Anne Akiko Meyers brings old (expensive) violin and modern attitude to Pacific Symphony
By TIMOTHY MANGAN
Anne Akiko Meyers is bringing the world’s most expensive violin to town to play with Pacific Symphony this week. It has been loaned to her for life by the owner, who bought it in late 2012 for more than $16 million, still the highest price ever paid for a violin. The instrument, made in 1741, is known as the “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri “del Gesù,” named for one of its former owners, the Belgian violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps (1820-1881). He loved the instrument so much that he wanted to be buried with it.
“Its health and security are always the utmost important factors when traveling,” Meyers said of the instrument recently in a phone interview. Nevertheless, she doesn’t seem particularly intimidated by the prospect. She’s had to care for expensive violins, on loan, for most of her career.
“Well, I’ve been really fortunate my whole life,” she said. “I’ve had to rely on the generosity of donors, patrons, foundations and have played on a number of Guarneri “del Jesu”’s and Stradivari violins my entire life. It is totally like you’re walking around with a Matisse or a Picasso or a Monet on your back. It’s our equipment but yet it’s an antique piece of history that can never be repeated again.”
She wants to pass it on to the next player in the same condition is it now, which she characterizes as near perfect, clean and crack-free and without so much as a sound post patch (common in most violins).
She describes its tone quality this way: “It’s like it has dark and milk chocolate and white chocolate all wrapped into one, and it has super deep resonance on the G string — it sounds like a cello — but yet it just has a brilliant E string and it projects like none other because it’s so healthy.”
Born in San Diego in 1970, Meyers began playing violin when she was 4 or so, by then living in the small desert town of Ridgecrest in the Mojave Desert, where her father was president of the local community college. Her mother, of Japanese descent but not a musician, actually introduced the Suzuki method to the community.
“She was reading a book about how music is so fundamentally important to a baby’s development and to their brain and senses,” Meyers said. “So she then discovered the Suzuki method and then talked to Shirley (Helmick) about it and brought it over.”
Helmick was a local musician in Ridgecrest (still is) and became Meyers’s first teacher. At 7, Meyers, playing a concerto by Vivaldi, actually made her debut with the Desert Community Orchestra in Ridgecrest, with Helmick playing the continuo part.
Meyers went on to study with a number of noted teachers, including the sisters Alice and Eleanor Schoenfeld at the Colburn School in Los Angeles and then, at 16, with Dorothy DeLay at the Juilliard School in New York. She had made precocious debuts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic by age 12, and appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” twice when she was 11. But don’t call her a prodigy.
“I just don’t think it applies to me,” Meyers said. “There have been many prodigies throughout history, like, you know, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for one,” she added, laughing. “But I just don’t think that being really exceptional at an instrument at a young age is something that (the term prodigy) can just be slapped on. I was very lucky to have opportunities to perform growing up, and there were of course many transitions to becoming a performer for a long period of time.”
She calls her time at Juilliard and with DeLay, the teacher of many a superstar violinist, “a very rich time to figure things out.
“I came already being a sensitive player, and tone production, my sound, was always there. But it was the technical things that I just wasn’t really aware of.” The work could be intensive, and Meyers was already starting to give concerts. DeLay required Meyers to memorize a different concerto movement every week. “She would have her students try to figure out the whole format of a piece and understand the voicings, the recordings. I would regularly go to the library to study recordings, even with a metronome. And then go to many concerts, regularly go to Carnegie Hall and buy the cheapest ticket possible and then sneak into a good seat. Just study as much as you could.”
Meyers will release her 37th album in September. In addition to much of the standard repertoire and crossover (she made a record with Michael Bolton), Meyers increasingly commissions, performs and records the music of living composers. The 37th album is a tribute to the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt on his 83rd birthday, and in addition to pieces by Pärt includes music commissioned by Meyers by Philip Glass, Morten Lauridsen, John Corigliano and others.
Earlier this month, with the Phoenix Symphony, she gave the premiere of a new concerto, “Orchard in Fog,” by Adam Schoenberg. Michael Daugherty is writing a new concerto for her. In the fall, Pärt has invited her to perform in events celebrating the opening of a new building at his center outside of Tallinn.
“To be able to converse with a living composer and to actually see where their inspiration is coming from in a first hand experience is just so important to my creative process,” she said. “And to really tip our hats to tradition, but take the language of today and to make it accessible is something that is just critically important for my overall growth as an artist.”
She contributes a trio of short solo works to the Pacific Symphony’s program (which also includes Glinka’s Overture to “Ruslan and Ludmilla” and Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben”) this week.
First, there’s a new version for violin and orchestra of Lauridsen’s choral hit “O Magnum Mysterium.”
“It’s a piece that is so close to my heart. I harassed Morten Lauridesen for years and years to write a new work. He was like ‘I have so many commissions up the wazoo, I just don’t have the time.’ Then I performed the Vivaldi ‘Four Seasons’ with the Pasadena Symphony and he attended that concert. After that, he was like ‘I’ll do anything you ask.’” The new arrangement is the result.
Another new arrangement, by J.A.C. Redford of Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” came about when Meyers wanted to add arrangements of the American Songbook to her recording of Bernstein’s “Serenade (After Plato’s ‘Symposium’).”
“(Redford) did it in a kind of Irish jig style, if you can imagine, where the embellishments are meant to be played really quickly, like grace notes.”
The third piece she’ll play is a plum of the violin repertoire, Ravel’s “Tzigane,” which was inspired by the Hungarian gypsy style of violin playing.
“The opening is unlike any other opening of any other piece,” Meyers said. She describes it as the “wailing of a gypsy” on the joys and difficulties of life, performed all alone by the violinist, without orchestra. “So it’s really up to the violinist to add as much flavor and juice as possible to bring out these really amazing melodies.”
After about four minutes, she continued, “this harp comes in like a tidal wave of sound and then the full orchestra. It ends with a Tom and Jerry romp — you know, who’s going to get to the green light first? It’s super exciting and fun and just a virtuoso fireworks kind of piece.”
With: Carl St.Clair, conductor; Anne Akiko Meyers, violin
Where: Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. June 14-16; 3 p.m. June 17
How much: $25-$201