FOR LONGTIME CLASSICAL music enthusiasts, it might be hard to think of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor as inspirational. First performed in 1845, the passionate three-movement concerto has evolved over the last 50 years to become one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the world, the kind that pops up on the radio or in a film or a Warner Brothers cartoon, and burrows its way into your subconscious. And it's the kind of piece that a concert violinist keeps in his or her back pocket for when an orchestra needs a guaranteed winner on the concert calendar.
For Karen Gomyo, as a five-year-old living in Montreal—the child of a Canadian father and a Japanese mother, she exhibited a deep understanding of music even before she could speak—hearing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto for the first time was a revelation. "I was completely in awe," she says. "The music was so beautiful. I was really taken by it."
Gomyo is 33 now, and a renowned concert violinist. And when she arrives in Portland in April to solo alongside the Oregon Symphony, it's Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto she'll be performing. She'll play it again the following month in Vancouver, BC. She's played it dozens of times before, and she'll play it many more.
She's not sick of the piece, though, and she doesn't seem sick of telling the story of that fateful night in Quebec, which set her on a career path that now finds her planning visits to Australia, Denmark, Germany, and various stops throughout North America. When she talks about that concert, the music, and her move at age 11 from Montreal to New York to study at Juilliard with famed instructor Dorothy DeLay, there's still a hint of wonder in her voice.
"One of her many talents was to see the potential in kids who might not even see [it]," Gomyo remembers of her teacher. "I hadn't necessarily thought that I was that good, but when she invited me, it was at that point that I thought I might be able to develop into a much better violinist."
Gomyo has certainly done that. A fearsome soloist with a tone that's equal parts muscular and feathery, she has proven capable of tackling pieces as heated as the tangos of Astor Piazzolla and as rhythmically trying as Philip Glass's swirling Violin Concerto No. 1. She has now built up enough of a reputation and repertoire that she can afford to live the life of a musical nomad—with bookings set through 2017—while also challenging herself as a violinist.
"It is strange to know what you're doing two or three years from now," Gomyo says. "I know how to best shape my schedule so it's not overwhelming. And as I get older, I choose projects that speak to me on a personal level. There was a time when I was just doing the usual concerto rounds, and now I'm really taking [an interest] in projects and working with people that I connect with strongly. This makes everything really interesting and I thrive on the variety that I have now."
But when it comes to a piece like Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, how does a player like Gomyo, with her skill and voice, put a personal stamp on an old chestnut in the classical canon?
"You have to not be so indulgent in the emotions of the piece," she says. "It's so pure in the sense that the emotions in it are not great sadness or great happiness. It's really about the emotional experience of every human being. And it has to come from a completely sincere place. You have to tap into those emotions in a way that's not heavy and not indulgent, but just right."
Brahms, Mendelssohn, Haydn
Oregon Symphony w/Karen Gomyo, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, Sat April 25, 7:30 pm, Mon April 27, 8 pm, $22-99