A Musical Evolution

Renowned musician Wai Mizutani plans for crossover concert featuring rock and roll on the classical violin on May 5

By Molly Priddy
Wai Mizutani, pictured on April 7, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

When Wai Mizutani graduated from The Juilliard School of Music in the mid-1980s, he was ready to quit playing the violin forever.

Now a world-renowned musician, Mizutani had attended Juilliard out of respect for his mother, who insisted on his violin training as a child.

“My mom was trying really hard to get me out of China,” Mizutani said last week on the Flathead Valley Community College campus. “Music would be the skill that would make money.”

It wasn’t that he didn’t like the music, not really. Mizutani was a young man who had spent his youth living with his mother, a lifetime pianist who had attended one of the most prestigious music schools in China. He had wanted to join the Chinese army, but his mom insisted he pursue music instead.

The training was purely classical, with constrictions that Mizutani found repetitive and overbearing. So by the time he’d made it to the U.S. and graduated from Juilliard, Mizutani thought he’d be done with the violin.

“I thought, ‘Once I’m done, I fulfilled my calling as a son and I will quit,’” he said.

Thirty-odd years and a move out west later, Mizutani is still making music, but on his own terms. Now an adjunct professor at FVCC in the Music Department, Mizutani’s next performance will combine his mastery of the violin with his love of rock and roll in the May 5 concert, “Blurred Lines,” at the Bigfork Performing Arts Center.

“I’ve been thinking about this for no less than five years,” Mizutani said. “I want something new.”

The concert will consist of Mizutani and a few fellow musicians playing their own versions of classic tunes from the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Neil Diamond, the Eagles, and Led Zeppelin. Mizutani also has his own version of Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

To him, the songs in rock and roll and country are more intimate than those composed for classical concerts.

“It makes me feel more passionate about music,” he said. “Each song is so personal.”

Mizutani said he grew up loving that music, but really found his love for the genres during his process of naturalization. His lawyer also represented Randy Bachman, who started his musical career on the fiddle but transitioned to rock and roll and eventually wrote “American Woman” with The Guess Who.

Bachman became an inspiration for Mizutani, whose own musical history includes performances with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Vancouver Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma, Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, Arnold Steinhardt, and Glenn Dicterow. He has also earned top honors at the Taiwan International and Five Towns Violin Competition, and is a Music Teachers National Association award winner.

Mizutani found that his love for music came back full force when he started teaching. In 1997, he moved his parents to Vancouver, British Columbia after the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the UK to China.

As a musician, he was close to burning out, semi-wanting to retire. He remembered that his first violin luthier in the U.S. had an affinity for Montana, so Mizutani passed through the state on a road trip. He loved the lack of a speed limit, but wasn’t thrilled when it snowed three inches on his June birthday.

Mizutani visited a second time, this time to play at a church in Evergreen in 2003.

“That November I passed by the town of Kalispell,” he said. “It felt like home.”

He moved here in 2007 but didn’t play the violin until a neighbor in Bigfork was talking about local folks losing their homes during the recession. Mizutani offered to play during a fundraiser. Then he visited the high school music classes in the valley and was impressed by the students’ dedication to their craft. However, many of them gave it up when they finished high school, which led Mizutani to try starting up a youth orchestra.

Miztuani visited FVCC seeking a venue and instead wound up in conversations about teaching music. He figured it could be a way for them to maintain their skills from high school while also possibly earning a scholarship.

He started with two students — one of whom, after two years, earned a music scholarship at MSU Bozeman — and now has 45. The best part, he said, is figuring out each student’s potential and helping them reach it, making it more of a collaboration between teacher and student, not a strict lesson.

“The growth is just phenomenal,” Mizutani said.

With that in mind, Mizutani is excited for his own shot at personal growth in his upcoming May concert.

“It is very refreshing for me,” he said of the concert. “If I don’t do it, I would feel like something would be missing.”

“Blurred Lines” is scheduled for May 5 at 7 p.m. at the Bigfork Performing Arts Center. For more information, call 406-890-5333 or visit www.bigforkcenter.org.

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