written in 2019, the brief “Lightspeed (Fanfare for Orchestra),” by Arlington native Kevin Day, was brimming with cinematic optimism and booming percussion, closing with a memorable melody that evoked the horizon at sunrise.
Next, from onetime Houston Symphony composer-in-residence Gabriela Lena Frank (2014-17) came “Elegia Andina,” an evocative exploration of her multicultural heritage that moved from moments of turbulence and dissonance to an ethereal flute duet between Matthew Roitstein and Kathryn Ladner.
The evening may have been all about Midori, but these compelling and challenging contemporary pieces certainly made a nice bonus.
Chris Gray is a Galveston-based writer