Thursday, March 10, 2016

Menuhin: a protégé speaks

This year marks the centenary of one of the 20th century's most extraordinary musicians: Yehudi Menuhin. A plethora of events and recordings surround this anniversary and in yesterday's Independent I had a piece exploring his legacy - essentially, how his pioneering creativity changed the musical world. It's here:

The violinist Daniel Hope, who was a protégé of Menuhin from the word go - his mother was the great man's PA - has made a new CD paying tribute to his mentor, and I have an e-interview with him to discuss it. Daniel talks about the perfectionism and iron will that underpinned Menuhin's heavenly musicianship - and tells us about the time his father left Menuhin's violin on a plane.

JD: Daniel, Yehudi Menuhin strikes me as not merely a musician, but a great humanitarian and, in many ways, a visionary whose preoccupations with bringing music to the people, training young musicians and collaborating with other genres seemed ahead of his time. Please can you tell us something about the various different ways in which he inspired you?

DH: Menuhin taught me that being an artist is more than just playing your instrument as well as you can. He believed that music had a strong social aspect and that musicians should use it to help others. Of the many wonderful organizations that he created or inspired, I think Live Music Now is the most impressive. Yehudi created LMN in 1977, and the organization works with a very diverse range of people that rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to experience live music - some of whom are very disadvantaged. They often face difficulties in communicating, cut off from the joy and pleasures of participating and sharing with others. LMN's approach to overcoming these barriers is very simple: talented young musicians are given the chance to gather early and essential performance experience, by sharing it in a social context, for example playing in hospitals, retirement homes or for children who are mentally or physically handicapped. LMN now has branches all over Europe: in Germany, where I often give fundraising concerts for them and am on their Honorary Committee, there are 20 branches alone giving over 5000 concerts a year. Worldwide LMN has reached more than 2 million people, with over 50,000 participatory performances for people with special needs.  

JD: What sort of a person was he? Do you have any favourite memories of him or anecdotes about him in daily life (rather than playing/teaching)?

DH: There was a magic about Menuhin and his aura as a musician was inspiring. Though physically of small stature he had a majestic charisma on stage. For a gentle man he was never ever satisfied he got things as good as he wished. He had a habit of turning and staring at the soloist’s fingers during cadenzas. So it was that in the summer of 1998, I was playing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with Philip Dukes on the viola. Menuhin was conducting when, without warning, he turned and fixed his eyes on Philip’s left hand - even his baton stopped.  He leaned over and got so close to Philip that the poor fellow blanched. He was watching Philip so raptly we wondered if he’d forget to turn back to the orchestra at the end of the cadenza, and only at the very last moment did he do so. 

Along with gentleness that nonetheless masked an iron will, Selbst bei größeren Zwischenfällen war Menuhins Humor unerschöpflich.Menuhin's humour was inexhaustible. On one occasion my father was entrusted with taking his priceless Guarneri del Gesù, a violin made in 1742 and known as the ‘Lord Wilton’, on an Alitalia flight to Rome. Menuhin was at the front of the plane and went straight to the VIP room.  When we got to passport control at Fiumicino airport, I asked my father where the violin was. My father looked at me with shock and came out with an expletive. He had left the violin in the baggage compartment on the plane. He ran like an Olympic sprinter back onto the runway and up the stairs of the aircraft - (you could do that in those days). When Yehudi heard about the incident, he giggled like a little boy. Thanks to some kind carabinieri he got his violin back after a tense half hour – tense for my father, anyway. 

JD: I understand he experienced a difficult patch, after his prodigy days were over, during which he virtually had to retrain his technique - can you shed any light on what happened to him and why, and how his playing after this compared to the recordings he made before?

DH: I think like many child prodigies, Menuhin reached a stage in his life where he began to question his astonishing talent. What had seemed entirely natural to him until that point suddenly became a struggle. From what he told me, this seems to have been compounded by emotional problems in his private life and the exhaustion of playing literally hundreds of concerts for the allied troops during the war. He did indeed teach himself to play the violin again, but this ‘crisis’ also led to a new journey of discovery on so many levels: yoga, Indian music with his collaboration with Ravi Shankar and a peace of mind which grounded him as a human being for the rest of his life.

JD: How would you describe his legacy?

DH: One of the greatest violinists of all time, and by far the most vocal classical musician of the 20th century.