Violinist  Midori

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Midori Goto (五嶋 みどり, Gotō Midori, born October 25, 1971) who performs under the mononym Midori, is a Japanese-born American violinist. She made her debut with the New York Philharmonic at age 11 as a surprise guest soloist at the New Year's Eve Gala in 1982. In 1986 her performance at the Tanglewood Music Festival with Leonard Bernstein conducting his own composition made the front-page headlines in The New York Times. Midori became a celebrated child prodigy, and one of the world's preeminent violinists as an adult.

Midori has been honored as an educator and for her community engagement endeavors. When she was 21, she established her foundation Midori and Friends to bring music education to young people in underserved communities in New York City and Japan, which has evolved into four distinct organizations with worldwide impact. In 2007, Midori was appointed as a UN Messenger of Peace. In 2018 she joined the violin faculty at the Curtis Institute while remaining on the USC Thornton School Of Music Violin faculty holding the Judge Widney Professor of Music Chair. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2012.

midori Midori gave her first public performance at the age of six, playing one of the 24 Caprices of Paganini in her native Osaka. In 1982 she and her mother moved to New York City, where Midori started violin studies with Dorothy DeLay at the Pre-College Division of Juilliard School and the Aspen Music Festival and School. As her audition piece, Midori performed Bach's thirteen-minute-long Chaconne, generally considered one of the most difficult solo violin pieces. In the same year, she made her concert debut with the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, a conductor with whom she would later record on the Sony Classical label.

In 1986 came her legendary performance of Leonard Bernstein's Serenade at Tanglewood, conducted by Bernstein [shown together in the photo at right]. During the performance, she broke the E string on her violin, then again on the concertmaster's Stradivarius after she borrowed it. She finished the performance with the associate concertmaster's Guadagnini and received a standing ovation. The next day's The New York Times front page carried the headline, "Girl, 14, Conquers Tanglewood with 3 Violins".

When Midori was 15, she left Juilliard Pre-College after four years and became a full-time professional violinist. In October 1989, she celebrated her 18th birthday with her Carnegie Hall orchestral debut, playing Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2. She made her Carnegie Hall recital debut in 1990 four days before her 19th birthday. Both performances were critically acclaimed. In 1990, she also graduated from the Professional Children's School which she attended for academic subjects.

In 1992, she formed Midori and Friends, a non-profit organization that aims to bring music education to children in New York City and in Japan after learning of severe cutbacks to music education in U.S. schools. Her organization Music Sharing began as the Tokyo branch-office of Midori and Friends, and was certified as an independent organization in 2002. Music Sharing focuses on education about Western classical music and traditional Japanese music for young people, including instrument instruction for the disabled. Its International Community Engagement Program is a training program for internationally chosen aspiring musicians that promotes cultural exchange and community engagement.

In 2000, Midori graduated magna cum laude from the Gallatin School at New York University with a bachelor's degree in Psychology and Gender Studies, completing the degree in five years while also continuing to perform in concerts. She later earned a master's degree in psychology from NYU in 2005. Her master's thesis was about pain research. In 2001, Midori had returned to the stage and took a teaching position at the Manhattan School of Music. Also in 2001, with the money Midori received from winning the Avery Fisher Prize, she established the Partners in Performance program focusing on classical music organizations in smaller communities. In 2004, Midori launched the Orchestra Residencies program in the U.S. for youth orchestras, which was expanded to include collaborations with orchestras outside the U.S. in 2010.

In 2004, Midori was named a professor at University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music where she is holder of the Jascha Heifetz Chair. She became a full-time resident of Los Angeles in 2006 after a period of bicoastal commuting, and was promoted to the chair of the Strings Department in 2007. In 2012 she was named distinguished professor at USC, elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and was awarded an honorary doctorate in music by Yale University. Midori was Humanitas Visiting Professor in Classical Music and Music Education at Oxford University 2013–2014. She joined the violin faculty of Philadelphia's Curtis Institute in the 2018–2019 academic year while remaining on the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music's violin faculty as a Judge Widney Professor of Music.

In addition to being named Artist of the Year by the Japanese government (1988) and the recipient of the 25th Suntory Music Award (1993), Midori has won the Avery Fisher Prize (2001), Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year award (2002), the Avery Fisher PrizeDeutscher Schallplattenpreis (2002, 2003), the Kennedy Center Gold Medal in the Arts (2010), the Mellon Mentoring Award (2012). In 2007 Midori was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace. In 2012, she received the prestigious Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum in Davos for "20-year devotion to community engagement work worldwide". In May of 2021 she will be an honoree of the 43rd Kennedy Center Honors.


In December of 1991, Midori was performing the Berg Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Pierre Boulez.  We met after the second of the four performances, and though she was just twenty years old, she showed wisdom and strength that would carry her ever forward.

Here is what was said at that time . . . . .  

Bruce Duffie:   Do you like the life of a wandering minstrel?

Midori:   Yes, I guess.

BD:   [Somewhat surprised]  You wouldn’t prefer just to be in one place, and concertize in one city all the time?

Midori:   No, I would prefer to travel around.  I love to travel.

BD:   What about travel intrigues you?

Midori:   It’s the people that I get to meet when I go away, and seeing new orchestras that I meet, new conductors, new feelings, and the different kinds of food.  It gives me a change of pace.

BD:   When you are performing, do you adjust your playing style for a different size house?

Midori:   Of course, yes.  It’s not really a matter of size, it’s a matter of acoustics.  There are some halls that I cannot play softly, and some halls that I could play piano and will still sound like forte.  So, it depends on that.  Usually, when I’m playing with an orchestra, when acoustics are very dead I have to play everything a little louder, because the piano phrases will fade away.  In a very dead hall, sometimes the tempos are a little faster because the sound doesn’t last.  Some of the pauses are determined by how long the resonance is there.  So, I alter things in that way.

BD:   Do you try to make sure that you’re heard even in the very last row of the balcony?

Midori:   Yes.

BD:   Is it going to be different sitting in row Z as opposed to sitting in row A or B?

Midori:   That depends on the hall, actually.  In some halls, if you sit in the back I sound louder, or they may hear me better.  Of course, in some halls there are some dead spots as well.  So, it’s different in different places.

BD:   But you have to play for everyone in the hall.

Midori:   Oh, yes.

BD:   Are you conscious of the public when you’re playing?

Midori:   No.  I don’t see them, but I always try to play to something that’s out there.

midori BD:   Something, or someone?

Midori:   Something.  It might be the audience as a whole, or it could just be me talking to invisible something or somebody.  I always feel that God is there, so I do it that way sometimes.

BD:   Do you get a different feeling when the house is full, as opposed to a rehearsal when the house is empty?

Midori:   I actually feel much more comfortable when there are people inside the house.  Somehow, when there’s nobody in the audience, I feel very lonesome.  It’s funny, because I’m not conscious of the audience at all when I actually play.  But sometimes, in a good hall on a good day, when everything works out to be just like a miracle, the audience is very much part of the performance.

BD:   They give back to you?

Midori:   No, it’s not just the applause.  It’s how I make music.  That affects me.

BD:   Is this something you can prepare for, or does it take you by surprise each time?

Midori:   It takes me by surprise each time.  By that I mean it doesn’t just depend on me.  It depends on everyone involved in making the music.  Involves the hall and the kind of audience.  I don’t know exactly what kind of an audience is there, but I know that there is a difference.

BD:   Do you find that audiences are different from city to city, and country to country?

Midori:   Yes, in general, but if you mention the specific things, they might be a little different in expressing the same things that everyone wants to express.

BD:   Some are more demonstrative than others?

Midori:   Yes.

BD:   Would you rather have lots of wild applause, or more quiet applause?

Midori:   It doesn’t really matter to me.  When you go to Italy, they don’t give so many standing ovations, but they clap sometimes much louder than some of the American audiences.  Or if you go to some cities in the States, people are just stomping their feet instead of saying,
Bravo.  They demonstrate their feelings in a different way, but I wouldn’t say that some audiences are cold and the others are not.  I would never say that.

BD:   They’re just different?

Midori:   They’re just different, yes.

BD:   You say the audience demonstrates its feeling.  Is this what music is to you, a demonstration of feeling?

Midori:   Actually, it’s not really a demonstration.  Music is the heart.  I’m not demonstrating, it’s what it is.  The heart is what it is.  Sometimes I talk to myself, or sometimes I say something to God, or sometimes I say something to somebody else, or sometimes I just simply say things into thin air.  But I don’t play music thinking, “Okay, I have to say something.”  Music itself is already heart.  Music itself should speak.

BD:   Are you always looking for more and more things to find and share in each score?

midori Midori:   Yes.  It also depends on how you’re feeling.  You feel different every day.  Let’s say that the music expresses something sad, but there’s different kinds of sadness, and every day you have different kinds of sadness.  Or, on the contrary, you have different kinds of happiness.  So, I’m always looking at the score and trying to find out what the composer meant to do, or what he really wanted to do.  Or, just by looking carefully into the score, sometimes it opens your eyes.  So, in that sense I look into the score and look for new things.  But I don’t look at the score saying, “Okay, what should I say here?”  That comes very naturally through the music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   There’s a huge repertoire of works from which to choose.  How do you decide which pieces you will play now, and which pieces you will let go for another few years perhaps?

Midori:   It depends.  Each year I have about eight or nine concertos that I play in circulation.  Sometimes it’s a little more, and sometimes it’s a little less, but I feel that I really can’t play more than eight or nine different concertos each year, because I also have two different recital programs.  But from those concertos, I have tried to have a variety of things.  I usually have maybe something from the Classic period, something from the Romantic period, something from near-modern or near-contemporary.  I also try to include music from various countries.  For instance, I would do Brahms, and I would do Stravinsky, and I’ll do Walton, and I’ll do Mozart.  The list of the pieces I’m doing this year includes Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Berg, Walton, Sibelius, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, and Mendelssohn.

BD:   That is a diverse group.

Midori:   Yes, and from a third to half of the concertos I’m doing this year will be carried on to next season, and then the other half will be new.

BD:   New to you, or revivals from previous seasons?

Midori:   Some of them will be revivals from previous seasons, and some will be completely new.  For example, Stravinsky next season is new for me, and I will probably put Bartók back in.

BD:   [Gently pressing the point]  This is what I’m getting at.  How do you decide which ones you will do, and which ones you won’t?

Midori:   It depends.  It really depends on how I feel.  There are specific pieces that I want to do each season.  For instance, Brahms was a big, big challenge that I took on last year.  I had played it before a couple of times, but I really wanted to play it often.  This year, I’m giving that a break because I played it many times.  I’m giving it time to grow within myself when I’m not playing it.  So, I choose one or two pieces I definitely want to do, and then work around those.

BD:   Are you giving it time to grow, or are you giving you time to grow?

Midori:   Both.  I’m giving it time to grow inside me, and I’m giving time for myself to change.

BD:   How much practice does it take to maintain your technique and actually improve day by day?

Midori:   Sometimes I practice a lot because there are lots of pieces that I have to work on.  Sometimes I keep playing the same concerto over and over again, so instead of physically practicing, I mentally practice it, or sometimes sing it to myself because I believe that singing is a base to music.  Sometimes, when I’m bothered by the physical motions, instead of actually playing I just sing it to myself, and then take it from there.  I would say on the average I would practice about five to six hours a day, and sometimes more.  When I get very busy, it is much more.  Sometimes, when I have lots of interviews, and there are lots of other things to do, I practice less, but I never say to myself, “Okay, I have to practice five hours today.”  I just do whatever I feel like.

midori BD:   It just turns out to be five or six hours?

Midori:   Yes, but I really don’t count, and if I’m tired, then I don’t practice, because practicing when I’m tired just makes me tired even more.  I don’t want to get tired thinking about the next coming concerts.

BD:   Have you done any world premieres?

Midori:   No.

BD:   Would you like to?

Midori:   Not at the moment, but I’m very interested in some of the composers.

BD:   What advice would you have if Joe or Jane Composer comes to you and says they’d like to write a concerto for you?

Midori:   At this point, I really feel it’s not yet time for me to do world premieres.  I do not want to take the responsibility.  There are pieces in the standard repertoire which I haven’t performed yet, which I think I should learn.  I’ve played some of them to practice them, but I haven’t necessarily played them with an orchestra.  New works are not really pieces that I play very often.  I don’t have anything against them, even though people tend to think that I have something against contemporary composers.  That’s not right, because I’m very, very interested in listening to them.  For instance, I like Dutilleux and Messiaen very much.  Also Peter Lieberson, but I just don’t want to be in the position yet to do a brand new piece.

BD:   You’re pacing yourself for a long career?

Midori:   Yes, I’m supposed to.

BD:   Do you envision yourself playing for 50 or 60 years?

Midori:   No.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???

Midori:   I don’t know.  I love to play.  I love music, and I really enjoy performing, but maybe I’ll take some time off to have a family.  Who knows?  We never know, but I’m leaving it up in the air, because I don’t want to say that I’ll never, never, never get married, because that’s so unnecessary.  I always feel that I should be honest to myself, that I should be able to be honest to myself, and that if I ever, ever feel that I do not want to perform in public anymore, then I should be able to do so and to make that a reality, and to help it become a reality.  I don’t want to make any comments such as,
I will be playing until I die, because that will put me under a lot of pressure, and it’s so unnecessary.

BD:   Take it as it comes?

Midori:   Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

midori BD:   How do you divide your career between solo recitals and concertos?

Midori:   Surprisingly to many people, I play lots of recitals.

BD:   Why is it surprising?

Midori:   Because people tend to think that I only play concertos.  Most of my European engagements are recitals, because in Europe recitals are much more popular than they are here.  I play lots of concertos in this country, because concertos with orchestras are more popular.  I’m playing about thirty-five or forty recitals this season.

BD:   Any in the States?

Midori:   About twenty here, and maybe fifteen to twenty in Europe.  Considering the total number of countries that I’m visiting, that’s a good number.  We give single performances of recitals in each city, which means that I’m traveling a lot for recitals.  Here in Chicago, I play four times with the orchestra.  That’s considered one engagement, but then one recital is also one engagement.

BD:   Do you limit the number of engagements that you have each year?

Midori:   Oh, yes.  This season, I play about eighty-five concerts.  Next year, I’m doing something very special.  I’m taking a three-month sabbatical in the summer, and I will probably cut down the concerts to about sixty, or even less.

BD:   Is this just to rest and recuperate?

Midori:   No, a sabbatical means I’m off from the stage for three months.  I’m involving myself in a very exciting recording project, doing the complete set of Bach Sonatas and Partitas.  That’s going to be on two CDs, and I’m very, very excited about it.  Also next year, I really want to take some time to study new pieces.  It will drop from ninety concerts, playing maybe eight concertos, to sixty concerts playing maybe ten concertos, so I will be busy on my own.  But I really want to study.  I’m still at the stage where I’m trying to see what kind of schedule will be best for me.  We have tried many things.  We already tried, for instance, playing one week and then having one week off, and then the next week I play again and then another week off.  We also tried having me play three weeks straight of concerts and three weeks straight of vacation.  We’re trying to see what I like best.

BD:   Then you’ll come up with something that will allow you to continue a little more easily?

Midori:   Yes.  The only thing I know for sure now at this point, is that at least for the next couple years I never want to mix the concertos and the recitals together.

BD:   So you will not go to a city and play a concerto, and also recital in the same city at the same time?

Midori:   Right.  Or, I will keep all my recitals in one period, and within that period I never play concertos.

BD:   Why do you not want to mix them?

Midori:   Because it’s very difficult.  It takes a different kind of playing, and a different kind of concentration.  It also takes a different kind of preparation and energy.  It’s not easy to mix them.  Also, I have found in the last couple of years that if I’m doing twenty recitals, that I’ll never play twenty days straight.  I’ll play maybe three times, and then I will have maybe two or three days off.  I’ll work with my pianist, and then maybe play a couple more days, and then work again.  It’s really a continuous process of doing recitals.  Also, each recital is different.  I play differently, and I like that, whereas if I didn’t play with my pianist for about three weeks, and then had to do the same program again, we would have to go back to a certain point where we were, and then continue from there.

midori BD:   You say you’re going to be recording the Bach unaccompanied works.  You’ve already recorded the Paganini unaccompanied Caprices.  Is there anything special about playing unaccompanied?

Midori:   It’s very different, I must say.  I wouldn’t call it
special, but it’s different, and I enjoy it very much.  For instance, let’s take the Fauré Sonata right now because I’m working on that piece.  It’s very much a conversation between the piano and the violin, and is a partnership which creates the music.  We talk to each other, and we listen together for each other.  It’s that kind of a sonata, whereas in the Bach Sonata, I don’t have a partner.  It’s all on my own.

BD:   It’s not you and Bach together?

Midori:   In a way it is, but then it’s not with a pianist.  It’s us in the Fauré, as well.  Bach is something very solemn. You know, it’s different because— It’s very difficult to explain, but it’s just me and something very serious. And it’s not brilliant like the Caprices technically, but it’s very difficult. It takes lots of concentration. And it’s almost like a communication between the infinite and myself. You have to actually feel. You have to do it on your own and feel it because it’s very difficult to explain, but Bach is something that’s really close to church. You know what I mean. Those days, I mean everything was really associated with church. And especially the Bach sonata, it’s something that is almost like a Mass where you play for God. It’s church music basically. It’s based on that. That also makes a difference.

BD:   You’re from Japan, so were you brought up in the Shinto tradition?

Midori:   No, in the Christian tradition.  When I was living in Japan, I went to Sunday school.  Actually, Shintoism is not so popular now in Japan.  Children celebrate Christmas because it’s fun.  As a whole, it’s not a very religious country.  It’s a free-religion country, meaning freedom of religion is just taken for granted.  There are more religious people here in the US.  There are many people without any religion in Japan.  I don’t know why I went to Sunday school, but I went.  My mom questioned it, but it’s funny that people do make assumptions like that.  They think that because I come from Japan that I come from a different culture.  It’s unfortunate to tell you that the truth is, in my generation, we grew up in the Western culture.  There are a couple of things that are still traditional, but for instance, we grew up eating steaks, meat, roast beef, hamburgers, and we slept on beds and things like that.

BD:   Then when you made the transition of moving to New York, it must have been much less of a culture shock than one would think.

Midori:   I would say that anybody moving to New York has a culture shock, but it’s a good kind of culture shock.  It’s not like something which is completely different.  It’s just that everything is happening at a fast pace in New York.  For me, the shock was the language.  I didn’t speak a word of English when I first moved to New York, and that was very difficult.  Yet, I didn’t feel that there was a problem with the communication.  It was difficult because I started to go to an American school, and I had to do homework in English like other kids.  But I never found that to be an obstacle when I had to communicate with people.  I picked the language up pretty easily.  You don’t have to be completely fluent to be able to communicate.  After a certain point, we can do it with a couple words.  Also, children find it easier to learn the language.

BD:   Oh, sure.  The earlier you start, the better.

Midori:   Yes.  I was thrown into an American school, and just as a baby learns to speak English or any language, I picked it up.  Sometimes I feel that my English is grammatically not as good as foreign students who have studied English grammatically.

BD:   [Re-assuringly]  It’s coming across fine.

Midori:   Yet, I don’t think I have any accent, but sometimes I would say, “Oh, that’s a German student with English as a second language.”  They don’t speak as well, but they sometimes have a much bigger vocabulary, and they can write much better.  Grammatically, they never make a mistake, and they always speak with an English accent.

BD:   Are you becoming an American citizen?

midori Midori:   I’m a permanent resident.  I have a green card, which means that I could become a citizen after a couple of years if I apply.

BD:   Is it something you want to do, or will you just put it off until later?

Midori:   At this point, it really does matter because I live in New York.  If you’re from another country and you’re holding a passport, you will be needing a visa for every country you have to go and perform in.  Then, people change because it’s just easier.  If you’re doing so much traveling, like I do, you really want to avoid that scene.  Before you go out of the country, you always have to go to the embassy or the consulate and get it stamped.  But for me, I really don’t have any problem.  On the contrary, as a musician, because we work, we have to get a work permit from many other countries anyway, and it’s the same with being an American.  It doesn’t make it any easier for me to have an American passport.

*     *     *     *     *

Do you play differently in the recording studio than you do in the concert hall?

Midori:   Oh, of course.  First of all, its acoustics are different.  Even when I’m playing in concerts, when acoustics are different, I play differently.  But I play differently when I’m making a record because it takes a different kind of playing.  The microphones are much closer, so I can’t press as much... or there’s no need for me to press as much.  When it comes to takes, and seeing what takes are good, I don’t like to make cuts very much because it’s not real.  It loses the spontaneity.  It’s not spontaneous if you cut every measure and try to get perfect intonation.  I play it a couple times, and whatever is not covered is not covered, and it’s okay.  I don’t mind.  It’s just a record of what I was like at that point.

BD:   Are you pleased with the records that have come out so far?

Midori:   No.

BD:   [Surprised]  No???

Midori:   Well, I can’t say that I’m not pleased, but I would play it differently now because I’ve changed.  There’s no way around it.

BD:   What if someone says they love your records?

Midori:   It makes me very happy, but a record is just a record of what I was like at that point.  I will never feel the same.

BD:   You don’t feel you have to play up to that standard?

Midori:   Of course.  My standards are rather high, and I always want to play up to my standard.  But after the standards are reached, how you express the goal or how you express your feelings is a different story.  In the day I made the recording, I expressed something in one way, but the next day I feel differently, so I would express it differently.

BD:   Will things change during the four concerts here Chicago?

Midori:   Oh, yes.  Each night is very different.

BD:   Tell me about the instrument you play.  Is this a special one?

Midori:   It’s a Guarnerius del Gesù, made in 1735.  Actually, I like it very much.

midori BD:   It responds well to you?

Midori:   I know the instrument rather well.  I’ve been using it for seven years.

BD:   Are you always hunting for another instrument?

Midori:   Occasionally.  We’re always looking because we’re always interested.  This is not always necessary to buy, but we’re looking.

BD:   Do you ever feel you’re a slave to music, or a slave to the instrument?

Midori:   No.  Never.  I’m obsessed with music occasionally because I love it so much.  I really can’t live without it.  It’s just one essential supply for me.  To some people, it’s not, and that’s understandable.  To some people, it’s something else, but for me, I really can’t live without it.  As for the violin, she’s my partner.  We work together, and she knows me really well.  I know her very well, too.

BD:   Are you pleased with the pace of your career?

Midori:   I never even look back to it, but I’m very happy at what I’m doing.  I play in big cities, and I get to play with big orchestras, the so-called great orchestras.  I play with major orchestras not only in this country, but also in Europe.  For a career we need these concerts, that I’m very, very lucky and very happy to be able to have these concerts.  But personally, if I was I playing in a small city or in a big city, with a small orchestra or a known orchestra or an unknown orchestra, it really doesn’t make any difference to me.  I play concerts because I love to play.  Whenever I’m playing, I know what I’m doing.  If I don’t like it, then I don’t like it, and I have always felt this way.  I will know when it’s good and I will know when it’s bad, and also, God will know.  I find it extremely rude when somebody plays a concert without practicing just because they think “Oh, well, they won’t know.”  That’s just not me.

BD:   There are no throw-away concerts?

Midori:   Right.  Never.  You still have your good days and bad days, but that’s different than caring and not caring.  If ever I stop caring, then that’s not me.  I will want to stop if I ever felt that way.  I have very strong doubts that I’m ever going to feel that way, but if I ever do, then that’s what’s going to happen.

BD:   Thank you for spending a little time with me.

Midori:   Thank you.

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© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 6, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 2001.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.