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Born in San Diego, Anne Akiko Meyers made her debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of twelve. A student of Dorothy DeLay's at the Juilliard School, she has been a touring artist since the age of sixteen. Her latest album, American Masters, was released in September, and she was named Billboard's top-selling traditional instrumental soloist in 2014. Among her violins are the 1741 'Vieuxtemps' Guarneri del Gesu, which was given to her on lifetime loan. Below is the transcript of our October 16, 2014 conversation with Anne Akiko Meyers.
EH: As a child, playing the violin came very naturally to you. Did you ever have to think, in your earlier years, about what your fingers were doing at the instrument ? At what age did you finally begin considering the problem of violin technique and how to improve your mechanics ?
Meyers: I was actually very fortunate to study chamber music - along with solo violin, of course - with Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. When I was seven years old, I was leading a quartet and trio, and that really laid the groundwork for me as a musician. Even though I started playing the violin when I was four, those early chamber music experiences helped build a strong foundation for my solo work, as all music is a rich language and dialogue that is shared on stage, no matter what the size of the ensemble.
I never really thought much about the technical aspects of playing until I got to Juilliard and started studying with Dorothy DeLay. I first played for her at the Aspen Music Festival, and I remember being incredibly nervous, playing the Wieniawski No. 2 for her. She had this very grandmotherly quality about her, and immediately smiled. She then took me under her wing, and I was really nurtured and cared for.
There was certainly a pecking order in her class at Juilliard, and it was dependent on who could get a weekly lesson with her. I think the lesson schedule showed which students lined up at the top, in her mind. I must admit, in my first year at Juilliard pre-college, I felt incredibly lost. I had just come from Alice, and had studied a bit with Josef Gingold at Indiana, where everything was incredibly detailed and explained. I remember studying a Mozart concerto for what felt like years, working on the sound of Mozart, the polish and phrasing of it, and in such fine granular quality! By the time I got to Juilliard, Dorothy could be balancing her checkbook, or eating a burger while I was playing (laughs).
One of the things we had to do was to memorize a movement of a concerto every week, and I would fall behind because I just couldn’t keep up with that pace! I felt incredibly stupid, as everyone was naturally very competitive. Gradually, after about a year and a half, I realized that Dorothy was giving me the tools to teach myself. I would go to the library, study all of the scores, the tempi, the performances, the technical sides to all the recordings, etc., and I would go to many concerts, watching the performers and listening to them all the time. Looking back, the freedom I had at this time was incredibly enriching, and I was really able to find my own path and ‘own’ my sound, my soul.
EH: With respect to technique, one of the most neglected components of violin-playing is the right hand. There are many exercises for the left-hand, for scales, shifts, vibrato, etc., but the right hand is often viewed as subsidiary. How do you practice and what are your views on the creation of a beautiful tone ?
Meyers: You are so right about that! My bow-guru, Masao Kawasaki, was an incredible mentor for all matters of violin technique, but especially in the bowing department. When I worked with Masao, it was very important to go through the different gradations of going closer and farther away from the bridge, with half-hair or full-hair. The power really comes from the upper-arm, and once you keep that upper-arm down, that’s what gives the weight, the pull, and the ability to sculpt a sound that is shining and beautiful. I start my days, every day, with scales, and make up my own method of playing scales - things that incorporate the different technical aspects of bow changes, string changing, staccato, etc. It really helps to warm up my muscles.
EH: Much of the violin repertoire is profound, glorious music-writing, both emotionally and philosophically. In your opinion, is there any truth to the idea that Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, answer and reflect upon the more serious questions about life, that other music does not ? Does their music open greater “dimensions of meaningfulness”, to use Leon Fleisher's phrase ?
Meyers: I’ve always believed that the range or depth of emotion can be great, whether you’re play a three-minute piece, or a half-hour work. I get goose bumps playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow (video) or Smile, and yet, both are so simple. When you think of the Sibelius or Barber violin concertos, there’s a lot that you’re exploring; length-wise, these are just much more exhausting works. I love playing the classical masters, but I also love the shorter musical works: Summertime, Tenderly, Autumn Leaves, I’ll Be Seeing You, etc. There is poetry in this music that’s apparent, and while it’s not Schubert, or written in his time, the emotional depth can be the same.
EH: I would love to get your thoughts on the violinists of the past century – Kreisler, Heifetz, etc. - and what they mean to you. On the subject of taste, some audiences have noted a uniformity of sound amongst the artists of this current generation.
Meyers: I was fortunate to recently try Kreisler’s Guarneri del Gesu, which is at the Library of Congress. I actually attempted to play Liebeslied, which is one of my favorite pieces. While imagining his big, fat, buttery fingers playing that music, I could feel his soul. Kreisler, of course, loved to slide and make incredible rubatos. Stylistically, though, it’s very old-fashioned playing, and it’s not the kind that I aspire to imitate in any way. It’s an interesting historical perspective, however.
When I watch somebody like Heifetz, he just takes my breath away. His Paganini Caprice No. 24 is jaw-dropping, and it is still mind-boggling to know that somebody could play like that! How is it even physically possible? And most likely in one take, too! That kind of efficiency is something I admire tremendously. Heifetz seems to have lived a very lonely life. Like a monk who dedicates his life to God, he dedicated his to the violin. Today, in order for us to have full lives, with children, family, travel, it’s very difficult to uphold that standard.
EH: The Barber concerto is one of the most beautiful works of the twentieth century. You recorded it at the age of eighteen, and again most recently. I imagine your feelings on the work, towards Barber himself, have changed drastically since then ?
Meyers: Yes, absolutely. The Barber concerto was my first recording, and at the time, hardly anybody was playing it. There was a freshness, and an originality built into that early recording. I attribute my learning the work to Alice Schoenfeld, who had her students perform that concerto. I actually studied lots of interesting music with her, things like the Walter Piston Trio!
I’ve now performed the Barber concerto nearly a thousand times, and I love how efficient it is. At 23 minutes long, I often feel I’m an ice-skater while performing it, moving around the rink, gracefully. The second movement is so passionate and beautiful, but there’s always the danger that you can play it with too much sentimentality. There are rich overtones of the Adagio for Strings, which he wrote just a year earlier in 1938. The rhythmic propulsion of the last movement is incredible, and it never gets easier to play. When the percussion begins, I always wonder whether I’ll be able to make it through the movement just one more time!
EH: The other work on your latest album is the violin concerto that you commissioned Mason Bates to write. What are its compositional strengths, its difficulties for performers, and your personal feelings towards it ? Did you work alongside him ?
Meyers: Mason and I actually discussed the concept of a violin concerto many years ago, when I asked him to rewrite the cadenzas of the Beethoven concerto in 2007. That’s how our friendship began. The time it takes to dream-up a work, to find the commissioning dollars, and to finally play it on stage, is such a lengthy, but incredible journey: it feels like I birthed a child into the world!
Mason and I worked very closely together on it, and I’m looking forward to hearing other violinists perform it. It is his first concerto for any instrument, and we discussed how things would work technically, what was technically possible, etc. He decided early on not to incorporate electronica - which is a regular feature in many of his other works - for fear of swallowing up the violin whole with too much sound. There were many revisions made, even during the recording sessions. With the ending, for example, he wanted to change it right then and there!
The concerto is the story about a hybrid bird-dinosaur, and there are many exotic sounds in both the orchestra and the soloist’s part, where rhythm and coloristic texture is rich and varied throughout. It’s a very comprehensive task to bring something of that scope to life, and I’m always in awe of most composers, how they can think of so many voices and all these giant pieces of the puzzle. I have the greatest respect for Mason, and the work is a beautiful, cinematic, and very highly-textured piece that, in my opinion, is one of the most important violin concertos written in the last fifty years. I loved collaborating with him, and I had to ask him again, to commission him to write a violin/piano piece that I premiered at the Aspen Music Festival just this past year.
EH: You are very much connected to the music that is being written today. When did you decide to delve into the music of living composers, commissions, etc. ? Is there a living composer you believe students and audiences should demand more performances of ?
Meyers: I’ve always had my ear peeled for interesting music. As a student, I regularly spent time hunting for interesting repertoire, looking through music bins, buying stacks and stacks of CDs, and discovering rarely played pieces by composers like Messiaen, etc. Did you know Ravel has a tango?!
We regularly dissect and discuss composers who are no longer alive, and to have a conversation with a living composer, to experience how they see their work and want it heard, is very compelling. When I premiered Joseph Schwantner’s Angelfire, I remember going to his studio at Yale and playing the piece for him for the first time. He would excitedly shout, “I want this!” or “Do you hear that?!”, and I would say, “Tell me more! Don’t hold back!” I always say that if Ravel or Rachmaninoff were alive, I would pester the crap out of them to write more for the violin. It just completely fascinates me.
I think Mason Bates is an incredible talent. His music is very accessible, music that audiences clamour to hear. There’s beautiful drama that I appreciate in John Corigliano’s music as well. Composers send me their compositions to look over, and it’s a constantly evolving process. So I do like to stay current, with both feet firmly planted in the present.
EH: In many professions, women are often subjected to lower pay, various forms of harassment, along with the societal pressures of raising a family. If you’re comfortable answering, I’m curious to know if you’ve ever encountered any of these in the profession. Also, how did you manage to find the balance between family life and the career of traveling musician ?
Meyers: When I look back on a lot of my twenties, there are many moments where I just think to myself, ‘I cannot believe I survived’. I think there are more tools available to people today, to help themselves. There was no internet back then. I was traveling the world as a teenager, by myself, getting myself from place to place. I remember performing in Russia when I was twenty, and I stayed at this hotel with 3000 rooms. There were sailors knocking on my room door, wanting to barter stuffed animals with Marlboros that I had been instructed to bring! There were just these incredibly wild experiences.
There were times when I would call my parents and be very upset at the many different factors, the loneliness that pervades when you’re on tour as a soloist. It’s the feeling of showing up to play with an orchestra, and everybody is nice, but very busy with their own lives, with their own families. What do you have ? A hotel room and the music in your fingers. That’s what gets you to go through the front doors to the hall and onto the stage, all over the world. That kind of pressure can be a lot.
I’ve always had a very strong support system, with my family, my sister, and now with my husband and my own family. I was very fortunate to have met my husband pretty late in my life, and I was forty when I had my first child. I cannot imagine my life without my daughters, 2 and 4 years old. We all travel together now. Sometimes I feel like a cat with 25 lives, and I’ve been very fortunate to have survived.
Music should be an integral part of one’s life, but how one is able to access it or use it as a career vehicle will always remain in question. One has to commit their life to music and not expect to get famous or rich doing it. There are many ways to get involved with lives or communities and enrich the minds of others through music, but you really have to want to do this.
EH: On the subject of children, Kyung-Wha Chung has recently come under fire for her in-concert stance on bringing young children to the concert hall. As a mother of two, what is your take on the matter ?
Meyers: My kids are two and four, and they have frequently attended dress rehearsals and concerts where I have been performing. Of course, they have also attended performances of friends and colleagues. We’ve learned that it's helpful to sit in the back of the hall, so that you can quietly slip away in case of any potential emergencies. Snacks and coloring books are also helpful, but even then, I am usually breaking into a sweat worrying that my daughters will behave.
Recently, my daughter was busy drawing while I rehearsed, but afterward, was thrilled to be up on stage, waving her hands like a conductor. I consider these moments some of the great perks of my profession, and I love seeing them and other children at any classical performances.
EH: Beyond music, what other art forms have captivated you over the years ?
Meyers: I love going to the theater, and visiting museums. Recently, my 4-year-old insisted that we go to The Lion King in New York, and I didn’t know what to expect. After the opening five minutes, with the incredible costumes and beautiful storytelling, I was completely hooked! I cannot wait to return for a repeat performance. Keeping an open mind is crucial, as you never know when and where inspiration can strike. It often seems to come during the most spontaneous moments in life.
EH: On the subject of music school, is there something you’ve learned as a professional musician that you would have like to learn – either during your time at Colburn or Juilliard – that you were not taught ?
Meyers: A financial planning class, media training, creating and designing a website, working with agents, music producers, and public relations professionals. Oh, and how to pack a suitcase with giant gowns! (laughs)
EH: Anne, it’s been a wonderful pleasure speaking with you. Thank you for taking the time.
Meyers: Thank you, Elijah. It’s been a pleasure!