By Kyle MacMillan
Like all the world’s elite violin soloists, Anne Akiko Meyers brings supercharged skills and innate musicality to the instrument. What sets the San Diego native apart is her uncommon curiosity and openness and a kind of “Aw, shucks” groundedness. Her popular appeal led her to become Billboard’s top-selling traditional classical instrumental soloist in 2014, and it helps explain why many of her 37 albums have debuted at number one on the classical charts.
Although she has faced challenges like anyone else, the well-liked 49-year-old violinist has enjoyed something of a charmed career, beginning with her solo debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic when she was 11 and continuing to the present. Along the way, she appeared twice on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show with a childhood piano quartet, studied with several of the greatest violin teachers of the late 20th century, and signed her first record deal at 21 with the prestigious label RCA Red Seal.
“It’s a wonderful place where I am now,” Meyers says. “I just love working with so many of my colleagues, and I have several concertos that I will be premiering in the coming years. And to be performing on this [1741 Guarneri “del Gesù”] violin is also a dream. I’m also in a wonderful place having two young children and an incredibly supportive husband. You never quite know, when you’re younger, what’s going to happen. Just the gratitude I have is exponential.”
Ravinia audiences will have a chance to experience Meyers at work when she joins and the Lucerne Symphony and its chief conductor, James Gaffigan, for a concert on August 19, her first with an orchestra at the festival. The internationally respected Swiss ensemble made its American debut at Ravinia in 2017, when it performed two concerts under Gaffigan, who took over his post in 2011 and has a contract extension that will carry him through 2021–22.
Meyers started violin lessons at 4, following the famed Suzuki method for the first three years, and she just “naturally gravitated” to the instrument. It probably didn’t hurt, as the story goes in her family, that her mother played recordings of famed Russian violinist David Oistrakh while she was still in the womb. Quickly recognized as a child prodigy, she made her debut at age 7 with a local community orchestra.
It was also around that time that she attended a concert at the Hollywood Bowl featuring celebrated virtuoso Itzhak Perlman in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and began to dream about her future with the instrument. “I thought, that’s what I want to do,” she says. “I want to be a concert violinist. I think that’s so, so cool.” Four years later, she performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and made the first of two appearances on The Tonight Show.
At age 16, she signed a contract with one of the top artist agencies in the country, ICM Artists, and began performing professionally at the same time she was continuing her studies. After a stint at the Colburn School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles, she went on to further studies with Josef Gingold at Indiana University and Dorothy DeLay, Felix Galimir, and Masao Kawasaki at The Juilliard School. After graduating when she was 20, she signed a contract with RCA Red Seal. Put simply, she was already at the top of her profession, and she had barely started.
Few violinists have recorded 37 albums before they even turn 50. Meyers’s first came at 18 when she recorded with the Royal Philharmonic at the famed Abbey Road Studios in London, with DeLay making a point of being in attendance. Her most recent on the Avie label, Mirror in Mirror, features a carefully selected group of short selections by such composers as Philip Glass, Morten Lauridsen, and Arvo Pärt, including several that were written or arranged for her. “It’s really fascinating to see the changes in the [recording] business,” she says. “I’ve gone through many different scenarios—from working with big companies and filling their catalogs to being in a really great place now where I record what I find is interesting to me.” As on Mirror in Mirror, she now serves as the executive producer for her albums, doing everything from securing venues for the recording sessions to choosing the cover art. “It takes a lot more work,” she says, “but to have that creative control is incredible.”
While the violinist has never given up on the mainstream violin repertoire by the likes of Max Bruch or Johannes Brahms, she has always been fascinated by offbeat and contemporary pieces. When she was younger, she would rummage through bins at record stores and take home scores of albums featuring music that she had never encountered before. That’s how she discovered Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara and fell in love with one of his most widely known works, Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra), which incorporates recordings of birdsong recorded near the Arctic Circle. Several decades later, she asked him to write a piece for her, and the result was Fantasia, which she premiered in 2017 with the Kansas City (MO) Symphony and later recorded. She played it for Rautavaara in his apartment in Helsinki seven months before his death in July 2016. “It was the best feeling in the world,” she says.
In July 2018, the Recording Academy presented John Williams, composer of celebrated scores for such movies as Star Wars and Jaws, with a lifetime award during a ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. As part of that event, which was televised in October in a broadcast titled Great Performances: Grammy Salute to Music Legends 2018, Meyers performed the theme from Schindler’s List with David Newman and the American Youth Symphony. She first met Williams when she was 19 or 20 and took part in a concert he conducted with the Boston Pops Orchestra. “Performing for him after his introduction was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before,” she recalls of the event. “It was seriously like playing in front of God and his apostles. You saw the enormity of his career and everything he has accomplished, and to suddenly go out in real time and play live in front of him and all his friends, it was like, ‘If I can survive this, I can survive anything.’ ”
Composers who have created works for Meyers include Mason Bates, Somei Satoh, and Joseph Schwantner. Her 2014 album, American Masters, includes Bates’s Violin Concerto and John Corigliano’s Lullaby for Natalie, which was written for her firstborn daughter. She premiered Adam Schoenberg’s first violin concerto, Orchard in Fog, with the San Diego Symphony in February 2018. In September, she will present the European debut of the piece at the George Enescu Festival in Romania and then perform it with several other ensembles, including the Louisville (KY) Orchestra. Future commissions include an Amelia Earhart–inspired work by Michael Daugherty that is set to be premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra in March 2021 and another by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez. “Working one-on-one in the presence of these incredible composers is just so inspiring to me,” she says. “And also it’s almost tailor-made to your specifications because you can talk to the composer and you can say, ‘You know what? This technically does not work at all. I know what you are trying to achieve musically, but you have to go at it in a different way.’ ”
In 2013, Meyers gained the use of the famed 1741 “Vieuxtemps” Guarneri “del Gesù” violin, which was purchased by an anonymous buyer and loaned to her on a lifetime basis. According to Violinist.com, it was purchased from a London banker through the dealer J & A Beare Ltd. for an undisclosed amount. But the purchase price is known to have exceeded the previous world-record sale price for a violin—a Stradivarius sold in 2011 for $15.9 million. Fewer than 200 violins exist by Giuseppe Guarneri (known as Guarneri “del Gesù” because of the way he signed his name on his instruments), who rivaled Antonio Stradivari as the greatest luthier of the 17th and 18th centuries. “To actually have this violin,” Meyers says, “which is in triple-mint condition with no cracks, no sound-post patch, none of the normal things that affect a violin—it really looks like it just left Guarneri’s bench, and that condition helps its sound be so sonorous and gargantuan. It’s just extraordinary.”
Guarneri violins have a darker sound than those of Stradivari. Meyers spoke of the depth she can achieve on the G string of her instrument and its “cathedral-like” E string. She has had to learn how to apply just the right “deft touch” to bring out the best from the sensitive violin. “It has own personality, and it’s meshing with yours,” she says, “so there is a chemistry that comes between the performer and the instrument that is so personal and unique. I’m in awe and also so thrilled that I can to have the palette of colors with the Guarneri that I’ve really not had my disposal before.”
For her concert at Ravinia, Meyers will serve as soloist in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. The piece was originally written for another prodigy, Iso Briselli, but after a dispute between him and the composer over the final movement, it was premiered in 1941 by violinist Albert Spalding and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Despite its initial success, the concerto fell into virtual obscurity by the 1970s in part because it had never been associated with a major violinist, as Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto was with Jascha Heifetz. A big step toward its revival was Meyers’s recording of it in 1988 with the Royal Philharmonic—a daring move for a young artist’s inaugural album. The piece got another big boost in 1994 with Gil Shaham’s recording of it with conductor André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, and it is now firmly ensconced in the standard repertory. Meyers has gone on to perform the work more than 120 times and to record it a second time in 2014. “You could call me the queen of the Barber Violin Concerto,” she says. “It’s a piece that I have lived and breathed for a long time, and it’s one of the most glorious concertos to play.” ▪
Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently freelances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and Classical Voice of North America.