Kennedy Center Honoree Midori to play violin with National Repertory Orchestra
New Music Director Michael Stern crafts diverse programming
Breckenridge’s National Repertory Orchestra has been performing regularly this summer since its season began June 26, and the nonprofit focused on educating young musicians is packing as much as possible into the shortened six-week festival. This week, the orchestra has planned concerts that blend classical and contemporary music for the Riverwalk Center on Friday, July 9, and the Dillon Amphitheater on Saturday, July 10.
It is the inaugural orchestral season with Michael Stern as the new music director and conductor. Stern is the third director in the organization’s history, and he replaces Carl Topilow, who was with the orchestra for 42 years.
Stern initially stayed busy with virtual performances, and some live opportunities opened up at the end of 2020, but now the industry is returning more to form.
“It’s been a balm after 15 months of absence to come back to live performance,” Stern said. “The National Repertory Orchestra for the last 61 years has been a huge contributor to the American musical landscape. The number of graduates in this program that now populate orchestras and chamber ensembles and faculties — every corner of the American musical life — and having a chance to contribute to that is a privilege. It’s been wonderful. … There’s no substitute for live performance.”
In addition to the National Repertory Orchestra, Stern is the music director of the Kansas City Symphony, founding artistic director and principal conductor of the Iris Orchestra and the music director of the Stamford Symphony in Connecticut. He also has conducted for orchestras in places like London, Stockholm, Paris, Budapest and Tokyo as well as the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra as part of the Youth Music Culture Guangdong with Yo-Yo Ma and the Aspen Music Festival and School.
Aside from the summer-only National Repertory Orchestra, the others happen concurrently — leading to a tight balancing act and full calendar. He took the Stamford job, which has him commute about 12 minutes away, to be closer to home to spend time with kids.
“But I also love the idea of being able to create something with real meaning and add to the orchestra’s fortune and to musical landscape of the community of which my children are growing up,” Stern said.
Now Stern gets to shape Summit County’s music scene. The process of choosing songs was originally based around a smaller, socially distant and masked orchestra, but now he has more freedom as he can get additional musicians on the stage.
What: Masterworks 4
When: 6 p.m. Friday, July 9
Where: Riverwalk Center, 150 W. Adams Ave., Breckenridge
Cost: Tickets range from $5 to $40. Visit NROMusic.org to purchase.
What: NRO on the Lake
When: 6 p.m. Saturday, July 10
Where: Dillon Amphitheater, 201 W. Lodgepole St.
Current politics have also influenced the season’s programming as Stern highlights works from women of color. Friday’s concert will have audiences hear Errollyn Wallen’s “Mighty River,” which explores themes of slavery.
“I think this music is vital and needs to be heard,” Stern said. “At the same time, we’re playing Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Brahms. We have something for everyone, and I think the goal was to always balance programs so that there’s something interesting and you can go through the experience of the entire concert as you listen from one piece to the next, adding to the sum total of experiences you’re getting in the audience.”
Saturday will have music by Wagner and Stravinsky, but it will also be a festive affair to honor first responders with Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Yet before that, the program opens with a piece called “Brighter Than the Flames” by David Sterrett. Currently a library fellow for the orchestra, Sterrett wrote it back in 2018 in light of the Summit County wildfires.
While the music lineup hasn’t completely carried over from the canceled season, the performers were invited back to respect the opportunities promised to soloists and other musicians.
One of those soloists is the world-renowned Midori, a recipient of the delayed 43rd Kennedy Center Honors alongside Garth Brooks, Dick Van Dyke, Debbie Allen and Joan Baez.
“She’s an exceptional artist,” Stern said, adding that he’s worked with her in Kansas City, the Iris Orchestra and elsewhere. “My father was a musician, and he helped to mentor her. She was close to him also musically, but she and I have known each other for a very long time. Really, there’s nobody that I can say that I admire more or love to play with more than Midori. She is extraordinary.”
On Friday, Midori will play Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043 with Allison Taylor, a graduate student at the university of Michigan. Then on Saturday, she’ll pick up the bow again as Stern conducts her for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35. Afterward, Topilow will conduct the second half of the Dillon performance with the orchestra.
“It just shows again how we’re making this transition together,” Stern said.
Like Stern, Midori has been performing on and off since the fall. She released a new Beethoven album in October and stayed busy by pivoting her nonprofits Midori & Friends, Partners in Performance and Music Sharing to online platforms. The three extend the reach of music programs throughout New York City, Japan and other communities. Her commitment to the arts had her appointed as a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2007.
“I have spent so many hours online because of these organizations and programs and coming up for different ideas, which I’ve enjoyed,” Midori said. “But it also has increased my love for the live and being in person.”
Midori had her first public performance at age 6 in Osaka and debuted with the New York Philharmonic at age 11 in 1982. The love of violin stems from her mother — another violinist — because she was always teaching, rehearsing and performing.
“I think originally my mother thought I would want to play a different instrument from her,” Midori said. “But on the contrary, I very much wanted to play the same instrument.”
Speaking of instruments, Midori has played the Guarnerius del Gesù “ex-Huberman” violin for nearly 25 years. She calls it a wonderful partnership and a great working relationship.
“It’s an instrument that inspires me, it’s an instrument that I can work together with,” Midori said. “We feel like we are a good challenge for each other.”
Even if people don’t consider themselves a fan of classical music, Stern encourages all to come out for what should be memorable concerts to hear Midori on that violin along with other musicians.
“If we do our job and give a compelling performance, you will find something to connect to,” Stern said. “The secret to great music — whether it was written last week or 200 years ago — if it’s really great music, it’s accessible at any level. You just have to come with open ears and open hearts and feel something, and you will be moved. That is the power of great music.”
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