Andrew Green

Coming home: the Menuhin Competition returns to London

9:21, 18th March 2016

The Menuhin competition is back in London to mark the centenary of the legendary violinist’s birth, and everyone’s promised a great time, reports Andrew Green

After a 12-year gap, the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition is back in London in April. The majority of the 44 competitors (in under-16 and under-21 categories) may have been born after Menuhin’s death in 1999, but by the time they depart the UK capital they will have been immersed in various aspects of the great man’s music-making. As competitors they will be invited to tackle music identified with Menuhin. More than that, however, the centenary of the violinist’s birth is celebrated in a string of themed concerts and a talk (at the competition’s main base, the Royal Academy of Music) from Menuhin’s biographer, the redoubtable Humphrey Burton.

Concerts have always been a feature of the Menuhin Competition. ‘The event is often likened to a festival,’ says the violinist’s grandson, Aaron Menuhin, a competition trustee. ‘That’s perhaps particularly so this year because of the centenary. We want a festival atmosphere to inhabit the actual competition itself. These young players will meet plenty of the hard-nosed side to the music profession in the rest of their lives.’

‘We make sure competitors have a great time even if they’re eliminated,’ adds Menuhin’s daughter, Zamira Menuhin-Benthall. ‘They’re able to take part in masterclasses, have the chance to stay with host families and also enjoy the opportunity to experience the life and culture of the host city.’

Since the last London staging of the competition in 2004, Beijing, Cardiff, Oslo and Austin (Texas) have provided the welcomes. ‘For the centenary it seemed obvious to come back to London, Menuhin’s home for so long,’ says the competition’s artistic director, pianist Gordon Back. ‘We’ve had a record number of entrants – 307 from more than 40 countries. For the first time the finalists were selected online, with judges in New York, Oslo and London assessing videoed performances. The youngest violinist through to the final rounds is ten; the oldest, 21.’

Offers to run the competition abroad imply that potential host organisations know they have the money lined up. It is not so easy returning to London, where public funding is shrinking and competition for private cash is fierce. ‘However, we’ve had great support from many quarters,’ observes Aaron Menuhin. ‘Any member of the public can still help by donating online via our website. No contribution is too small.’

Limited funds mean the event is run by just two full-time staff and one part-timer. Jessica Brennan oversees the competition as project manager. ‘The whole thing only works because we have such fantastic support from our partners,’ she says, ‘including the Royal Academy of Music, Southbank Centre, the Menuhin School and the Philharmonia Orchestra.’

The mounds of paperwork involved in managing the competition are all the more intimidating these days given UK legislation to protect performers under the age of 16. ‘Every one of them needs a child performance licence, the most stringent such requirement in the world, I think,’ says Brennan. ‘Beyond that, we have to be sensitive to the fact that young competitors may be leaving home – perhaps on the other side of the world – for the first time. We do everything we can to ease any problems that creates.’

Three newly commissioned works figure during the competition period—by Òscar Colomina i Bosch, Roxanna Panufnik and John Rutter. Panufnik’s Hora Bessarabia for solo violin will be premiered by past competition prize-winner Jiafeng Chen at the Royal Festival Hall opener, before being heard as required repertoire during the contest. ‘I asked Lord Menuhin’s son and daughter, Jeremy and Zamira, what their father most loved to play,’ recalls Panufnik. ‘They said gipsy music, and gipsy-influenced music like Bartók. I just love world music, and my particular inspiration has been a track on Jordi Savall’s Balkan Spirit album – Doina and hora. The new work offers the chance to express emotion in a very free way, with great beauty and soul, but also to show off.’

Five former Menuhin Competition prizewinners join the 2016 jury, including Ray Chen, Julia Fischer and Tasmin Little. ‘I rarely accept invitations to sit on juries, but this competition is special,’ says Little, twice a Menuhin Competition prizewinner. ‘The centenary is of course an attraction, plus the fact that I was at the Menuhin School. There’s also the opportunity to perform during the event. But I especially look forward to being part of a jury with so many active players on it. We can identify with competitors because we’re out there on concert platforms day-in-day-out.’

Ordinary music-lovers are likely to turn up to support the competition. In doing so, says Zamira Menuhin-Benthall, they will experience the truth of her father’s belief that ‘above everything else, music is a civilising force for the good of the world.’

And the Menuhins will be out in force, says Aaron Menuhin. ‘The competitions are great opportunities for members of the family to get together in our busy lives. It’s a wonderful way to meet up.’

Henryk Wieniawski International Violin Competition, Poznan, Poland.
One of the longest-running of all competitions, founded in memory of the Polish violinist and composer of dazzling fiddle repertoire. Legendary past winners include Ginette Neveu and David Oistrakh

Leopold Mozart International Violin Competition, Augsburg, Germany
An event recalling that ever-ambitious father of Wolfgang – and famous son of Augsburg, where Leopold founded a violin school. Isabelle Faust was the first winner, in 1987

International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, USA
Intended as a one-off when founded in 1982 by Belarus-born violinist and teacher, Josef Gingold, ‘the Indianapolis’ has stood the test of time. Previous winners include Hungarian Barnabás Kelemen and (most recently) JinJoo Cho of South Korea

Jean Sibelius International Violin Competition, Helsinki, Finland
First held eight years after the death of Sibelius. His concerto remains key repertoire for contestants. During the Soviet era, the competition was a particular target for violinists from across the border with Russia. Laureates include Oleg Kagan and Viktoria Mullova

China International Violin Competition, Qingdao
A recent arrival (first run in 2001) on the competition scene staged in the booming city on China’s east coast. Most recent winner, South Korean Ji-Won Song

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