Bringing Harmony to Sri Lanka
By Julie Riggott
Last March, Midori Goto led a group of her USC Thornton students and alumni on an outreach trip to Sri Lanka. Here, she visits with a blind schoolgirl. (All photos by Luka Alagiyawanna, except where noted)
Midori performs for a group of school Sri Lankan school children with pianist Jiayi Shi.
Thornton violinists Moni Simeonov, Yue Qian, Mei Ching Huang, Yabing Tan, and Chang He pose for a selfie with local children. (Photo courtesy of Moni Simeonov)
Chang He, a graduate student of Midori Goto, performs at a local school. (Photo courtesy of Moni Simeonov)
Midori Goto (third from right) and student musicians pose with young Sri Lankan music students.
Moni Simeonov works with young musicians in a Sri Lankan youth orchestra.
Yue Qian performs.
Midori Goto plays music for the residents of a Sri Lankan hospital for the disabled.
At the conclusion of their visit to Sri Lanka, Midori Goto and her students performed for the Chamber Music Society of Colombo.
Midori's USC Thornton group. Top Row: Yue Qian (BM ’17), graduate student Strauss Shi, and Moni Simeonov (GCRT ’09); Row 2: Graduate student James McFadden-Talbot (BM ’13), Pianist Jiayi Shi, and Jiyoung Park (MM ’15); Row 3: Non-degreed alumna Mei Ching Huang, Yabing Tan (DMA ’17), and Midori Goto; At bottom: Graduate student Chang He. (Photo courtesy of Moni Simeonov)
The photo speaks a thousand words about Midori Goto’s mission in life. In a room lined on two sides with as many as 20 wooden beds, lie people so disabled there are toilets underneath the sheets and makeshift showers hanging above. Empty wheelchairs stand by walls with peeling paint. In the center of the room, Goto plays her violin. The room, one of seven in a home for people with disabilities in Sri Lanka, may speak of poverty and isolation, but today there is music.
She could be anywhere: a concert hall in Los Angeles, a black-tie affair in Tokyo. But the girl who debuted as a child prodigy with the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and became known the world over as Midori has dedicated the past 25 years of her life to bringing music to under-served communities and young people.
A Distinguished Professor and Jascha Heifetz Chair in Violin at USC Thornton, Goto was recently named a Judge Widney Professor of Music at USC. Created to honor USC’s founder, Judge Robert Maclay Widney, the title is reserved for eminent individuals from the arts, sciences, professions and business. Most recently, renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, a two-time alumnus of Thornton (’67 and MM ’76), was named a Judge Widney Professor.
“We are thrilled to announce this new title for Midori,” said Robert Cutietta, Dean of USC Thornton. “She’s had a profound impact on our school, and we are excited for her to continue to work with our students for years to come.”
Healing Through Music
In March, Goto took eight current and former USC Thornton students, along with her studio pianist, to Sri Lanka for a week of performances and classes. She said the most meaningful part of the outreach was sharing it with her students.
“I really enjoyed the chance to be together with my students,” Goto said. “It’s always meaningful to see my students committing themselves and giving themselves and doing the best they can to share their music.”
Goto’s violin studio students do plenty of outreach in Los Angeles, playing in jails, nursing homes, schools and other institutions. “This is an extension of that, but much more intense and also with a new culture, and it was really, really wonderful to see my students embracing it.”
They started in Colombo, where the Chamber Music Society of Colombo is a ray of light in a nation still recovering from a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009. Then they traveled north to territories that had seen heavy fighting. “We worked with string programs in schools in former battle zones,” Goto said. “They’re using music as part of bringing people together, healing.” Next, the group headed west to Galle, where a tsunami killed 30,000 people, before returning to Colombo.
Typically, their days were long: 7:30 a.m. to midnight, or longer for those who got up earlier to warm up and practice the daily performance pieces. They performed two or three times a day at venues such as a school for blind kids, a school for the hearing impaired, homes for the elderly and music schools. Some days they rehearsed with the Chamber Music Society of Colombo in anticipation of the final concert of the trip — a collaborative USC/CMSC performance of solo pieces, piano sonatas and Vivaldi’s concerto for four violins.
“Perhaps the most striking of all the places was the facility for people with disabilities,” said Moni Simeonov (GC ’09, DMA in progress), who started traveling with Goto on outreach trips through her Orchestra Residencies Program in 2009 while a student at USC Thornton and has visited 30 American cities from North Dakota to Alabama and three other countries. “Midori performed multiple pieces in all of the rooms, but most of us were able to only visit three or four. It was wonderful for us to see Midori’s unwavering focus, all while performing in 90 percent humidity.”
Goto said it was helpful to have experienced teachers, like Simeonov, who is director of string studies at the Bob Cole Conservatory at California State University, Long Beach, and Yabing Tan (DMA ’17), who is on the faculty of the Shanghai University School of Music, with her on this trip. In addition to classes, workshops and coaching for the youth orchestra members in Colombo, Simeonov and Tan taught technique classes. “They were addressing not just the students, but also their teachers,” Goto said, “on how to teach and how to work on technical fundamental elements of violin playing.”
In some of the villages, there is a strong system of music education in the schools, based on Venezuela’s well-known El Sistema, Goto said. “The music programs are for their classical music, not Western classical. Western classical music is still very much of a novelty.” And in some places, musicians have never had formal teachers or lessons. Wherever they went, Goto and her group were warmly received. “All of these young violinists are so hungry for knowledge, ” she said, “and we were able to help them.”
“There are many wonderful musicians from Sri Lanka, but nearly all of them live abroad,” Simeonov said. “During the lengthy civil war, nearly all of the notable professionals, including the musicians, left the country. One man, [Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Colombo] Lakshman Joseph de Saram, has taken the musical future of the country into his hands. He and his wife, Anusha, arranged all of our activities and created a snowball effect, giving motivation to the small number of local music teachers and raising money for instruments and to grow the programs.”
Deep Roots at USC Thornton
Given the bonds she has forged with her USC Thornton students in the studio and through outreach, Goto has mixed feelings about her next trip: to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Of course, she is excited about joining the faculty there, but her USC roots go deep.
“I was at USC for close to 15 years, and it’s very dear to me,” she said. “It’s a place where I really came into being. It’s a very, very important part of my life, to be there, to teach there and to lead the department. I’m going to miss what I was able to do in L.A. I found myself, who I am right now, in L.A.”
Fortunately, she will continue to teach and inspire students at USC Thornton as a Judge Widney Professor of Music, mentoring students, giving master classes and workshops and more.
“I have a strong emotional connection to the school,” Goto said, “and I am very honored and moved that the dean and the president decided that they would keep that connection with me by giving me this new title.”
That means USC Thornton students will continue to have life-changing experiences like Chang He, who has performed music for the elderly and orphans in L.A. and joined Goto in Sri Lanka and in Mexico last year.
“The most important thing I learned is love,” he said. “I remember I was touched the first time by a very old lady who was lying on the bed in the hospital. After I played, I saw she was smiling and there were tears in her eyes. I realized that it’s a spirit of love I had never found before, and this is something I could do for people as a musician.”
She added: “I appreciate Ms. Goto very much for making me a better person.”
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