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REVIEW: Midori Plays Transcendent Bach at The Conrad

San Diego Story

Kenneth Herman

April 21, 2023


Entering The Conrad’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall Thursday, I was surprised to see a completely empty stage. Typically, at very least a few chairs and music stands are in place, not to mention the nine-foot Steinway.

I quickly realized that Midori, the evening’s headliner, is arguably the most self-contained of musical performers. She played half of J. S. Bach’s six unaccompanied violin works—two sonatas and a partita—and a pair of shorter contemporary solo violin compositions. These served as the sorbet servings between the main courses. Midori returns on Friday, April 21,  to play the rest of Bach’s solo violin works.

For two solid hours, Midori and her violin produced every note that filled the welcoming acoustic of Baker-Baum. And it was as rich a musical feast as hearing a symphony orchestra.

Midori knew how to set the optimal conditions for her performance. She began by playing the opening phrases of J. S. Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003, pianissimo, which immediately brought the room to an astonishingly quiet level. Although Baker-Baum was just a few empty sets below capacity, I cannot recall a 500-member audience in that hall as silent and as focused for an entire concert.

Bach marked the first movement of Sonata No. 2 Grave, and Midori’s haunting interpretation allowed its deft arabesques and ample ornamentation to gently suffuse the hall. And her dynamic level never exceeded mezzo-piano. In Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas, the second movement is always a fugue, and Midori pursued this sonata’s jaunty, angular fugue subject through its contrapuntal mazes with undaunted drive and astonishing finesse.

I believe I should say something about J. S. Bach’s daunting fugal writing for the violin. As an organist, Bach was arguably the most accomplished master of his time, able to improvise a six-voice fugue at the drop of a hat. Every Bach biographer recounts the vaunted 1717 contest in Dresden between the celebrated French organist Louis Marchand and Bach. Once Marchand heard Bach play, he quickly left town without explanation.

Although many of Bach’s organ fugues are technically quite demanding, at least the organist has two hands, multiple keyboards, as well as two feet and a pedal clavier with which to realize the score. For the violinist, the feet are of no musical use, and one hand is holding the bow—which means the violinist has only the other hand to manipulate the violin’s four strings to produce different pitches. As Eric Bromberger explained in his program notes, we know that Bach played the violin, but we have no historical evidence that tells us if his violin technique was as amazing as his organ technique. But it is clear that Bach’s fugal writing for the violin is of the highest order, and on Thursday Midori played Bach’s fugues at blistering tempos that nevertheless maintained breathtaking note-for-note precision.

In the Andante, Midori floated a serene cantilena over a hushed repeated-note accompaniment that suggested an opalescent glow. Her closing movement, an explosive yet disciplined Allegro, completed the A Minor Sonata with ravishing delight.

Her other Bach unaccompanied sonata, the Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005, followed the same movement pattern as the Second Sonata. In this sonata, the opening movement features quiet double stops and is unified by a stately dotted-rhythm ostinato. The fugue subject in the C Major Sonata fugue is more demanding—almost theatrical—than the A Minor Sonata fugue, and Midori delivered it with panache. Midori endowed the peaceful Largo with an ethereal glimmer that suggested a lush Chopin nocturne.

Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004, is known for its stately Chaconne that concludes its four dance movements: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gigue. Midori not only delivered the expansive Chaconne’s complex counterpoint—which is built upon a repeated bass line—with utmost command; she also brought out the sublime lyricism of its profuse thematic transformations that significantly raised her Chaconne above a merely laudable feat.

Annie Gosfield’s 2012 Long Waves and Random Pulses, an austere yet almost rhapsodic etude, brings the wild roulades and contrasting slow, random themes that frequently reside in electronic music to the acoustic stage. A demanding work that requires a violinist of Midori’s caliber, Gosfield’s etude would require multiple hearings to discern a clear structural pattern, but its aggressive ideas leave their mark.

French virtuoso organist and composer Thierry Escaich’s Nunn Komm, a shorter but equally concentrated etude, sported more extended techniques than Gosfield’s piece, but Midori’s confident delivery engaged this listener’s attention.

This program was presented by the La Jolla Music Society at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla on Thursday, April 20, 2023. Midori returns to The Conrad on April 21 to play the remainder of J. S. Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas.