Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers: From Playing In Knee Socks To Owning Two Strads

Feb 6, 2012
Originally published on February 6, 2012 6:49 pm

Johann Sebastian Bach's Concerto for Two Violins, Strings and Continuo in D minor — better known as Bach's Double Concerto — has been recorded by many duos of great violinists.

But a new recording by Anne Akiko Meyers called AIR: The Bach Album offers something different: She plays both solo parts, one on each of her two prized Stradivarius violins. One is the "Molitor" Stradivarius from 1697, which is thought to have been owned by Napoleon and which she bought at auction two years ago for a then-record $3.6 million. The other is the "Royal Spanish" Strad, dating from 1730, which was once owned by the king of Spain.

Meyers calls the Double Concerto "one of the most fascinating compositions," and says that many people were curious to hear how two violins that, as she says, "suddenly came into" her possession would sound together. So she recorded one solo part in London with the English Chamber Orchestra, and the other in New York with headphones several months later, listening to her first recording as she played.

"I played the first violin part on the Molitor Strad, and then I did the second violin part on the Royal Spanish Strad," she says. She says she thought carefully about which violin to pair with which part. "The Royal Spanish has a little more masculine tone to it. 'Molly,' as I call her, has a very pure, beautiful, crystalline voice." So Meyers plays the first violin part on the Molitor, while the lower bass notes are on the Royal Spanish.

Meyers' mother is Japanese and her father is American; she was born in San Diego and studied at the Colburn School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles. She was 4 years old when she began playing violin.

"There's a story that my mother played a lot of music for me when she was pregnant with me. She played the recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with David Oistrakh once I was born," Meyers says, "and especially when she fed me, so I would associate the pleasure of food and eating with music."

Perhaps it was to create a Pavlovian association?

"Yeah," the violinist says with a laugh. "I get hungry every time I play."

Thanks to YouTube, an early Meyers performance is available online. As an 11-year-old, she appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

"I'm the one with the long knee socks," Meyers says. "I still haven't forgiven my mother that she put me on national TV wearing long knee socks."

A more recent performance of hers has been memorialized on YouTube: when Meyers played the national anthem before a Seattle Mariners-Boston Red Sox game last year.

"That was such an honor to be asked — to get up in front of 42,000 screaming fans was just so thrilling," she says. "And I'm very proud to say that the Mariners went on to win like three games after that. I would like to completely credit myself for their winning."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is from the second movement, the slow middle movement of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Concerto for Two Violins, Strings and Continuo in D Minor." It's known for short as "Bach's Double Concerto." Over the years, it's been recorded by many duos of great violinists, but this recording is different. It's from the new album "AIR: The Bach Album" by Anne Akiko Meyers and on this recording she plays both parts, but each with a different one of her two prized Stradivarius violins.

Anne Akiko Meyers joins us now from Austin, Texas, to talk about Bach, her new recording and her very old violins. Welcome to the program.

ANNE AKIKO MEYERS: Thank you so much, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, tell me about the double concerto and about your interest in playing it.

MEYERS: Well, it's one of the most fascinating compositions written and it fascinated me that many people were so curious to hear how two violins that I suddenly came into acquiring - how they would sound together. So I came up with the brilliant idea of recording both parts, the first part in London with the English Chamber Orchestra and the second part in New York, onstage with earphones.

SIEGEL: You mean you listened to the first recording through earphones when you recorded the second.

MEYERS: That's right. Several months later.

SIEGEL: And were you complaining in your head about the first violinist as you were recording the second violinist? You were saying, what is she - why is she playing it that way?

MEYERS: Why is she doing it that fast and - got to calm her down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONCERTO FOR TWO VIOLINS, STRINGS AND CONTINUO IN D MINOR")

SIEGEL: Which violin is which? And tell us a bit about the fiddles.

MEYERS: Well, I played the first violin part on the Napoleon Molatore Strad dated 1697 and recorded that section in London. And then I did the second violin part on the Royal Spanish violin dated 1730, also by Strad. And I chose those parts for each voice, being that the Royal Spanish has a little more kind of masculine tone to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONCERTO FOR TWO VIOLINS, STRINGS AND CONTINUO IN D MINOR")

MEYERS: And Molly, I call her, is really this very pure, beautiful crystalline voice and I thought that would just be so suitable for the first violin part.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONCERTO FOR TWO VIOLINS, STRINGS AND CONTINUO IN D MINOR")

SIEGEL: We hear the violin that's playing first is the more - as you would say, it's the more feminine sound.

MEYERS: Yes. It's definitely the higher register of the double concerto is the first violin part and the lower bass notes are on the Royal Spanish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONCERTO FOR TWO VIOLINS, STRINGS AND CONTINUO IN D MINOR")

SIEGEL: People who aren't entirely familiar with you may not hear what I'm saying when I say Anne Akiko Meyers. Your middle name is Akiko. It's a Japanese name.

MEYERS: That's right. My mother is Japanese. My father is American.

SIEGEL: And you grew up in California?

MEYERS: Yes. I was born in San Diego and studied in the Los Angeles area at the Coleburn School of Performing Arts.

SIEGEL: How young were you when you started playing the violin?

MEYERS: I was four years old. You know, there's a story that my mother played a lot of music for me when she was pregnant with me. And she played a lot of Beethoven, violin concerto by David Oistrakh once I was born, and especially when she fed me, so I would associate, you know, pleasure of food and eating with music.

SIEGEL: You were trained. This is the Pavlovian treatment to raise a violinist.

MEYERS: Yeah. I get hungry every time I play.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks to the miracle of the Internet and YouTube, this performance of yours is available to posterity. This is when you were 11.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: And after being introduced by Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show," you're the little one towering over the other kids there.

MEYERS: I'm the one with the long knee socks on that I still haven't forgiven my mother that she put me on national TV wearing long knee socks. Oh, boy.

SIEGEL: That must have been very exciting.

MEYERS: It was very exciting and he was very generous.

SIEGEL: There is another performance of yours that's been recorded for posterity on YouTube and that is when you played the national anthem at a Seattle Mariners baseball game.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

MEYERS: That was just such an honor to be asked to get up in front of 42,000 screaming fans and play the national anthem was just so thrilling and I'm very proud to say that the Mariners went on to win, like, three games after that and I like to just completely credit myself for them winning.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

SIEGEL: Anne Akiko Meyers, thank you very much for talking with us today.

MEYERS: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: And the album we've been talking about is "AIR: The Bach Album" and it's by Anne Akiko Meyers, the violinist, and the English Chamber Orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You can hear more from the CD "AIR: The Bach Album" by Anne Akiko Meyers at our website, NPRMusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.