Child’s play

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Yehudi Menuhin aged 12.
Yehudi Menuhin aged 12.

During the last couple weeks, a remarkable event has been taking place in the Swiss city of Geneva: the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists. It was founded in 1983 by Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) who began his career as a child prodigy and went on to become one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated musicians.  Incidentally, Menuhin’s recording contract with EMI lasted almost seventy years and is the longest in the history of the music industry.

He made his first recording at age of thirteen and his last when he was nearly eighty-three years old. Since its inception, the Menuhin Competition has become the leading international competition for young violinists under the age of twenty-two. It’s held biennially in a different city each time and is sometimes referred to as “the Olympics of the Violin.”  Many of its prizewinners have gone on to brilliantly successful international careers as concert soloists.

But it’s not just a competition. Creating a stimulating environment in which talented young violinists may learn and grow, has always been at the heart of the Menuhin Competition. As well as the competitions, there are opportunities to meet top violinists and violin makers, take part in master classes and of course enjoy a wide variety of concerts. This year there were forty-four participants from all over the world and by the time you read this, the winners for 2018 will have been announced. If you want to know who they are, just go to the Menuhin Competition website. Video recordings of the performances have already been posted on YouTube.

Needless to say, all the participants are incredibly gifted young people and the standards are staggeringly high. This year the youngest violinist is ten years old and to the average listener he already sounds like a professional. Musically gifted children are few and far between, but they often have similar qualities. The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented based at University of Connecticut has identified some characteristics of musically gifted children. Predominantly, they have a passion for learning and playing music with a much greater sense of commitment and self-discipline than others their age. They’re usually self-critical and highly sensitive to the aesthetic elements of music.

Musically gifted children have an acute sense of rhythm and intonation, exceptional memories and can usually remember and reproduce music with ease and accuracy. They are always highly intelligent and often have a mature outlook on life. You’ll notice that the children taking part in these videos have a quiet sense of confidence and assurance.

Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880): Polonaise Brillante in D Major Op 4. Christian Li (vln), Laurence Matheson (pno) (Duration: 04:49; Video: 760p HD)

Ten-year-old Christian Li began learning violin at the age of five and currently studies with Dr. Robin Wilson at the Australian National Music Academy in Melbourne. In July 2017, Christian won 1st Prize at the Young Artist Semper Music International Competition in Italy and also performed at Carnegie Hall in the prestigious American Protégé Showcase.

Writing about this year’s Menuhin Competition, Christian said “Since I am still young, I would like to treat this as a fun, exciting learning experience more than a competition. What I most look forward to is the chance to meet my heroes and favourite violin masters in person… I’m also looking forward to meeting and learning from the other outstanding violinists from other parts of the world and to make life-long friends.”

The Polonaise Brillante  Op. 4 is the first of two polonaises by Wieniawski, himself a Polish celebrity violinist. This earlier one exists in two versions: for violin with piano accompaniment and for violin and orchestra. It dates from the early 1850s and is a technical showpiece requiring considerably virtuosity.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K219. Clara Shen (vln), Salzburg Chamber Soloists (Duration: 28:23; Video: 480p)

Twelve-year-old Clara Shen was born in Munich and also began playing the violin aged five.  Following several first prizes in national violin competitions, last year she became a prizewinner at the Kloster Schöntal Violin Competition and the Zhuhai International Mozart Competition for Young Musicians. She made her solo orchestral debut with the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra at the age of eleven. “I feel extremely happy to be invited to participate in the Menuhin Competition in Geneva” said Clara, “The wonderful performance of the participants at the last Menuhin Competition made a profound and unforgettable impression on me.”

The concerto is a delightful work and dates from 1775. It’s often referred to by the nickname The Turkish on account of the novel musical elements in the last movement.  It follows the typical classical three-movement structure, but the music is anything but typical. You could always count on Mozart for that.