It’s always nice when superstar musicians take up the cause of contemporary music. They give it a chance that it wouldn’t otherwise have to reach a wider public and new ears. What’s more, said public, theoretically at least, will approach the music more sympathetically, the logic being that if said superstar is playing it, the music couldn’t be all that bad. A win-win situation.
On the first leg of a mini recital tour dedicated to thorny things and winding up at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall later this month, the violinist Midori stopped by Samueli Theater in Costa Mesa Wednesday night. She lives just up the road in Los Angeles, of course, and teaches at USC. A sizable, but not sold-out audience showed up to hear her. The Philharmonic Society of Orange County presented the event as part of its season-long Japan/OC festival (in collaboration with Carnegie).
It proved an odd evening; also rather a dull one. Though no stranger to contemporary music, Midori didn’t seem to have what it takes to put much of this music across. She tuned quite a bit between pieces and movements, remained glued to the scores, didn’t give much of a sense of communing with her audience (and spoke not a word). She played for a total of 59 minutes (not including a 25 minute intermission). There was no encore, but then the audience, which remained firmly seated for once, didn’t really call for one.
Perhaps she’s not quite comfortable with the music yet. At any rate, her slender tone and etched phrases, while not necessarily deficient in intensity, lacked a certain something, a personable communicativeness or theatricality or athleticism that left a lot of this music undigested.
Then, too, there were the pieces she had selected, hardly home runs and that’s OK, but taken together not amounting to much. Her opener, “Coruscation and Reflection” by the Welsh composer Huw Watkins, written when he was 23, seemed especially minor, a bag of atonal clichés, though painless enough at nine minutes in length.
Brett Dean’s “Berlin Music,” commissioned by Midori and here receiving its U.S. premiere, had a little more on its mind. In five short movements and lasting 20 minutes, “Berlin Music” jostles and ruminates pithily, having its say, and then moving right on. The violinist is required to tune the G string to F, which creates dusky colors. In the third and most satisfying movement – entitled “The Last Practice Room on the Left (perpetuum mobile – with apologies to M.R.)” – the violist uses a practice mute and the pianist switches to an upright piano, which is also muted. This movement is full of running notes and syncopations, heard as if from another room.
Toshio Hosokawa’s austere “Vertical Time Study III” suited Midori’s style the best of the works presented here, its isolated jabs separated by silences, stillnesses and slippery whispers (some played so softly that the air conditioning was louder) like a lightning storm viewed from a distance in the middle of the night.
James MacMillan’s super-brief “After the Tryst” took a Scottish-style ballad and broke its line up with modernistic decorations.
To end, Midori brought out a relative familiarity — John Adams’ “Road Movies.” It’s an exercise in jagged, ragged minimalism, with a “Meditative” slow movement, and generally a lot of fun (its finale is called “40% Swing”). Here, Midori’s earnestness got in the way; she needed to relax and let fly, and warm up the slow movement.
Pianist Charles Abramovic had an easier time with it, but elsewhere labored under less than ideal conditions. With the piano lid fully open, he was forced to tamper down his playing – both in volume and expressiveness – to suit the soloist. As a result, he ended up in Nowheresville.