Menuhin Int’l Violin Competition Scales the Great Wall
34 years after Menuhin’s first China visit, his namesake competition puts Chinese classical music on the world stage—and U.S. competitors on the map
In 1978, legendary British violinist Yehudi Menuhin made his first trip to China—five years later, the Menuhin International Violin Competition was born. Since then, the organization has been trying to fulfill Menuhin’s dream that one day China would host the event. At the time of his first visit, the country was filled with bicycles, Mao suits, and violinists who had practiced in secret to avoid severe political repercussions. Today, the streets are crowded with vehicles, the style is decidedly Western, and China is a world leader in producing classical musicians.
From April 6 to April 15, the Menuhin Competition Beijing 2012 played to enthusiastic crowds, putting Chinese classical music on the world stage and making a violin legend’s dream come true.
While adult competitions are intended to launch careers, the Menuhin Competition is more like a youth-oriented music festival with prizes. Competitors can go sightseeing, attend lectures, and play—or even teach—master classes. Jury concerts also are valuable. “They see that we also feel vulnerable,” says Joji Hattori, vice chair of the 2012 Menuhin Competition. “They should look at us only as more experienced colleagues.”
Indeed, the calibre of the competition was high.
This year’s senior division winner was 18-year-old American Kenneth Arthur Renshaw, who also won the EMCY Prize for Outstanding Performance. The winner of the competition’s junior division was 11-year-old Kevin Zhu, from the United States—the youngest ever winner in the competition’s history—who also won the Composer’s Prize for Best Interpretation of a new Chinese work.
Both are enrolled at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music preparatory program, where they study under violin instructor Li Lin. It’s the first time the winners of both divisions have hailed from the United States.
For their efforts, each will receive the one-year loan of a fine Italian violin and the knowledge that he is in the company of such past winners as Julia Fischer and Ray Chen.
Runners-up were 16-year-old Ji Eun Anna Lee in the senior division, and 11-year-old Soo-Been Lee in the junior division. Both are Korean.
Throughout the competition, competitors had some unusual work to do as they played for enthusiastic audiences in the sold-out concert halls. Ranging from age 11 to 15, junior competitors had an original Chinese commission and an improvisation based on a four- to eight-bar theme given in advance. “The improvisation was illuminating,” jury chair Pamela Frank says. “You can tell what is taught, and what isn’t.”
Junior finalists then played—and conducted—their own Vivaldi “Season.”
Afterward, the 16- to 21-year-old senior semi-finalists had their own commissioned work as well as an Astor Piazzolla tango piece with guitar accompaniment.
Overall, the performance level was staggeringly high—you heard adults, but onstage saw ill-fitting tuxedos, puffy dresses, and shiny patent-leather shoes. Eleven-year-old Soo-Been Lee (second place, Korea) had visceral power, and she alone got the commissioned piece up to speed, while 13-year-old Grace Clifford (fourth place, Australia) had great tonal depth.
Junior division winner Kevin Zhu led the chamber orchestra like a pro. “Winning is very exciting, but after all, we are almost the same,” Zhu says. “It’s a very high level.”
The four senior finalists’ styles diverged even more. Guo Siyan (fourth place, China) played a powerful Tchaikovsky; he suffered for intonation and tempo in the first movement, but the third movement’s high speed fit his talents. Alexi Kenney (third place, United States) controlled his vibrato for a beautiful, aching tone, but struggled with sound projection and forte dynamics. After a stunning second-round Piazzolla, Ji Eun Anna Lee (second place, Korea) played a brilliant, sensitive Shostakovich No. 1, giving the conductor her own cues.
Winner Renshaw proved himself to be both versatile and dependable, giving strong performances on each round and ending with a rich, high-octane Sibelius.
“Of course, winning is unbelievable, but I was happy just to be a part of this competition,” Renshaw says. “It was such a warm and inviting learning experience for everyone.”
The jury had the closest vote in competition history. “They all should have first prize,” Frank says. “They are all artists.”
British violinist and Menuhin juror Tasmin Little agrees. “This year was a staggering standard, each of them was so different,” she says. “We’ll be seeing them again.”
And keeping in mind that these incredible talents are still not old enough for a celebratory drink, we can agree with jury member Yan Pascal Tortelier that “it bodes well for the future when people are playing that well.”
It certainly does.