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Midori is sweet on Los Angeles

In 2006, the former violin wunderkind moved to L.A., where she has transformed herself into an academic at USC. She still performs, of course, including this weekend at Disney Hall.

January 11, 2013|By David Ng, Los Angeles Times
  • Midori is no stranger to the L.A. stage. On Friday, she’ll debut a new concerto in a performance with the L.A. Phil at Disney Hall.
Midori is no stranger to the L.A. stage. On Friday, she’ll debut a… (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles…)

Since she made her solo debut at age 11 in 1982, violinist Midori has grown up — and grown middle-aged — under the full glare of the media.

Reporters dubbed her a child prodigy when she first stunned audiences as a last-minute substitute with the New York Philharmonic. They chronicled her ascent to adolescent superstardom, a status cemented when at age 14, she went through three violins in a single Tanglewood concert. The media continued to follow her as she matured into a venerated soloist.

The latest chapter in the Midori saga is perhaps the least flashy but may be the most unexpected. It could simply be titled "Midori, Angeleno."

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Six years ago, the Japan-born violinist picked up and left New York, the city where she grew up, and settled in Los Angeles, the city she now calls home.

For musicians of her fame and caliber, "home" is often just a glorified layover in between international flights. For Midori, however, L.A. has come to mean much more than that.

In 2004, Midori was named a professor at USC's Thornton School of Music. After a period of bicoastal commuting, she settled full time in L.A in 2006. She was promoted to the head of the strings department the following year.

"I have to say it was so unthinkable for such a long time to move out of New York," she recalled in a recent interview at her USC office. Dressed in a simple white shirt and a long skirt, with her hair in a French braid, Midori was fighting a persistent cough but was otherwise in good spirits.

"More than anything else, people identify me as someone from New York. But I'm very happy here. So much of it is tied to this job, and I'm very happy in this job."

The L.A. chapter of Midori's fascinating, complicated life has seen the violinist transform herself into a full-fledged academic. Among her students, she is known rather formally as Professor Goto. (Her full name is Midori Goto.) Her USC title — the Jascha Heifetz Endowed Chair in Violin — sounds exalted, but much of her time is given over to administrative duties, ranging from admissions to budgetary matters.

She even takes care of the occasional student disciplinary problem. In the same evening as the interview, she had to inform a student that she was failing her courses. (That meeting was off-limits to a journalist.)

"I like to know what's going on with students. I have to stay involved," Midori said.

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The concert side of her career — what "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer described in a 1992 profile as "a road trip without end" — is nowhere near as grueling as it was during her teenage years. But she continues to perform regularly, with more than 70 concerts and recitals last year alone.

On Friday, Midori will debut a new concerto written for her by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös, titled "DoReMi." The concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall repeats Saturday and Jan. 20. The violinist has been a regular performer in Southern California; her last appearance at Disney Hall was a recital in 2010, and she performed a recital in Costa Mesa in 2011.

Midori has been practicing the Eötvös concerto on and off for several weeks. "I'm having a great time learning it," she said. The piece "has me playing quite often in the high registers, so yes, it's challenging. Is it unplayable? No. It's very idiomatic."

Midori also will perform the piece later this year at the BBC Proms and with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, both of which co-commissioned the work with the L.A. Philharmonic.

Midori said she personally chose Eötvös to write the piece after he was recommended by conductor Christoph Eschenbach, a close friend. "I take anything he suggests very seriously," she said.

Her peers describe Midori as an ideal fusion of an instinctual musician and intellectual.

"She's very probing and introspective. She's definitely a thinking artist," said Glenn Dicterow, concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, speaking by phone from New York.

Dicterow will become a USC colleague when he joins the faculty in the fall. He said Midori attended a master class he gave on campus, recalling that she arrived straight from the airport after a long flight from Europe.

"That's the way she is. She has a lot of energy."

A focused intensity

It can be difficult to believe that Midori is already 41. At the same time, this former wunderkind has been famous for so long, it's hard to believe she's only 41.

Still physically petite, she could easily be confused for a student. But in terms of temperament, she has shed most traces of the woman-child "moppet" that her harsher critics called her during her youth.

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