By Fred Cummings
One of the most gifted violinists of her generation, Anne Akiko Meyers embodies what a virtuoso violinist should be as a powerful interpreter of beloved repertoire that spans centuries and yet poised to open that same repertoire to new music, serving as a vanguard in what has traditionally been a guarded space. Of course, only time will tell what new music survives to take its place alongside classic works of the cannon, but Meyers is a truly nimble artist open to the idea of breaking musical boundaries that remain only because those before her hesitated to breach them.
With ground-breaking collaborations with top artists from electro-pop to jazz, Meyers refuses to rest on her laurels, sated by her own dominance of the violin repertoire. Marshaling the potency of her storied career, she broadens the scope of the cannon she interprets and the scope of her own experience at the same time.
This summer, I had an opportunity to pose a few questions to the one-time wunderkind and gained a little more insight into just why today she is simply a wonder, not only in her mastery of the repertoire, but also in her advocacy for it.
Q: As a young violin student studying in Southern California, did you ever imagine the kind of career for yourself you now enjoy?
A: I dreamed of becoming a concert violinist at age 7 after hearing Tchaikovsky at the Hollywood Bowl. Little did I know what an incredible journey I would go on. I am so grateful to all the teachers I studied with, the amazing musicians and collaborators I have worked with, and my family, for their unconditional support. It takes one heck of a village, luck, patience and perseverance to accomplish one’s dream.
Q: Who were your earliest influences during your early study?
A: Oistrakh, Heifetz, Perlman, Francescatti, Accardo (and) Kremer…
Q: And now, your career has taken you not only throughout the globe performing at the highest levels of the classical music landscape, but your dynamic collaborations have ventured into many other strata of music. Working with such diverse artists like Chris Botti and Michael Bolton, I know that it can be fun to explore other musical genres when your career has been focused so intensely within a genre like classical music. Tell me about a couple of the most enjoyable “extra-genre” collaborations you have experienced.
A: I enjoyed touring with the pop-singing group, Il Divo and jazz trumpet player, Chris Botti. It was fascinating to observe how they rehearsed, interacted with each other, and put on a fun show for audiences. I also enjoyed working with Wynton Marsalis when I asked him to write new cadenzas for Mozart’s Concerto in G Major. Every musician has such a different perspective on the music and to observe their uniquely personal creative process helps me see and feel music with fresh eyes and ears. These collaborations were really fun and inspirational.
Q: Of course, artists explore a variety of genres outside of their home genres, but performance takes any form of study to the next level. Can the kind of work you’ve done with artists like Wynton Marsalis and Chris Botti impact (or perhaps) expand your approach to your own repertoire within your home genre?
A: One of the things that is so amazing about multi-talented musicians is their ability to improvise and to arrange or compose. 18th and 19th century violinists used to regularly compose, arrange, and improvise (and often play the piano like a virtuoso) but we are more specialized today. I admire the freedom jazz musicians experience in their playing. It is important for classical musicians to avoid being too rigid in following a composer’s markings to the hilt. It’s more of a guideline to observe, it is still crucial to create your own unique sound.
Q: You have been a staunch supporter of new music throughout your career. Tell me what drives your passion for expanding the violin repertoire?
A: I always say music was new at one time. All the music deemed “the classics” sometimes struggled to find an audience upon first hearing. I always wonder what it would have been like to have a Rachmaninoff, Chopin or Gershwin violin concerto. Maybe it could have taken one persistent violinist to repeatedly ask and try to commission these genius composers. One will never know. This is why it is imperative that I ask composers today to consider different proposals. Next year, I am elated to premiere Mexican composer, Arturo Marquez’s first violin concerto and a new violin concerto by Michael Daugherty about American icon, Amelia Earhart.
Q: Your work with Mason Bates is particularly intriguing here due to his recent tenure as Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Tell me about the process of working with him on his Violin Concerto, commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and yourself.
A: I asked Mason to write new cadenzas for the Beethoven Violin Concerto back in 2007 and we discussed the idea for his very first violin concerto then. He started sending me bits and sections during the summer of 2012. I loved hearing those first notes from my computer and after many revisions and not long after giving birth to my second daughter, I premiered the concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony in December, 2012. I have been fortunate to perform the concerto all over the world, including amazing performances with the Chicago Symphony a few years ago. The process was very collaborative and we spent time on Skype working on different technical things. I recorded “Archaeopteryx,” a story about a hybrid-flying dinosaur taking flight, with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2014 with Leonard Slatkin. As “Lullaby For Natalie” (written in honor of my first-born) by John Corigliano was also on the album, as well as the Barber Concerto, it was incredible to see everyone together in the recording studio as John was inspired by Samuel Barber and Mason studied with John at the Juilliard School.
Q: And you’ll bring the Barber Violin Concerto to Ravinia this summer in a performance with Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and conductor James Gaffigan. Tell me about working with Maestro Gaffigan and the orchestra. What distinguishes that experience from other collaborations that you have experienced this new season?
A: I am really looking forward to performing one of the most beautifully written concertos of the 20th century. It is intensely lyrical, passionate, and has a tour-de-force, perpetual-motion finale. This will be the first time I work with the superb James Gaffigan, this concert should be super fun!
Q: And the Barber…that poignant second movement seems like it was almost written for you. How exhilarating is it for you to work with music that is so intuitively attuned with your musical sensibilities?
A: Thank you…that is an incredible compliment. I love to find the story behind all of the music that I perform and I try to breathe the phrases like a singer. This second movement of the Barber Concerto has beautiful singing elements in it and it is very emotional. It gives the violinist the opportunity to soar and fly…I love performing this concerto very much.
Q: On the flip side, what advice would you give a young artist pursuing their education for connecting with music that is less attuned with their own natural musical sensibilities, music that ultimately expands their natural sense of musicality because it is not a natural fit for them.
A: Go to concerts! Watch the musicians embody the music. There’s such an intense feeling when you see musicians make the music come alive. It is like eating a great meal, watching the sunrise/sunset or reading a great book. You feel satisfied, inspired and emboldened to make things happen.
Q: What is your favorite thing to do while on the road (away from the violin)?
A: Being with my family.
Q: And Chicago, you have a long history of performing here. What is it you like best about coming here?
A: I love the energy, it’s vibrant and the pulse is good. My father was born and raised in Chicago, loving the jazz clubs and studying with the teachers in the Chicago Civic Symphony. There is a long tradition of wonderful audiences, it’s home to one of the world’s finest orchestras. WFMT thrives and Ravinia is a special place I love returning to. I hope to enjoy some delicious Chicago hotdogs, visit the Art Institute this upcoming trip and create new wonderful memories.
Anne Akiko Meyers will appear as guest artist with conductor James Gaffigan and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Barber's Violin Concerto at Ravinia Festival August 19, 2019. Visit ravinia.org for more details.
Acclaimed violinist Anne Akiko Meyers (photo by David Zentz).
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Q&A with Celebrated Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers
By Fred Cummings
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