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Midori reflects on her quintessential prodigy story and what it means to be a performer

This week, the annual Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime artistic achievement are being awarded, remotely. One of the honorees is the world-renowned violinist Midori. Starting as a child, the now 49-year-old has wowed audiences for decades, and has been a champion for music around the globe. Jeffrey Brown spoke with her for our arts and culture series, CANVAS.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    It is an award of a lifetime, this year, a virtual Kennedy Center Honors spotlighting Midori.

    Jeffrey Brown spoke with the world-renowned violinist for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the violinist Midori, finding her way into Bach and other great composers is about continuing to look and listen anew.

  • Midori:

    I see different things.

    I see things around me changing. I see different sceneries. I see things that are different that I hadn't noticed before, but it can't be different. The music was already written.

    But, suddenly, I notice different things. And it's me noticing it. And I'm always so excited by this process. And it's the process that actually get me to continue.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's a process that began as a child, when the world first got to know Midori, in some ways the quintessential prodigy story, a Japanese-born daughter of a violinist mother, her first teacher, soloist at age 11 with the New York Philharmonic at a New Year's Eve concert led by conductor Zubin Mehta, recordings, performances all over the globe, including one at 14 at Tanglewood with Leonard Bernstein, in which she broke two strings on her violin, but continued without missing a note.

    It was front-page news in The New York Times, which marveled at her poise. But Midori herself took it in stride.

  • Midori:

    I guess, as a 14-year-old I thought, well, what's the big deal? I broke the string, and not the first time, not the last time.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Was all the attention as a child musician something you wanted to ignore or something that didn't even interest you?

  • Midori:

    I think I was always just taking things as they came. And also, when the strings broke, I took it as, it happened, but that's basically very much the way I have lived my life.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The Kennedy Center Honor speaks directly to that, not just the music-making, but a life of advocacy on behalf of its transformative power.

    At just 21, she started the organization Midori & Friends to bring music access and education into New York City public schools, now reaching some 75 of them.

    You said something I find interesting, that you didn't decide to become a professional musician until you were in your 20s, even though you already had a celebrated career. What does that mean?

  • Midori:

    I think it was very, very important.

    It was a decisive point that I made a conscious decision to pursue a career. It also meant that I would actually become much more aware of the responsibilities of having a career and what that meant. And now we talk so much to our younger musicians about how being a performer doesn't mean that it's about standing up on stage and performing, and that's it.

    It's not. And I think that's when I recognized, when I decided that I wanted to take on the career, that there was so much I wanted to do, I needed to do, I was expected to do. That recognition, I think, somehow made a click in my head.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    More projects followed, working with young people throughout Asia, and with community music groups and youth orchestras around the U.S., including outside major urban centers.

  • Midori:

    As a youngster, I never made a choice. I never felt like I had to give up something because I had to practice. That was never the case.

    But it was more, after I decided that I wanted this as a career, that I decided that sometimes I need to make choices. Sometimes, it would mean that I would not be able to accept an engagement because I was committed to visiting a group of people and sharing the music or teaching about music or talking about music, advocating for music.

    All my programs are based in the idea, this belief that music can bring people together.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The recording and performing continue:, including a new Beethoven with the Festival Strings Lucerne, and, especially exciting to her, commissions for new works with contemporary composers.

  • Midori:

    I keep sharing this idea with the students and youth orchestras. We're the agents that are able to bring this out to the world and that can share this with others.

    We're the ones that are giving life to this new music. And to be able to work with living composers, to work with contemporary compositions, new ideas about how to make sound, how to produce sound, new concepts about music, these are just absolutely exciting.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And your own life, it isn't complete unless you're doing both, playing music and doing these projects with people around the world?

  • Midori:

    I can't imagine my life without my projects, no. No, I can't.

    It would be — yes, it would be very strange. But I also can't think of my life without performing and without practicing. For me, life in music isn't just certain things. It's just everything together for me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    With pandemic restraints now easing, Midori is eager to perform live, and has dates lined up domestically and abroad through the summer.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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