The Menuhin Competition catches them young. Its Artistic Director Gordon Back will never forget the excitement in the hall in Folkestone in 1995, when he accompanied Julia Fischer in the Saint-Saëns B minor Concerto: “It was just an amazing talent, a fully fledged artist at the age of 13. It was just so exciting to play with her, even though I’d accompanied the Saint-Saëns in Menuhin’s class a million times”.

Gordon Back
Gordon Back
Where other competitions generally have an age limit of 30 or thereabouts, young means young for the Menuhin: the two categories are under-16 and under-22. That’s what gives the competition its unique characteristic and it’s what excites Back: “working with young people keeps you young, and it is fantastic to discover these young talents.”

Back probably remembers Yehudi Menuhin as well as anyone: his association goes back to the 1970s, when he acted as accompanist for his masterclasses (he also accompanied other greats of the era like Nathan Milstein, Josef Suk, Aaron Rosand). “Menuhin didn't necessarily like competitions,” he says. “It was more a way of discovering the talents of the future, and somebody who's a winner at 15 isn't necessarily the best player at 22. So it's not necessarily about trying to find a winner as such, which most competitions look for, it's about finding and nurturing a broad range of talent.” Nikolaj Znaider, he points out, won 5th prize in 1991 but has gone on to an enormous career. And it's not just about solists: Corina Belcea is a past laureate, as is Berliner Philharmoniker concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto.  

How young can the kids be, I ask, for him to be sure that what he’s seeing is real star quality and not just precociousness? He recalls seeing Yu-Chien Tseng in 2006 in Boulogne: “there was a Taiwanese kid, he was 11 years old, he'd never been outside Taipei, he played some Kreisler and it brought tears to the jury. I remember Erich Gruenberg and Pamela Frank with tears coming down their eyes, because you could swear it was like listening to Kreisler, it was just magical.”

Tseng has gone on to greater things, winning first prize in the 2015 Singapore Violin Competition and signing a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon last year. But Back points out the uncertainties: “Of course, how they develop might change. With Julia, she's gone on and has a fabulous career and she continued to grow. But when you see incredible talent at the age of 13 to 15, you can never predict who will come through and grow by their 20s.”

Julia Fischer © Felix Broede
Julia Fischer
© Felix Broede
When Back became Artistic Director in 2004, he decided that it was time to change the competition’s format. “Most competitions in the world have juries primarily composed of teachers and I changed the format to having performers. So in essence the event has become more of a festival, because all those nine jury members will actually give a concert, lead a masterclass meet the children and mentor them, in addition to sitting on the jury. It's creating almost a sort of non-competitive atmosphere, so that the kids get on really well. For many of them, because of the age, it's their first international competition, so we want it to be an environment which makes them feel good about themselves and want to play well and develop a sort of camaraderie with each other”.

Back also feels that performers are more open-minded than teachers and less likely to be committed to some particular style: “We encourage the children to go out there and perform and give their own personality on stage, not to play in a specific way. Pamela Frank, the chair of the jury, will encourage them just to play their hearts out even if they make mistakes – it's not about perfection.”

Especially for the juniors, the key objective of the competition is to give the young musicians international concert experience. “There's no substitute for actually getting out there on stage, but it's dangerous to push somebody too much too soon. Ray Chen won third prize in London 2004 in the juniors. He came back in 2008 and won first prize and now, he has a major international career. We try to nurture the talent, we try to help them, advise them, mentor them, but in a gentle way, it's not all about the first prize.”

Maxim Vengerov
Maxim Vengerov
One senses that if there was a way of bringing these kids together without that tedious business of running a competition, Back would have seized on it. “Menuhin was a child prodigy who had a difficult upbringing, so this competition was something he was passionate about, he cared about, he loved connecting with the kids. Actually, he wanted to always give a prize to everyone. In the early days in Folkestone, he would sit around, a bit like the pied piper, with twenty of the kids around him, talking about the Bach Chaconne or something: he was amazing as a human being and he was far more than just a violinist. I've tried to keep his initial philosophies from the early days going through the competition, but you have to reinvent it in some ways. We came up with this idea of making it a different event, with more of a festival atmosphere, where all the jury perform. It's an inspiration for the competitors and the jury also gets scared, because you're talking about the best 44 children in the world, so they actually practise and take their concerts quite seriously.”

Given the star-studded nature of the jury, this seems surprising. “Even Vengerov?” I ask. “Even Vengerov – absolutely! I put Maxim on the jury in 2004, the first time we did it in London. He was the youngest jury member, he'd never been a jury and he absolutely loved it. He was a bit frightened about how he should behave, but he said he learned a huge amount from it.”

One of the pieces of re-invention for the 2018 edition is to include improvisation. The juniors will perform a 2-3 minute free improvisation on a 4-8 bar phrase, while the seniors are required to compose their own cadenza for their chosen Mozart concerto. Back is excited. “This is new! Improvisation was always done until around the 1920s, when it sort of died out and I think it's wonderful to add that into a competition. The kids love it, especially the young ones, whereas the teachers and the parents are actually terrified about it. But I think it’s really important for kids in their development. Plus for the jury, it's quite interesting just to see, it doesn't really determine if they pass into the semi-final or not, but it just adds a different point of reference for the jury.”

Another of Back’s innovations has been to move the competition to a different host city every two years. The 2018 edition will be in Geneva: “It's the headquarters of the UN and so many international organisations, so it's wonderful having an international competition there. The first rounds are going to be held at the École internationale de Genève, so the competitors will be hosted in a wide variety of homes with the parents of some of the children from the school. It then goes into the conservatoire, which is a wonderful hall for chamber music and recitals, then we move to the finals at Victoria Hall, which is a fabulous 1890s rococo-style building with a great acoustic. I wanted a really wonderful orchestra and we were lucky enough that the sponsor said ‘bring who you like’, so we have the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Orchestre de Chambre de Genève and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.”

Yehudi Menuhin © David Roberts
Yehudi Menuhin
© David Roberts

In addition to classical violin, there will be other elements. “There'll be a concert with [Hungarian Romani/jazz virtuoso] Roby Lakatos, who I love, and there's a collaboration with the Montreux Jazz Festival, so next summer after the competition, some of the winners will go and learn how to play jazz. There's another event called Purple Nights with electronic music. It'll be a broad festival.”

Because the musicians are young, the audience also tends to be young and enthusiastic. Events like Lakatos are expected to bring a different cross-section of people into the audience, and the host families also create their own little fan club for each competitor: they get incredibly excited if “their” competitor makes it to the semi-finals or final.

I ask if the general level of technique has improved over the years. “The technical level is astounding now. In the early years, there was a distinct difference between the technical aspects that one looked at in the programming for the seniors and the juniors. Now, I put music in for the juniors that years ago, one would have put in for the seniors.” But Back is not sure that the level can keep on increasing, and besides, he isn’t convinced that it’s the most important thing on the agenda: “It's still rare that you find a great, great talent: a Menuhin, a Milstein or a Vengerov. In some aspects, maybe that technical excellence has stopped individual voices from appearing: in the old days, you could put a recording on and you could recognise Rubinstein or Menuhin or Milstein or Josef Suk. It's rarer to find somebody now with a totally individual quality that you can recognise.”

“It's still about soul, isn't it? When Menuhin wasn't playing well, in the 70s, you'd go to a concert, he'd have physical problems and part of the concert wouldn't have been necessarily of the highest level, but in the slow movement of a Beethoven sonata or concerto, it was like seeing God, you'd just be transported from the hall. Even with these young artists, some of them have this ability to take you somewhere else: recognising where this talent comes from is what's so exciting about the competition.”

 

The 2018 edition of the Menuhin Competition runs in Geneva from April 12th to 22nd.

This interview was sponsored by the Menuhin Competition.