The spirit of Antonio Stradivari will be in the house for the second time this season when the Phoenix Symphony welcomes soloist Karen Gomyo to perform Mendelssohn’s popular Violin Concerto in E minor.
In October, the Russian-born virtuoso Philippe Quint was at Symphony Hall with his 1708 “Ruby” Stradivarius. And on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 31-Feb. 1, Gomyo will bring the 1703 “Aurora/ex-Foulis” violin. Both instruments are on loan from the Stradivari Society.
Born in Tokyo, raised in Montreal and trained at the exclusive Juilliard School in New York, the 32-year-old Gomyo was featured by the Japanese NHK channel in a television documentary titled “The Mystery of Stradivarius” last month. Returning to Phoenix after a sold-out performance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” in 2012, she spoke with The Republic by phone about her instrument and her life as an up-and-coming star in the classical music world.
Question: You started playing the violin at age 5. How did you choose your instrument?
Answer: My mom had taken me to the Montreal Symphony concert where the violinist Midori, who was at the time 14 years old, was the soloist. I was mesmerized by the performance and the fact that she was so young. I felt like I could relate to her and I wanted to be like her, so she inspired me to play the violin. My mother is a painter, and she loved music and loved the piano particularly, so I think she was hoping that I would play the piano. But she thought because the piano is so large that it would also be the most expensive instrument, and so she was happy with the idea of the smaller violin. So it was partly thanks to my mother’s ignorance that I was able to start the violin.
Q: Young musicians face a tremendous amount of pressure to excel. How did you handle that?
A: When I turned 12 years old, I felt very old. Looking back, there’s nothing more ridiculous. But it’s truly how I felt, because when I went to Juilliard, I was 11, but the kids around me were the same or even younger, and they were much more advanced than I was. I was just a happy little girl from Montreal. I always treated music as my friend, as something positive and very heartwarming. And so to go into an environment where music was treated like a sport or a martial art, it was difficult.
What I saw at Juilliard were these highly gifted children playing like they were born with the instrument in their hands. But with music it’s tricky, because it’s not just about that. Having technique is to your advantage if you can use that as a tool to create a huge palette of expression. Ultimately, music is different from training for tennis from the age of 5, because music is about moving people. The skills that you work on from a young age, that’s really just one part of it, and that alone does not keep the music alive.
Q: These days, it seems like a musician trying to carve out a career as a soloist faces another kind of pressure: to be young and hip and photogenic. Has that been your experience?
A: I think in every generation there is sort of a fad, an obsession for a certain type. About 20 years ago, age was the big thing. The younger you were, the more you’d get hyped — the whole prodigy era, which I think has calmed down a bit. You don’t see little 10-year-olds anymore making their debuts at Carnegie. But now the focus is more on this whole Internet marketing thing, the digital era, photos and being the cool hip thing. You see these big record labels, even Deutsche Grammophon or Sony, going that route of presenting young, good-looking musicians. All of this happened so quickly, and I’m hoping that it’s just a phase.
Maybe on the one hand it’s bringing in some new fans of classical music, but on the other hand there’s also the danger that somebody is very good-looking but maybe not quite as remarkable on their instrument. You don’t want to send a wrong message to the upcoming generation.
Q: What is your relationship with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto?
A: The Mendelssohn is very special to me, because that concert I mentioned in Montreal where Midori played, she actually played the Mendelssohn Concerto. And, of course, who doesn’t fall in love with that gorgeous opening melody? It’s a piece that is beloved for so many obvious reasons, but for me, I love it because it is very genuine. There’s a purity to the music that inevitably reveals who you are inside your heart, and that’s why I like playing it so much, because I feel like it keeps me honest.
Q: Any guilty musical pleasures? Do you listen to pop?
A: There are some current pop stars or R&B singers that I do admire. Beyoncé is somebody that I admire. I think she’s a terrific singer. I like her classy approach to what she does — her dignity, I guess. That’s very different from what I do, but I appreciate what she puts into her music.
Q: Can you talk about your violin, the “Aurora/ex-Foulis”?
A: There really is something special about a Stradivarius. Ex-Foulis is the name of the female violinist who had it for about 50 years. I think the violin was bought for her by her parents in her 20s, and she lived to be 70-something. It’s an instrument that keeps you inspired, because if you think about it, my violin has been around for a much longer time than any of us have been around. I don’t even know who owned it prior to ex-Foulis. So I basically don’t know the first 200 years of its life.
You can sense when you play that an instrument of this caliber has a lot of complexity. It’s really like dealing with a human being. You might have days where you really love each other, you might have days where you are kind of annoyed with each other and everything in between. Working with an instrument like that is so much more than imposing your thoughts and feelings onto it. It’s a teamship. You really have listen to what the violin wants to do that day as well. It’s kind of fascinating, really.
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