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Music review: Midori and Robert McDonald at Walt Disney Concert Hall

November 22, 2010 |  5:00 pm

The violinist Midori and her longtime accompanist Robert McDonald opened their Walt Disney Concert Hall recital on Sunday with Mozart’s charming Sonata in G major. It was a lighthearted warm-up for what turned out to be a deeply serious program of Bach, Bartók, George Crumb and Karol Szymanowski.

Ever since Isaac Stern introduced her to McDonald when she was a teenager, Midori, now 39, has been searching for chamber music that fits her signature interpretive style. They have been performing together since 1990, and the strength of their partnership showed in Crumb’s “Four Nocturnes,” one of the highlights of the recital's second half.

It has been a good month for Crumb. Last week the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group devoted its entire Green Umbrella program to the composer’s music.

In “Four Nocturnes,” Midori and McDonald created an ethereal dialogue, testing Disney Hall’s sensitive acoustics by exploring dynamic extremes. Crumb’s score had McDonald reaching into the piano to create various effects -– pizzicato, muted tones and unusual harmonics. He was also called on to sweep the piano strings with a wire brush while remaining musically in touch with Midori’s delicate, tentative violin part, often heard in its highest register.

Midori’s slender tone and penchant for quiet, restrained playing worked less well in Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 1. The piece’s rough edges were smoothed over, its aggressive dissonance somewhat dissolved. At about 35 minutes, the sonata thrives on contrast, intensity and a fiery temperament. This rendition was pleasing, rather than arresting.

The violinist returned after intermission, alone, for a quietly intense reading of Bach’s Sonata in A minor. Midori has been called the “virtuoso of the pianissimo,” and that gift infused her Bach with a whispery radiance.

With McDonald back, the quiet playing continued in the nocturne section of Szymanowski’s “Nocturne and Tarantella.” Midori finally opened up in the tarantella, ending with a virtuoso flash that perhaps has never really been artistically important to her. Like the rest of her program, her single encore, Debussy’s “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair,” conveyed a deliberate and calm authority.

--Rick Schultz

Above: Midori. Credit: Timothy Greenfield Sanders