It’s somehow hard to fathom that a violinist as young as Midori could be marking the 30th anniversary of her professional debut. But she was just 11 years old in 1982 when she first stepped onto the stage with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic to perform the first movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1.
The industry’s — and our own — unhealthy addiction to prodigies these days comes with its own attendant skepticism about the murky waters that lie beyond the cute years. We secretly harbor doubts about what kind of artists they might become once they grow up. But Midori has proved cynics wrong by writing her own script for her adult career, earning an advanced degree in psychology, becoming highly involved in community engagement, and cultivating a significant interest in contemporary music. This season she will premiere a potentially important new violin concerto by the composer Peter Eötvös, co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and the BBC Proms. Musically speaking, she has grown into a mature artist.
Many of her most notable qualities were on display Sunday afternoon, as she offered a Celebrity Series recital in Symphony Hall. The program itself, while hardly novel in conception, had a pleasing symmetry, with a trio of Beethoven Violin Sonatas connected by more modern works (by Webern and George Crumb). Her playing in the first two Beethoven works (Op. 12, No. 2 and Op. 30, No. 1) was crisp, forthright and exacting. Then in the first movement of the final “Kreutzer” Sonata, she appropriately raised the heat, dispensing stopped chords like pistol-shots and surging through sixteenth-note passages with smoldering intensity.
By contrast, Webern’s Four Pieces (Op. 7) form a set of gem-like miniatures, adding up to about five minutes of quiet, shiveringly beautiful music. The piece is best encountered live, where a good performance can feel like a kind of sonic calligraphy etched against a backdrop of majestic silence. To land with full force, however, this music requires fierce concentration, delicacy of touch, and refinement of coloristic imagination. Midori’s playing displayed all three of these characteristics, though in precisely what proportions it would be difficult to say. During the Webern as well as in Crumb’s similarly delicate set of Four Nocturnes, a near-constant undercurrent of noise from portions of the audience — coughing, rustling, seat dropping, and nose blowing — broke the spell of both works, and made Symphony Hall feel in those moments like a pretty provincial place.
Midori and her capable accompanist, Özgür Aydin, met the implicit show of skepticism with generosity. Their fiery account of the “Kreutzer” Sonata sparked a warm ovation, to which they responded with encores by Debussy and Kreisler.