If you think that superstar performers on international tours always stick to the old chestnuts of the standard repertoire, Midori is here to disabuse you of that notion. In between performances in Washington, DC, and London, the legendary violinist stopped by Manhattan’s (Le) Poisson Rouge with a fiercely contemporary program of unrelenting thorniness.
The heart of the recital, in the middle of the second half, was Unruly Strands, a new work by Tamar Diesendruck that’s being premiered on this tour. It’s a long work, full of cryptic, bustling gestures and fragmentary silences, and I found the structure hard to follow. It felt not unlike listening to the sounds of a deserted forest clearing: you can find striking moments in the chatter of squirrels and the rustle of leaves, but those individual moments don’t build on each other into a larger design.
Still, there are two passages in the work that are going to stick with me: a doleful sequence of disjointed chords weighed down with exhaustion, and a creepy interlude where the pianist, Ieva Jokubaviciute, spread her arms wide to play an obsessive melody in parallel at the upper and lower extremes of her instrument’s range. Strangely, Jokubaviciute was not credited on (Le) Poisson Rouge’s website, and there were no programs for the concert. Midori did announce the composers, though not necessarily the piece titles, from the stage before the concert began. I had to go back to the initial press release to fill in the missing information; I suspect many in the audience never filled it in at all.
Quasare/Pulsare, by Olga Neuwirth, was more taut in its construction, but was ill served by the hall. The work is full of subtle moments of timbral exploration, too many of which were simply inaudible from where I was standing, covered up by the clink of bartenders collecting glasses and the incessant whisper of water rushing through a duct somewhere over my head. Midori and Jokubaviciute seemed to be playing with focus and intensity; I only wish I could have heard everything I saw them doing. Similar problems plagued the central section of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Dancer on a Tightrope, though the brash deconstructed-Romantic-showpiece opening and darkly religious closing came across loud and clear.
Against these sere, abstracted works, the first and last pieces passed for lighter fare. The evening began with Vivian Fung’s Birdsong, a rowdy moto perpetuo followed by a fleeting, insubstantial second movement. It ended with Habil Sayagi, a good-humored work by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh that blends the folk music of her native Azerbaijan with mid-century Modernism. If that makes it sound like a cheesy bit of post-Romantic schlock, it’s not—the bulk of the piece is pensive, so much so that, coming right after the Diesendruck, its protracted opening felt like more of the same instead of something new; a different program order might have allowed the opening drones to pop better.
Indeed, the whole piece is tightly constrained, its climactic fiddle dance accompanied not with piano pyrotechnics but a steady rhythmic tapping on the closed keyboard lid. The sybarite in me wanted more. Call me an uncultured bumpkin for saying so, but sometimes a little schmaltz is good for the soul. Ali-Zadeh’s ending was lively, but it left the barn decidedly unburned.
Midori’s stage presence is captivating, but isn’t necessarily what you’d expect from an international star. She doesn’t radiate glitz or glamor, she’s just this unassuming person who can pick up a violin and play an evening of tortuously difficult music with the unflappable ease of an able-bodied person walking over flat, well-lit ground. Mid-piece, she’s endlessly mutable: now implacably stern, now tender, now playful and downright folksy. Jokubaviciute more than held her own; this wasn’t a superstar soloist and her anonymous accompanist, but a duet between equals.
It’s a rare treat to hear a full evening of 20th- and 21st-century work played in an intimate venue with the impeccable polish normally reserved for the 10,000th performance of a Brahms sonata. For all that some of the music left me wanting, I’m still very glad I went.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.