Menuhin International Violin Competition 2016
Senior Final and Closing Gala Concert
Royal Festival Hall. 16 & 17 April 2016
It was fitting that for this, the 100th anniversary year of Yehudi Menuhin’s birth, the competition that he founded in 1983 returned to the UK. It started life, rather curiously, in Folkestone and has since had a peripatetic existence, moving around countries and continents every two years. Menuhin was not particularly keen on competitions, and wanted the one he founded to be more of a festival. This was amply demonstrated in the extraordinarily wide range of activities for competitors and listeners during the 11 days of the 2016 competition. Hosted largely by the Royal Academy of Music, the festival was presented in partnership with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Southbank Centre, and the Yehudi Menuhin School.
Some 300 young violinists from around 40 countries applied for selection for the competition, and 22 were chosen for each of the Junior and Senior groups. The age range is very young, up to 16 for the Junior section, and up to 22 for the Senior. The youngest was just 11. Ten violinists got through to the semi-final and five to the Junior Final, which was won by 12 year old Yesong Sophie Lee, from the USA. Other prize winners were Kevin Miura, USA/Japan, Johan Dalene, Sweden, NaKyung Kang, South Korea, and Anne Luisa Kramb, Germany. Yesong Sophie Lee won £5000, a 1-year loan of the c1740 Joseph Guarneri del Gesu violin, and several concert engagements at international classical music.
Four violinists got through to the Senior Final (after a semi-final of nine), which was given in the Royal Festival Hall (16 April) accompanied by the impressive Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Warren-Green. We heard two versions of Prokofiev’s 1st Concerto in D together with the concertos in E and A minor by Mendelssohn and Dvořák. The first finalist was Ziyu He, aged 16, from China playing the Dvořák. He had a confident stage presence, although he was rather distractingly mobile when not playing – I do hope this is not an early sign of showmanship. He played with an impressive range of tone colour, but with a sizeable vibrato that occasionally interfered with intonation. He was followed by Yu-Ting Chen aged 20 from Taiwan, with the first of the Prokofiev performances. She had a very engaging stage presence, and I was impressed with the way that she acknowledged the orchestra when taking her final bow. She caught the mood of the piece beautifully, from the gentle shimmering opening to the macabre dance of the third movement, with its accompaniment of two bassoons. Her sound was clean and pure, with minimal vibrato. Then came Jeein Kim (20, South Korea) playing the Mendelssohn. She looked very professional on stage, and played with a fine sense of expression, albeit with rather too much vibrato for my taste. A similar comment about vibrato can be applied to the final competitor SongHa Choi (16, South Korea) currently a pupil at the Menuhin School, and the recipient of the biggest welcome cheers, perhaps from her school friends. Her performance of the Prokofiev was gutsy and forceful, notably so in the second movement where her sound became slightly edgy.
The prize winners were, in descending order, Ziyu He (1st), SongHa Choi (2nd), Yu-Ting Chen, and Jeein Kim. SongHa Choi won the audience prize. Ziyu He wins £10,000, a 1-year loan of the Stradivari ‘Schneiderhan’ violin and several recitals. As with the Junior competition, there were several other prizes and awards given to various competitors, including those who didn’t get through to the finals. More than one-third of the senior finalists hailed from South Korea.
The nine jury members included five previous prize-winners of the competition. The judging process was impressively simple – a majority vote of Yes/No for entry to the semis and finals, and an order of preference for the final positions, with no consultation or formal discussion between the jury members. For the final, competitors’ performance in the earlier rounds was taken into account. I have been on prize-awarding juries myself and they can be fraught – this seems a good solution.
However impressed I might have been by the age, experience and the musical and technical ability of these youngsters, I do wonder quite how beneficial it is to thrust performers onto the world stage at such a young age, and with such limited experience of life. In any case, the audience didn’t agree with the judges, awarding their prize to the jury’s second prize-winner in the senior competition. Previous non-winners who haven’t done too badly include Tasmin Little and Alina Ibragimova.
The competition and festival finished with a Gala Concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Diego Matheuz, in the Royal Festival Hall (17 April). This was curious affair, not least because of the choice of music. It opened with William Walton’s Crown Imperial which, although he did have both Walton and Royal connections was, I would have thought, about as far from the ethos of Menuhin as you can get. That jingoistic bit of out-dated British pomp was followed by a complete contrast, the winner of the Junior Competition, playing ‘Summer’ from the Four Seasons. I had not seen Yesong Sophie Lee play in her final or the earlier rounds, but was very impressed by her performance. Directing the much reduced orchestra as well as playing solo, she oozed confidence and ability, both musical and technical. Wearing what I hope would be the closest that any 12 year old girl should ever get to a wedding dress, she had an excellent stage presence. Despite her age, she already has considerable experience, including being the youngest competitor in the 2014 Menuhin competition.
She was followed by Ziyu He, winner of the Senior competition. He played the last movement of the Dvořák concerto, but it didn’t really work on its own without the build up of the earlier movements. Nonetheless, he gave a strong performance, albeit with the hints of showmanship that I had wondered about in the final. This was reinforced by an ill-advised choice of encore, a very long and showy piece by a composer from He’s current study city, Salzburg.
The highlight of the Gale concert came with Julia Fischer’s performance of Bartók’s first violin concerto. Winner of the Junior competition in 1995, aged just 11, she showed just how far the young competitors have to go to achieve real mature talent. The sad story behind the composition of this work was just the sort of tragic life experience that can inspire great performance (and composition), but is hopefully well beyond the life experience of most of the young competitors. It was dedicated to his 19 year old first love and representing her ‘transcendent and intimate nature’. But said first love split up with him just as the concerto had been completed. Heartbroken, he gave her the manuscript and deleted it from his list of works. It was never performed until after both their deaths.
At least the Bartók, despite the tragic story, was an inspiring work to include in the Gala. The same cannot be said for the closing work: Tchaikovsky’s Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Francesca da Rimini. Quite what this had to do with the thoughts and inspiration of Menuhin, or of the young competitors, is beyond me. The Inferno story of Dante meeting Francesca in the Second Circle of Hell is not for the faint-hearted. Dante faints on hearing her tale of an abusive husband who kills her after seeing her kiss his far more appropriate brother, thus condemning both (presumably separately) to the eternal whirlwinds of hell.
Amongst the many events and activities going on around the Royal Festival Hall during the final Gala weekend was a performance of Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra given by the Junior Trinity Symphony Orchestra. There was also a touching film of Yehudi Menuhin’s life, speed mentoring of tiny violinists by some of the competitors, and an appearance by the String Ting jazz group. Also during the festival, competitors joined the Live Music Now, founded by Menuhin, playing in hospitals as well as working in schools as part of the Open Academy scheme. The next competition will be in Geneva in 2018.