Presto con Fuoco
For violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, life is best played fast and fiery
For much of the past year, Anne Akiko Meyers' life has been moving at a clip that would leave most folks dizzy. In June 2010, the violinist gave birth to her first child, Natalie. In September, she released her latest CD, Seasons ... dreams, and hit the road for five weeks of touring dates that had her zig-zagging cross-country with 3-month-old Natalie in tow. In the midst of those travels, she fell in love with and paid a record price at auction – $3.6 million – for a 313-year-old violin made by legendary luthier Antonio Stradivari. (See "Anne Akiko Meyers," Nov. 5, 2010.) That earned her an appearance on Countdown With Keith Olbermann just after her first concert playing the 1697 "Molitor," as the violin is known, with the Pasadena Symphony. And since the first of the year, she's managed to squeeze in three concerts in Dusseldorf, Germany; two in New York City; and one in Amelia Island, Fla. That's beyond life in the fast lane; that's life on the Bonneville Salt Flats, breaking land speed records.
"I'm kind of used to that pace," says Meyers, "traveling and touring and constantly being stimulated by music and people and life." After all, she's been going 90 miles per hour since she was 4, when she first picked up the violin. Within three years, she had appeared with a community orchestra and begun studying with Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld at the Colburn School of Performing Arts. At the age of 11, she performed twice on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At age 12, she performed with the New York Philharmonic. Two years later, she began studying music at Indiana University, and a year after that, she was offered a full scholarship to Juilliard by Dorothy DeLay. At age 16, she signed with professional management and at 18 released her first recording. Meyers likens the speed with which her career took off to "just like a rocket," and when you travel that fast long enough, you know, it starts to feel normal.
Meyers downshifts a little this week when she serves as guest soloist with the Austin Symphony Orchestra. For almost two years, she's called the capital of Texas home, so unlike most of her gigs, this one won't involve negotiating airport security, hours-long flights, and cabs on top of the task of making music. She can drive herself to Dell Hall from her home near Mount Bonnell, make it there in 15 minutes, and, as she puts it, "The thing that's so amazing here is that I can go back to my own bed after the concert." Moreover, there's the ease of working with a good friend and colleague, ASO Music Director Peter Bay, who's known Meyers for more than a dozen years. "I always love working with her," he says, and whenever the two get together socially outside the concert hall: "We're talking about, 'What should we do next?' Anne is a person [for whom] I always have that question: What should we do next?" Meyers' appearance with ASO this week resulted from just such a conversation two summers ago after Meyers performed the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 at the Britt Classical Festival, where Bay serves as music director. According to Bay: "We had such a wonderful time doing it in Oregon that I said, 'This is something that we should do in Austin if you're interested.' She said, 'Absolutely.'"
That's not to suggest that, because Meyers will be playing a familiar piece with an old friend in her neighborhood, the violinist will be coasting through the performances at the Long Center. That's not something she can abide in other musicians, and it simply isn't in her nature. "I really can't stand going to a performance when someone is phoning it in," she says. "And you can tell really within the first minute – or even the first second – the sound that somebody creates. That's not what I'm here for, and that's not what I want to share with people. I want people to get excited, and I want people to feel emotional when I play. There's a lot of emotion involved with performance, and it's my form of expression. So if I'm not communicating at this level of intensity, what's the point? There are times when I am completely overwhelmed because of premieres and so much to take care of and travels and the added responsibility of a child, but most of the time [challenge is] what I really thrive on: the total stimuli that I need."
You can sense the kind of challenge that Meyers still finds in Prokofiev from the admiring and energetic way that she talks about the composer. "Prokofiev's writing is so efficient. He could have been an assassin in his second life," she says with a mischievous grin. "He knows exactly what he wants from the instrument, and [the concerto is] so perfectly engineered – the fingerings, the writing, the dynamics. Then there's the added benefit of the irony and the time that the first concerto was written in: so much turmoil with World War I and yet Prokofiev was in Paris when he wrote it, so he's seduced by this impressionistic beauty that was surrounding all of the writers and composers of the day. And you can hear all of that – and you can hear violence, and you can hear so much ethereal beauty as well. It just has such extremes, but it's so intellectually written."
Bay believes the work to be an especially fine match for the violinist. "There's something about the Prokofiev, its introspective moments and the absolutely demonic virtuoso moments that are absolutely well-suited to Anne's playing abilities," he notes. "She knows how to play a very introspective phrase with a very hushed quality. She almost plays it so softly that you really have to work hard to hear, and I think that's a wonderful part of playing the violin, to draw the listener into you. You're always taught as a soloist, of course, to play out to the audience, but when you can draw the audience into you, that's something quite remarkable, and Anne has that gift."
Bay recognized that quality in Meyers when she first soloed with the symphony during his first season at the helm back in 1997. Her performance on the Beethoven Violin Concerto made a strong impression on him because, he says, "her interpretation was unique. It was the interpretation of a very young, dynamic person, as opposed to a violinist who's maybe in her 60s or 70s, who has played it several hundred times, has lived with it, and it has aged in a certain way. But Anne's was dynamic, as if it had just been written. I also recall that she wore a very long, striking white dress, which played against the piece. Because the piece is very gritty, and yet she looked like this dove. And that's one way I would describe Anne: She has this very fiery personality, and it comes out a lot in her music-making and her conversation, but she has a dovelike quality, too. She has since played with us Ravel's Tzigane, which was paired with Chausson's Poème – two very contrasting pieces, much like Anne. The Poème is very introspective, kind of melancholy and sad, but the Tzigane is all fire and fireworks. And, of course, she nailed them both.
"To play Prokofiev and to play Beethoven – those are almost two different worlds of music-making, and yet she finds a freshness in both of them. Whenever I've heard her play, I've never been disappointed. I've never thought, 'Well, Anne, you need to live with that a little longer.' I've never felt that. I've felt that she finds the core of that particular piece of music and brings it out in her performance."
Asked if he's witnessed any evolution in Meyers' skills as she has matured, the conductor replies: "She was a very well-rounded musician already when we first met, but I feel that the slow parts of the music that she plays somehow seem a little bit more thoughtful than before. It's easier for her to communicate her introspective side. For young soloists, the hope is that you can show people how well you can play technically on the fiddle. But playing slow movements of concertos, playing very introspective things, that's harder in a way and harder to communicate. When you hear the beginning of the Prokofiev concerto, this is what I'm speaking about: the way she can spin the opening line. That's extremely hard to do."
Some of that may be traced to the personal growth that Meyers has experienced in recent years: leaving New York, getting married, giving birth. "Definitely having a child is transcending in metaphysical, spiritual, in every way," she affirms. "It's hard to describe how your playing has changed, but I feel this serenity, and I feel like I can take even more risks because there's such stability. That's really a beautiful thing, and I attribute that to my husband, who's been such an incredible force in my life. Being able to concertize is really different than being a free agent and doing everything on your own. You feel like there's a life force that's holding you in a really positive way."
Somewhere in the mix is Austin, too, which has offered Meyers a bit of an off-ramp from the pedal-to-the-metal pace that's been the norm for her for so long. "The people here are incredibly friendly," she says. "I'm very sensitive to that, especially being an ex-New Yorker. New Yorkers are very stressed out. You don't go to New York for a lifestyle. You go to New York to aspire to be something. Everyone there is hoping and dreaming to be something. I lived in New York for close to 25 years and was single for most of that time, so I was really there for the airports. I was constantly at Newark, JFK, or La Guardia. Everything was a direct flight. It was super easy. I never had to deal with a delay and never had to do a connection."
Which suited Meyers just fine as long as she was a musician on her own. But when a husband entered the scene and with him the prospect of children, the Big Apple began to look quite different. "It's very difficult having a family in New York. I know lots of friends who are doing it, but it's just not a very user-friendly town. Even just getting onto the bus or the subway or dealing with cabs, it's a lot of finagling. And getting an apartment large enough for three people – you're lucky to get something larger than a 700-square-foot apartment, with no washer and dryer, so you're in a box. Here, it's 10, 15 minutes to anywhere: Target, Whole Foods, the cleaners, the post office; whatever I need to do errandwise, it's 15 minutes, and that's awesome. It's super convenient and manageable when I am here. And my husband's work is based out of here, so we're enjoying living here. We live close to Mount Bonnell, so we have a beautiful view of Lake Austin and nature and the trees and the owls and all that. It's very pleasant. Now, I constantly have to go to New York for work or get my bow rehaired, and that's great. It's great to visit there, but it's great to live here."
The two cities that are so very different create for Meyers a kind of balance just as the extremes she sees in the Prokofiev give it a balance, as the opposing qualities that Bay sees in her personality gives Meyers herself balance. As the violinist finds herself busier than ever, balance plays an ever greater role, the thing that will allow her to stay racing ahead, taking new risks, for another 40 years.
Audiences for this weekend's Austin Symphony concert will have the opportunity to hear Anne Akiko Meyers tackle the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 on her new prized possession, the 1697 Stradivarius violin known as the "Molitor." Meyers has had four months with the instrument, during which she's played a handful of concerts. So how is the sound? "The violin is blossoming," she says. "It really was not played for a while. It was sitting in amateurs' hands for some time. The violin is like a flower: You have to give it water; you have to nurture it in order for it to sparkle." But she hears a distinct difference that she's thrilled by and believes audiences will be, too: "The overtones that are coming out on the violin are just extraordinary – a piercing beauty in the quality of the violin and the sound."
Anne Akiko Meyers performs with the Austin Symphony Orchestra Friday and Saturday, Feb. 18 & 19, 8pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 476-6064 or visit www.austinsymphony.org.