When I met Mari-E Takahashi ’08, concert mistress of the Yale Symphony Orchestra, it was a bit like colliding with a whirlwind. She carefully balanced a cell phone beneath her chin instead of a violin, into which she chattered a seeming concerto of gossip. This petite musician can talk (and talk and talk) about anything, but when it comes to discussing her unusual performance at the past two Halloween concerts, she is a bit more reserved.
Takahashi was happy, however, to clarify the facts. Usually, she explained, the concertmaster or mistress plays a solo on the electric violin, jazzing up the usual classical fare of the orchestra. When it was her turn to carry on this tradition, she decided it would be fun to put on a leather bra and a short “skanky” pink skirt. Her friends’ shock before the concert convinced her to add a shirt to the mix, but onstage, she stripped down.
“My jaw dropped,” said percussionist Ethan Greene ’07. “I was like ‘Mari-E, are you crazy?’”
It is hard to imagine why Takahashi would be reticent to discuss how undeniably sexy she is onstage, scantily clad — be it in the now infamous leather bra outfit, or the slinky negligee she wore in 2006. Perhaps it is because she is first and foremost the talented leader of Yale’s most prestigious orchestra, a person for whom playing the electric violin in lingerie is simply an amusing diversion. While Takahashi may underplay the importance of her Halloween concert antics, the musicians around her certainly do not underestimate the power of seductiveness when it is fused with musical talent.
“She’s a really attractive woman,” said YSO violinist Phillip Yang ’10. “She’s kind of like that girl in high school that made you want to join the orchestra.” YSO violist Jonathon Bregman ’10 added, “I’m almost certain that it’s her strip that fills up the auditorium every Halloween.”
The question then seems to be: Do Takahashi’s contributions to fusing the classical and the sexy distract from or complement her overwhelming musical talent? Yale’s musicians seem to think that, in the music she plays, the two can and should coexist. “I don’t see why classical music is supposed to be just for guys in powdered wigs,” Yang said. “Classical and sexy are not mutually exclusive.”
Takahashi herself seemed fed up with outdated perceptions of classical musicians. “The reputation of classical music being for old white men removed from the rest of society isn’t true,” Takahashi said. “There is room for other people. They just need to be exposed to it earlier. They just need to listen to it.”
If the explanation for classical music’s unjustified status is that people aren’t exposed to it soon enough or frequently enough, Takahashi herself certainly defies the norm. She began playing the violin at age three, and only that late because her teacher refused to give lessons to a two-year-old. Even as a child, her talent, along with her cuteness, was on display for the public. She described how she played the violin on episodes of “Sesame Street” once a year for four years. “I talked to Big Bird, Elmo and Oscar the Grouch!” she explained with a look as reverential as the one that adorned her face as she discussed playing for the ambassador of Japan.
She studied at Julliard’s pre-college program for three years, also attending the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan for two years — with the likes of Scarlett Johansson, the cast of MTV’s “Rich Girls” and Mischa Barton — to allow her to concentrate more completely on music. At Yale, however, Takahashi said that her practicing has become “sporadic.” She has many other interests, and is not even sure whether she is going to make a career of music. “I have been trying to decide for my entire life whether to get into music or something else,” Takahashi said. “I’d like to be the CEO of some big international fashion company. I’ve taught myself just not to think too much about it.”
It seems to be this open-mindedness, the lighthearted way in which Takahashi describes her long and devoted relationship with the violin, that makes her virtuoso playing so inviting, whether she is fully clothed or nearly naked. At the recent concert, “The 20th-Century Violin Sonata,” in which Takahashi played with pianist and composer Timothy Andres ’07, the attire was more conservative. Without the distraction of pseudo-nudity, Takahashi’s playful talent at the violin shone brightest. She smiled at the evocative and sly musical phrases that she played, and the audience could not help but smile in turn.
Justin Timberlake may believe that he is “bringin’ sexy back,” but according to Yale students who know Takahashi, he’s not the only one who knows “how to act.”
Bregman asserted: “I’m pretty certain that Yale is reinventing the concept of sexy-slash-classical.”