February 2014

Menuhin Competition Junior Laureates Announced

February 28, 2014 20:48

AUSTIN, Texas — The Junior Division Laureates for the Menuhin Competition were announced Friday night in Austin after an afternoon of semi-final rounds, followed by an evening concert that featured each finalist playing a showpiece with the University of Texas Orchestra at Bates Recital Hall at the Butler School in Austin.

Front row, left to right: Alex Zhou, Daniel Lozakovitj, Rennosuke Fukuda, Jaewon Wee and Ludvig Gudim

The Junior Division Laureates are:

First Prize: Rennosuke Fukuda, 14, (Japanese) - Studies with Machie Oguri
Second Prize: Daniel Lozakovitj, 12, (Swedish) - Studies with Dora Schwarzberg at Music and Arts Academy in Vienna and Josef Rissin at Karlsruhe University of Music
Third Prize: Ludvig Gudim, 14, (Norwegian) - Studies at Barratt Due Institute of Music in Oslo
Fourth Prize: Alex Zhou, 12, (American) - Studies with Zhao Wei at San Francisco Conservatory Prep
Fifth Prize: Jaewon Wee, 14, (South Korean) - Studies at Korean National Institute for the Gifted in Arts

Juror Pamela Frank told the finalists, "I think this week was one of the most thrilling weeks of my life; I'm reminded how lucky we are to be musicians. You spoiled us rotten, you violinists! I was listening to you on the highest level; then I was reminded how beautiful it is to play with such abandon and innocence, and I would urge you to keep that. Keep doing what you're doing."

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Menuhin Competition 2014: Jurors Give Master Classes and Performances

February 28, 2014 00:36

AUSTIN, Texas — After yesterday's marathon Senior Semi-Finals at the Menuhin Competition, members of the jury today took their turn in the spotlight, giving master classes and performing a noon concert.

The 2014 Menuhin Competition Jury: Left to right: Joji Hattori, Oliver Charlier, Arabella Steinbacher, Director Gordon Back, Pamela Frank, Lu Siqing, Anton Nel, Brian Lewis, David Kim and Ilya Gringolts

The morning began with a master class by Jury Chair and violin professor at Curtis Institute, Pamela Frank, who is certainly a master at giving master classes!

Claire Wells, 12, of Plano, Texas performed the first movement of Brahms Sonata No. 1 in G major. Pamela said that her playing was beautiful -- but maybe a little too much so. "Beauty only means something when you have contrast," Pamela said.


Pamela encouraged her to pay more attention to how dynamics related to one another, asking her to locate the softest place in the entire movement. "I would encourage you to see dynamics as character markings instead of decibel levels," she said. She also advised her to look at other markings in the movement; for example, in a spot marked to be played tenderly, Claire's playing was on the intense side. "Please look up the words, because they mean something. The sound you choose should reflect the character and dynamics at all times."

Finding one of the quieter spots in the movement, Pamela coached her to keep the soft volume going for truly as long as it was marked. As Claire played the spot, Pamela hovered, holding her back, "Not yet, not yet, not yet," then when the dynamic changed, "NOW! Go to forte!" It reminded me of the soccer moms on Saturday mornings, "Kick the ball, NOW!"

"I'm screaming like a maniac but it's not my fault," she said, "I didn't write it!"

When they finished this passage that required so much restraint for the "piano" marking and then so much energy when it grew louder, Pam asked, "Was it comfortable?"

Claire admitted, "It feels less comfortable."

This made Pamela grin, "and what does that do to the music?" she asked.

It makes the music uncomfortable also -- in other words, it gives it tension. And we want musical tension!

"I don't think we should play for comfort," Pamela said. "If I feel comfortable, there's probably something wrong." Brahms is full of delayed gratification, and that's something that the performer must illustrate.

Pamela had her play a "sustenuto" passage, this time something that was unrelentingly loud and intense. "Keep up the intensity the whole time, until you are dripping with sweat!" she said, and Claire did so. The effect was a success.

"Playing is not all in the head; if you are sweating, it's probably good," Pamela said, adding, "That's the bare minimum intensity I would want from you for that spot."

She wanted Claire to re-try a passage marked "con anime," which, she pointed out, does not mean "with animation." It means "with soul."

"You have soul for three notes, then the next three no soul, then soul, no soul…I want soul the whole time!" Soul, by the way, seems to be vibrato! "Look at (the movement) as a total picture and try to be as specific as possible with your relative sounds, and dance!"

Next, Korean violinist Donghyun Kim, 14, played "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" by Saint-Saëns -- a really strong performance of it. Pamela started by talking about the last page of the piece, which is thick with fast notes that fly by in a wash of spiccato. "The shorter the notes," she said, "the more music you have to make of them."

In other words, she wanted more shaping and phrasing, taking cues from the harmonies in the piano. "Can you pretend these are slow notes, and make the most beautiful melody in the world?" She suggested smaller bows for smaller intervals, and larger bows for larger intervals. The violin and piano should have a democratic partnership and "the person with the most interesting part at the time should lead." On the last page, the piano has the interesting part. She warned against the common "gunshot and go" approach to this particular passage. POW, off to the races! "We should somehow be singing on our instruments at all times," she said.

Then she turned to a slower part, the languid "Introduction," suggesting less rubato. "The hardest thing to do is to play expressively, in time," she said. "When you want to take time, change sound and color instead."

Pam Frank and boy

Also, one should bring out the dissonances, the surprise harmonies, which requires listening well to the piano. "Every time there is a surprise chord, you should change color and sound." Conversely, when harmonies are consonant and expected, "keep it simple. We know what key we're in; you don't need to love that E for an hour."

Something Pamela said often to the students was, "I love you, but…(insert complaint)"

By the end of his allotted time, Donghyun was catching the drift: "What is the dynamic marking here?" Pamela asked, after he'd played something rather forceful. He responded, "Maybe not forte?" In this place she pointed out the piano part, which sounds innocent and childlike. As he tried it again, a bit stressed from the effort, she stepped up to him from the side and smiled, "Cheer up!" and he laughed.

Also playing "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" was Polish violinist Antoni Ingielewicz, 12. In his case, Pamela focused on making sure sequences in the music aren't "clones" of one another, and on bow distribution.

Pam Frank and boy

"If my hearing aid were off, I'd like to know how you do your phrasing, by how you use your bow," Pamela said. She advised against using full bows and going to the frog for no musical reason. "If you do that, you get a little bit of the ironing-of-the-shirts effect," she said, miming the ironing motion. "Just because it's a long note doesn't make it an important note."

She also talked about the famous triple-stop passage, toward the end of the piece. "Just because it's chords doesn't mean you need to be angry with them," she said. The chords phrasing and internal dynamics, not just "chord-fest."

During the last-page spiccato joyride, "there's a beautiful chromatic medley underneath that in the piano that we don't listen to enough," Pamela said.

Last, Natsumi Tsuboi played Waxman's "Carmen Fantasy," which Pamela had to stop mid-way through, for the sake of time.

"I feel like you're telling me all of your secrets, from the very beginning," Pamela said. Had there been any truly "big moments" yet in the piece? There had not. In a piece like this, with no movements to break it up, pacing and restraint becomes very important. If every moment is exploding with emotion all the time, then it's a little like the boy who cried "Wolf!"

"Nobody will comes rescue you when the wolf actually comes!" she said.

Fast music needs to be musical. Slow music runs the danger of being pulled apart, so "don't milk the cow on every note," she said. "Sometimes simple is more expressive."

I probably could have watched Pamela teach all day, but after her last lesson, I had to dash across campus to catch a noon concert which featured jury members Brian Lewis and David Kim. The concert took place in the majestic atrium of the Blanton Museum, which stands at the southern edge of the University of Texas campus, just up the street from the Texas State Capitol:

Texas Capitol

The place was literally packed to the ceiling for the concert, with more than 500 people filling every available chair, lining the long staircase and balcony, and sitting on the floor along every wall.

Noon concert

Brian Lewis and David Kim played the Bach Double, then flutist Marianne Gedigian joined the group for Vivaldi's Flute Concerto No. 3 "Il gardellino." For me, there was another big star in this show: Michael McLean's Violin Concerto, "Elements," from which Brian Lewis played two movements, "Earth" and "Fire," accompanied by an orchestra consisting mostly of Brian's own students. In contrast to the Baroque pieces at the start of the concert, "Elements" is soulful, moody and modern. "Earth" brings to mind Barber, and "Fire" is spooky and fast, a dark and rollicking dance. The overflowing crowd of all ages gave the performance a long standing ovation.

Brian Lewis and students
Brian Lewis and his students, with David Kim

In the afternoon were masterclasses by four jury members: Joji Hattori, Lu Siqing, Arabella Steinbacher and David Kim. Some of them took place simultaneously, and I confess, I was not able to attend them all! But here are a few moments from some of them:

Joji Hattori spoke about a Russian-based philosophy of the bow, in which the bow is held with a firm grip, then weight is applied. Even when the bow is "in the string," it is not resting there; the bow hand has a firm grip on it.


He also suggested that pressing the bow to the string is not the best way to get big tone -- it may sound loud to you and perhaps the first row of your audience, but the sound actually carries better and farther when one does not press the bow.

I dropped in briefly on Arabella Steinbacher's master class, but -- blame it on acoustics -- I truly could not hear what she was saying!

Jury member David Kim, who teaches with wonderful humor, spoke at his master class about planning almost a choreography to follow for performances; just a basic plan of where you'll stand and how. This, he said, can be a comfort when when is performing while nervous.

One audience member asked him how he teaches vibrato, and he suggested practicing it guitar-style, without the bow -- you can even do that while watching T.V. Also, you can put the scroll against the wall and practice the hand and wrist motion from the bout, making it very wide, then getting smaller and smaller.

David said that in the numerous vibrato tutorials on Youtube, none suggests the one thing that really seems to help a student learn vibrato: "You have to be determined," he said. "You have to be obsessed and determined to fix your vibrato."

David Kim

For Ari Boutris, Kim suggested a more solid stance.

"Did you start with Suzuki?" Kim asked. "Yes," Ari said. "Do you remember your foot chart?" At this point a tiny voice in the audience said, "Yes!" Everyone laughed. Kim: "Let's get that sucker out!"

Though they did not literally use a foot chart, they worked on keeping centered and flat on the feet, not rocking back and forth like a boat.

David also asked for "a high-cholesterol sound," big and fat. "We're going to have espresso, not watery McDonald's coffee!"

At the end of this master class, we watched two top-notch performances, from which it would be hard to find any fault, and David admitted as much.

First, we heard Aaron Timothy Chooi play the first movement of Saint Saëns Concerto No. 3. Then we heard Victor Li play Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2, first movement, with character and life.

What a day!

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Impressions from the Menuhin Competition Senior Semi-Finals Day

February 27, 2014 00:42

AUSTIN, Texas — I suppose they had to pick four Finalists from the nine Semi-Finalists who played at the Menuhin Competition in Austin today, but they all played extremely well. Here I will offer you my general impressions from the entire day in Austin.

First, to set the scene: the Menuhin Competition, which switches location every two years, is a pretty big news right now in Austin; I saw a big sign for it at the airport when I arrived yesterday, and I noticed a feature about it on the front page of a local newspaper this morning as I went for my morning latte at the excellent Cafe Medici downtown:

Austin coffee

It was a cold, rainy day in Austin, and the Semi-Finals were held at the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas:

Laurie at Butler

The Senior competition is for violinists ages 16 through 21, although this year's included one competitor who was 15. Semi-Finalists were each required to play two movements of a Haydn quartet, sitting as first violinist with the Miró Quartet. They also played a five-minute solo violin piece specially composed for the competition, entitled "Black-eyed Suzy" by Butler School of Music Professor of Composition Donald Grantham (scroll down for more about the composition). Finally, each of them played a showpiece with piano.

It was a long day -- some six hours of performances! But I will offer you my impressions, from seeing them all live. Also, I've included links to each performance, in case you would like to watch.

First up was Japanese violinist Minami Yoshida, 15. (Here are her performances: Part 1 and Part 2)

Minami played the first movement of Haydn's Op. 64 No. 5 with facile and lively trills. In the second movement she produced a really beautiful tone -- warm but not smothering-warm. During an arresting sans-vibrato entrance I remembered: Haydn can be so surprisingly poignant.

It also occurred to me that it might be somewhat comforting for a competitor to begin a performance this way: by playing chamber music with three affable, capable professional musicians (violinist William Fedkenhauer, cellist Joshua Gindele and violist John Largess) supporting your efforts. Of course, there is probably very little that is comfortable about a high-pressure situation such as a competition, but a little chamber music might warm up the fingers and set up the musical antenna nicely, before the spotlight shines on you-the-competitor, alone.

"Black-eyed Suzy" was an absolute treat, and I'll tell you about it, before describing any of the other performances. I spoke to composer Donald Grantham during one of the breaks:

Donald Grantham

The original "Black-eyed Suzy" is a country fiddle tune that can be traced back as far as the Fitzwilliams Virginal in England, he said. But he's found the tune commonly in country fiddling field recordings, porch bands and the like. "The tune is very short and fast," he said, and so he also added a Delta blues-style section which begins the piece and also reappears in the middle.

The Senior violinists received the sheet music for "Black-eyed Suzy" four weeks before this performance. Grantham was clearly enjoying watching nine violinists interpret his new piece in their own way; for example, Stephen Kim's way of ending the piece: "It was a false cadence, and he really got that," Grantham said. "It showed a lot of preparation and engagement with the piece, which I really appreciated. They're each contributing their own thing to it."

Grantham had input from several violinists about the piece, including Brian Lewis, Bruce Colson and Dillon Welch. "I wanted to write something (the competitors would) like playing and the audience would also like hearing," Grantham said. And if you really like it, here's the composer's website, PiquantPress.com, where you can the sheet music!

Back to the Semi Finalists:

Second was Canadian violinist Aaron Timothy Chooi, 20. (Here is a video of his performance.) I enjoyed the way he made "Black-eyed Suzy" feel episodic, like a story with his good pacing.

American-Korean violinist Christine Seohyun Lim, 19. (Here is a video of her performance) Christine played Haydn's Op. 64 No. 5 with a bouncy quality that even had her bouncing in her chair! She seemed a natural quartet leader, and during the fast-moving fourth movement she gave a nice shape to the thousands of notes flying by. She really got into the groove with "Black-eyed Suzy," finding the gesture in each section, like a series of characters channeling through her playing. She played Wieniawski's "Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 15" with clarity and joy. The considerable technical demands (10ths, octave runs, left-hand pizzicato, huge leaps, etc.) seemed to require no exertion from her. (And surely they did, but she just had things that well in hand.)

Christine Lim

American/Dutch violinist Stephen Waarts, 17. (Here is a video of his performance) I enjoyed watching Stephen lead a string quartet, with well-shaped phrases and lots of energy -- energy that seemed to infect the second violinist as well. The fourth movement had good drama and syncopation. He had memorized "Black-eye Suzy," and he seemed to bring out and enjoy its moments of asymmetry. His choice of Szymanowski's "Nocturne and Tarantella" was unique among these competitors; it begins muted and spooky, with fifths and birds high in the sky, silhouetted against the full moon. (Okay, I made up that last part.) Stephen sold the piece very convincingly and played with great technical accuracy. My one beef was that the piano frequently overpowered the sound of the violin, but I suspect this may have been an inherent problem in the score and not either performer's fault.

Chinese violinist Zeyu Victor Li, 17. (Here is a video of his performance) What a riveting Tzigane -- Victor really had the audience's attention with his articulate and vibrant playing. This piece shimmered in places where I've never noticed it shimmering and was elegant in the places where the music is less complicated. Harmonics were loud and ringing -- just well-played overall. And back to the Haydn, he chose to play the Op. 33, No. 2 "Joke" -- and at the end, the audience did indeed laugh, as intended, at the musical joke!

American violinist Stephen Kim, 18. (Here is a video of his performance) It was during Stephen's time with the Miró Quartet that I was appreciating this quartet's ability to reflect each competitor and his or her different style of playing. Stephen clearly enjoyed the Haydn, in the second movement inserting some very-intentional slides that made at least a few people sit up. ("Glissandi in Haydn, wa-what?") Stephen's "Black-eyed Suzy" struck me as being on the jazzy side. By this time I'd stolen a look at the score and followed along -- it's written in a very clear and do-able way. It's difficult but neither unplayable nor inaccessible, and perhaps because of the music's accuracy of notation, it actually leaves a lot of room for expression. Stephen played a very elegant Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saëns, and kudos to pianist Colette Valentine for the well-played tuttis.

Korean violinist Ji-Won Song, 21. (Here is a video of her performance) Ji-Won did a nice job of channeling the Delta-bluesy beginning to "Black-eyed Suzy," and the rest was quite fast. She played with extraordinary technique, a very nice up-bow staccato.

American violinist William Hagen, 21. (Here is a video of his performance) During William's time with the Miró, I got the idea that this is certainly not the first time he's played in a quartet! He seemed very comfortable in that role. His "Black-eyed Suzy" seemed to have more of a rock 'n' roll angle. The Wieniawski "Polonaise" really suited his playing well, with nice form on the string-crossings.

Korean violinist In Mo Yang, 18. (Here is a video of his performance) It's just not easy to be the last person to play, when judges and audience have been listening for more than six hours. That said, as over-saturated as I felt by that time, I took in In Mo Yang's performance like a sponge. His "Black-eyed Suzy" had a nice, slow and bluesy start, and he seemed easily familiar with bluegrass decorations -- no slide or effect seemed particularly affected. He perhaps startled a few of us with a big stomp of the foot, but it felt just right; soon after he tapped his toe through a whole section. He did what I'll call the "electric guitar effect" (somebody tell me the name for this over-vibrating effect) on several high notes, to great effect. He finished with Ysaÿe's "Caprice d'après l'Etude en forme de Valse de Saint-Saëns." It was very, very elegant, flowing with the inevitability of water. Water pouring quite naturally up into the sky, but that's the point. Tonight, it did.

* * *

To see the results of the Semi-Finals please see this article.

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Senior Finalists for the Menuhin Competition announced!

February 26, 2014 19:56

AUSTIN, Texas — Announcing the Senior Finalists on Wednesday night, jury chairman Pamela Frank said, "I personally have never heard such great violin playing, for so many hours. What really amazed me is how different everybody was -- there were nine totally unique voices today." About 500 people attended the six-hour finals at Bates Recital Hall at the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas in Austin.

The Senior Division Finalists for the Menuhin Competition were announced Wednesday night in Austin. They are:

Christine Seohyun Lim, 19 (American-Korean)
Stephen Waarts, 17, (American-Dutch)
Stephen Kim, 18 (American)
In Mo Yang, 18 (Korean)


To all the Semi-Finalists, Pamela Frank said "I urge you not to take any jury too seriously in your life; one thing that is not an accident is we will all hear all of you again! I would love to play like any of you, truly. To anyone who says classical music is dying, I wish they could have been here tonight."

The Junior Division Finalists (announced yesterday) are:

Ilana Zaks 13, (American)
Rennosuke Fukuda, 14, (Japanese)
Elvina Sung-Eun Auh, 14, (Korean/American)
Jaewon Wee, 14, (South Korean)
Alex Zhou, 12, (American)
Daniel Lozakovitj, 12, (Swedish)
Ludvig Gudim, 14, (Norwegian)

Junior finalists

The Junior Final Round is Friday afternoon, and the Senior Final Round is Saturday evening. You can watch them from home via this live feed.

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Violinist.com interview with Anne Akiko Meyers: The Four Seasons

February 26, 2014 07:30

Just more than a year ago, Anne Akiko Meyers was granted lifetime use of the 1741 "Vieuxtemps" Guarneri del Gesù, an instrument that at one time had an asking price of $18 million.

Anne Akiko Meyers

Earlier this month Anne released an album that is her debut recording with the "Vieuxtemps": The Four Seasons: The Vivaldi Album, with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by David Lockington.

Laurie: This is the coming-out party for the "Vieuxtemps" Guarneri del Gesù; what made you want to record Vivaldi and not say, Vieuxtemps? What drew you to "The Four Seasons"?

Anne: One reason was that I discovered an eerie coincidence: that the "Vieuxtemps" Guarneri del Gesù was "born" in 1741, and Vivaldi died in 1741 -- the same exact year! Imagine, here were these two northern Italian geniuses, who most likely never met, really working their craft at the same time. And in both cases, their works were undiscovered, for centuries. Now their works are considered masterpieces in each medium -- violin-making and music composition. It was so enthralling to me, to discover that.

Laurie: It's interesting that they dovetail like that. And at this point, "The Four Seasons" certainly no longer seems like an undiscovered work! Is it a piece that you have played for a long time?

Anne: "The Four Seasons" has always been a part of my DNA -- I grew up listening to it, and I've played it a lot.

Whenever I have a recording project on my plate, I love to start from square one, if possible, and just have an absolutely fresh, clean palette. I research what editions are available, the history of the piece. Everything is pretty much a representation -- even with the Bach. There are no rules in place. It's really up to the musician to instill his or her vision and to decide the rules to play by. When you start from square one with such an iconic piece of music like the Vivaldi "Four Seasons," you go on a journey; it's an adventure and you're never really sure where you're going to end up.

Laurie: Did you discover any really interesting editions?

Anne: These pieces were written as part of a set of 12 violin concertos, and it was originally entitled, The Contest Between Harmony and Invention. Op. 8. Strangely, it was published in Amsterdam. There are other publications as well -- I looked at the Ricordi publication, thinking the Italian publication had to be the correct authority. But the music for "The Four Seasons" was lost for a very long time; most people didn't even know it existed until the 1920s. The work of one man really saved the bulk of Vivaldi's compositions. So when you're talking about "The Four Seasons," you're dealing with a lot of mystery. When it comes down to it, we just don't have much information on Vivaldi. We are so enamored with his compositions, but we really don't know much about him. I feel the same about Bach. That's just kind of the way it goes with these composers that lived in the 18th and 19th century: we don't have that kind of information accessible.

Laurie: Who is that one man who saved Vivaldi's works?

Anne: His name is (Alberto) Gentili.

Laurie: Where did that happen, was it in Italy?

Anne: It was discovered in a monastery (in Piedmont), all this music, hidden in big tombs -- like old trunks, steamers. He took it upon himself to save the music, and to have it re-published.

There was one recording of "The Four Seasons" made in the 1920s, but it really wasn't until Louis Kaufman -- the man who did "Gone with the Wind" and was the concertmaster to all things Hollywood -- recorded it in 1947 and 1950 that it was really put down on record properly for the first time. That's hard to imagine now, with so many millions of recordings available, and everyone's version being "authentic…"

I think that when you study the scores, you realize that what made it so stand-apart and so different was the fact that Vivaldi penned these sonnets. That was really unusual at the time, to write poetry to accompany the music that was written. And the sonnets are so incredibly descriptive; they describe how the music should be played and heard. That's so unique.

Laurie: It's sort of freeing, I imagine, because it's another direct guide that the composer gave, another instruction beyond the written music.

Anne: Exactly. For example, play like a bird, play like a goldfinch. I actually looked it up: What does a goldfinch sound like? And it really sounds like the way he wrote the music! Then I listened to a lot of different recordings and I thought, wow, that's their version of a goldfinch. Everyone's version of a goldfinch is very different, sometimes very different from the actual thing!

Laurie: There no "correct" Baroque way to play a goldfinch, I suppose!

Anne: That's where beauty lies in the beholder, and even just listening on Youtube to a goldfinch singing, it sounds so different to us all. So this recording is just very personally my version.

Laurie: When was it that Gentili discovered all this?

Anne: It was back in the 1920s, that the discovery was made and the music was unearthed. It's really fascinating because when you think of the "Vieuxtemps" (del Gesù ), the "Vieuxtemps" was sitting under a bed for the last 50 years, too.

(Henri) Vieuxtemps had (the violin) at the end of his life. Unfortunately, he suffered several strokes, and he couldn't perform much any more. Yet he was so in love with this violin, he just tried to compose as much as he could. Still, he missed being around music, and even his class was taken over by (Henryk) Wieniawski. On Vieuxtemps' funeral day, this violin was carried on a pillow by his pupil, Eugene Ysaye. It's so fascinating -- all that fate and destiny, speed-rolling to 2014, and it's the first time that the Vieuxtemps (violin) is being recorded professionally. This music that everyone feels they know inside out, this may be the first time it's ever been performed on the "Vieuxtemps" (del Gesù ).

Laurie: That's very possible, if it was in a vault for 50 years. For some reason I had the impression that people had been playing Vivaldi, straight through, for the past 300 years!

Anne: But that's not really the case. There were other concertos in that set (from which "The Four Seasons" came) that had descriptive names, such as "The Sea Storm" and "Pleasure" and "The Hunt." But it's these concertos (The Four Seasons) that stand out because of the sonnets that were attached. This music was just lost and bombed out in World War II. The Ricordi Publishing House was destroyed in World War II, and it's just amazing to think, how all these relics from the past survive...

Laurie: …or don't.

Anne: We'll never know.

Laurie: Tell me about this "Concerto for Three Violins" by Vivaldi. As I understand it you recorded all three solo parts on the del Gesù.

Anne: I'm a glutton for punishment -- that just took so much work to record! I guess I wanted to out-do the (Bach) Double and see what a triple would be like. Don't even ask about a quartet, that will never, ever happen!

Laurie: What are some of the challenges of doing a trio with yourself?!

Anne: (she laughs) I discovered the Triple, and was just blown away by the rich writing. I think it's on par with the Bach Double; it's just that good. It's hardly ever performed, and I'm not sure why. It has one of the most beautiful melodies in the second movement, where the third violinist has the melody. I thought it would be an interesting challenge, to show all the facets of the violin, what it could do as a trio!

Then the Pärt -- Kristjan Jarvi introduced that piece to me, and I learned it when I played in Estonia last summer. It was so good, I fell in love with it and I felt it was perfect for this album. People might ask, "What? Pärt with Vivaldi?" But it is a Baroque-inspired, "Passacaglia." It's almost like a palette-cleanser, with so much Vivaldi on the album. (The Pärt makes you sit up and listen to the Triple a little more carefully.

Laurie: A little sorbet in there. (The Pärt) sort of shivers a little at the beginning, almost like "Winter." It did make me think of "Winter," and then I noticed -- I wondered what the orchestration was, did I hear a celeste in there?

Anne: It's a vibraphone -- we had to get that instrument there especially for the piece.

Laurie: I thought, "Harry Potter's just flown in!" for a second.

Anne: (She laughs) It's a vibraphone.

Laurie: I'd never heard this piece before.

Anne: I'm going to be doing a version for two violins and stringed orchestra, with Vadim Gluzman, this June. It will be interesting to learn the second violin part. Arvo Pärt's music is so profound and so compelling -- he just says so much in such a short amount of time, it's so powerful. Even the ending of that piece, it almost sounds Mediterranean-Arabic -- you're not really quite sure where it's coming from, but the form is "Passacaglia"-style and the inspiration is Baroque. I think that he respects the old tradition, but writes such original music in an old style.

Laurie: I have another question for you, unrelated to your album. I wanted to ask you how you feel about what happened to Frank Almond. You are the owner and caretaker of three very valuable violins, and I think we all have been very upset by the theft of the "Lipinski" Strad, though happy that Frank is okay and the Strad was returned. I wondered what your take on it has been.

Anne: I was just stunned. It's just sent chills throughout the entire instrumentalists' world. It was so beyond conceivable for something like that to happen. It's hard to think of yourself as a target, but I think you just always have to be aware, you have to be careful. I know that I take great steps in my security and the violin's security, everywhere I travel, whether that includes security detail...

Laurie: Have you had that before?

Anne: Yes. Absolutely. You can never be safe enough.

Not only was it shocking that he was assaulted, but when I read that the violin was taken out of its case and it was 25 below zero, my heart was on the floor -- the violin! You really think of the violin as almost a living entity.

Laurie: One recurring comment, in all the follow-up to this incident, was that if you have a violin like this, you simply should not tell anyone, keep it a secret. Don't be high-profile about it. But to me, it seems like, as the caretaker of an instrument like this, one almost has a responsibility to share its history and perform on it in public.

Anne: I don't think it's even possible to say that you can't talk about it. I'm almost daily doing an interview about the "Vieuxtemps," and everyone in this world knows that I'm performing on it. That's part of the mystique, also, of every performer I've seen: what violin do they use? It's in the reviews; it's just part of your identity. So I think as musicians, we have to be careful -- and it's not just the violins, it's the bows as well. These are expensive items that we have worked our whole lives to try to play. We appreciate the history of these makers and what they went through to make something like this. These instruments are meant to be heard; they're not meant to sit in museums. If that protects the instrument, keeping it sitting in a museum, that's so ridiculously sad.

Laurie: Because there is an entire dimension of its existence that can't unfold.

Anne: They were made to be played on; that was the whole meaning of what these makers went through to create them. Of course, there's a point of over-use, and I'm very aware -- I'm selective with my dates, because I don't want to be performing on it 150 times throughout the year.

But I'm so happy that Frank is okay and that the violin was returned. I also think it drills in the fact that something like this can't be done. You can't just steal a violin of high worth and try to pawn it, it just won't work. You can't get far with it at all!

2 replies

Nine Senior Semi-Finalists Announced in the 2014 Menuhin Competition in Austin

February 23, 2014 18:31

Today the Senior Semi-Finalists in the 2014 Menuhin Competition were announced in Austin, Texas. They are:

Senior Semi-Finalists

Minami Yoshida (15, Japan)
Timothy Chooi (20, Canada)
Christine Seohyun Lim (19, United States/South Korea)
Stephen Waarts (17, United States/Holland)
Zeyu Victor Li (17, China)
Stephen Kim (18, United States)
Ji-Won Song (21, Korea)
William Hagen (21, United States)
In Mo Yang (18, South Korea)

Tomorrow the first round of the Junior competition will begin, running through Tuesday. The Senior Semi-Finals will be held on Wednesday, and the Junior Semi-Finals on Friday. All these performances will be live-streamed here, where you also can find a schedule.

3 replies

Menuhin Competition -- live streaming this week!

February 22, 2014 19:47

Menuhin logoToday Round 1 began in the Menuhin Competition in Austin, Texas, and if you are in the mood to listen to some very fine playing by young musicians, you can find the live stream, as well as the schedule, by clicking this link: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/menuhincompetition2014

I will be reporting live from the event next week, starting with the Senior Semi-final Round on Wednesday. In case you missed it, here is a little taste for you: Senior contestant Stephen Waarts, 17, played Paganini 4; Bach G minor Sonata (Siciliano and Presto); Mozart 5, second movement; and Kreisler Danse Espagnole:

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Past Winner Kevin Zhu, 13, to Perform for Menuhin Competition Opening Concert Friday in Austin

February 19, 2014 16:37

The 2014 Menuhin Competition begins on Friday in Austin, Texas, with an opening concert that will feature 2012 Junior Division winner Kevin Zhu, who will play Waxman's "Carmen Fantasy." The concert also will feature The University of Texas Symphony Orchestra with Gerhardt Zimmermann conducting; and performances by violinist and jury member Ilya Gringolts, violinist Olivier Charlier and pianist Anton Nel.

Kevin, who is 13 and lives in the San Francisco area, took some time earlier this month to talk to me over the phone about the appeal of classical music, about fine violins, and about his experience at the last Menuhin Competition, when he won First Prize in Beijing.

Kevin Zhu

Kevin began playing the violin when he was just three years old.

"I was extremely interested in it, from the first day that I heard the sound of a violin," Kevin said. When Kevin was a toddler, his father used to play Chinese folk songs in the living room for Kevin and his sister. That's when his father noticed Kevin's keen interest in the instrument. "But when he tried to hand the violin to me, I actually stumbled back, because I was scared of the thing. It was about the same size as me, at the time! Then when he gave it back to my sister to play (he was teaching my sister at the time), I crawled back right to where I was and started listening again. Then when he tried to give it to me I stumbled back, and that kind of went back and forth."

Before his first real violin (a 1/16-size), Kevin had a little plastic, white toy violin, which he carried around the house with him.

Kevin entered his first competition at age five and soon after started taking from Li Lin, his currrent teacher.

"I actually do enjoy the competitions, although it can be a lot of pressure," he said. "But it's fun to meet new people. Overall it's just a great experience, to see all these other amazing violinists competing as well. You can learn a lot from them, too."

Kevin, 13, attends a public school, Lawson Middle School in Cupertino, Calif., where he is in eighth grade and enjoys extra-curricular activities such as swimming and basketball -- in moderation.

"Of course, you have to be careful, because if you hurt yourself, an injury definitely could have some impact on your performance on stage and whether or not you can perform in some concerts," he said.

For the 2012 Menuhin Competition, he played a full-size del Gesù violin, though it was rather large for him. By now, he's grown into the full-size violin and plays an Andrea Guarneri, on loan from Florian Leonhard Fine Violins. (For Friday's opening concert he'll play the "Willemotte" Stradivari, also from Florian Leonhard.)

Playing such fine violins has "been a wonderful experience, just to hear their sound," he said. "It definitely gives you a lot of experience, because first of all you get to feel the different instruments and you get to adjust to how their response is different and how to adapt to those different responses quickly so that you can keep improving on a new instrument. It also teaches you something about almost the acoustics of the instrument, how different things can be."

Kevin said he has some friends his age who like classical music, but only a few.

"It's very rare to find young kids like me who actually enjoy classical music," he said. The world of pop music, with its techno-, dub-step and myriad new forms, is ever-changing. "It's almost ridiculous, how much music can change in a matter of a decade."

And classical music? "Classical music has a lot more feeling to it than any other type of music," Kevin said. "To me, it can be inspiring. It can show anger, it can show love, it can show so many different types of emotions. It can do so much! It can basically portray an entire human being's emotions and strengths and weaknesses. And it's something that makes me calm; it puts me in a better mood if I'm not happy. It's not like pop music, where most of the music is fast-moving, with lots of different things going on at the same time, like 20 or so voices. I don't want to say classical music is necessarily more simple, because it's not -- but things are more elegant, more refined."

Since winning the Menuhin two years ago, Kevin has kept busy; in January he played the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Saratoga (Calif.) Symphony, and he's been working on the Waxman "Carmen Fantasie," Elgar's "La Capricieuse," the three Gershwin/Heifetz Preludes, and the Wieniawski Polonaise in D Major.

How much does he practice?

"It varies every day. On a good day, without too much homework, I'll manage three or four hours," he said. "If I have a lot of homework, maybe two or three hours. On the weekends I have more time to practice, but I also go to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and driving there takes an hour each way. And I also do music composition class there, which is basically like music theory. That takes another two and a half hours. So on Saturdays I don't have too much extra time, so about three hours. Then Sunday I have a little more time, but I have to go to Chinese school, so, about four hours."

Does he have a favorite violinist?

"I don't really have any favorites -- you can learn from everyone," Kevin said. "Everyone has their different qualities, and you can take all of them and combine them to create a better product. I don't really have a favorite recording, because I'm listening to them all the time. There are so many out there, I can't even put my mind around it."

As for his experience at the Menuhin Competition in Beijing in 2012, "the entire competition was so marvelous, so outstanding," he said. "The environment was, of course, competitive, but it was also so calm. It was just an enjoyment to listen to all these other young competitors -- you learn from them, especially at this kind of a level. You can even learn about your own playing."

* * *

Here's a video of Kevin, then 11, playing Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy at the Finals of the Menuhin Competition Beijing 2012:

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Frank Almond Speaks with Violinist.com about the 'Lipinski' Strad Theft and Recovery

February 16, 2014 00:55

It's been a long three weeks for Milwaukee Symphony Concertmaster Frank Almond, who in that time was tased by art thieves and robbed of the Stradivarius violin he plays. He spent the next week in long interviews with police and FBI. Media outlets from all over the world called, emailed and even showed up at his house.

Frank AlmondNonetheless he continued to perform, playing concerts in Florida on the same day that police announced the violin's recovery in Milwaukee. A few days later, he was back in Milwaukee, playing a recital on the recovered 'Lipinski' Strad.

Frank has displayed incredible grace and patience throughout the ordeal, though he mentioned that he really would like to go practice at this point. Nonetheless, he took some time on Thursday to talk with me, on his way home to Milwaukee, from teaching at Northwestern University in Evanston.

Laurie: It's been kind of a crazy couple weeks for you. Have you had to take off a lot of time from work?

Frank: Officially I was off the week after it happened. There was really no way I could deal with everything that was going on with the police, the FBI and everything. It wasn't so much physical stuff, but just time-consuming interviews with them concerning the investigation. You had to be available to them all the time.

Laurie: It must have been so weird to be dropped all of a sudden into this complete alternate reality -- like a CSI episode or something!

Frank: It really was! And it continues. It's not really over yet, of course, even though they found the violin. It's a whole world that I never expected to have much to do with. I've done about 25 different things in the last two weeks that I never thought I would do!

Laurie: What was the most bizarre of them?

Frank: Probably spending six or seven hours talking to detectives, in an interrogation room. They were very nice and everything. What was interesting is that (the violin world) was not really their world, either. So they were really fascinated by the whole case. Then here I was, down (at police headquarters), spending a lot of time with a lot of homicide detectives (he laughs) which is not something I ever really expected!

Laurie: When this happened, at what point did you realize what was going on?

Frank: Um, when he shot me with a taser!

Laurie: Did you know, he's going to take the violin?

Frank: No, not really, because I didn't really know what it was until it went off. It was just a guy walking -- it was very dark and it was very cold outside, they were parked right next to my car, backed in, and it was this van that was running. But I just thought he was picking somebody else up from work or something, which would have made perfect sense. It was late, and there had just been a reception. But there was nothing out of the ordinary, except that he was walking very slowly toward me and just got a little bit closer and closer. I had just put some stuff in my car, and I was about open the door to put the violin in the car. I thought he was just going to walk by me, so I was kind of backing up, and I just saw a couple lights in, I think it was his right hand -- probably that's what happens just before you get hit with a taser.

As soon as that happened, I knew that they were probably going for the violin.

Laurie: I mean that would be a little sophisticated for your wallet.

Frank: Probably (he laughs). But it was very, very unusual for any robbery. Nobody really uses a taser for a robbery, which is one of the first things that I discovered. But I was happy it wasn't something else. They're very effective -- I was immobilized quite rapidly, and it doesn't feel so great. I got up very, very quickly, in time to see them driving off, not very far away.

Laurie: So they were parked right next to you?

Frank: Yes, right next to my car.

Laurie: That's creepy, wow.

Frank: Yes, he definitely had done his homework.

Laurie: When you are shot with a taser, is there lingering pain?

Frank: No, it wasn't any kind of serious injury. They're like little fish hooks, and one of them went into my right wrist, so there was a fair amount of blood on my hand, but it was just a puncture wound, it wasn't a big deal. The other one went into my chest, but it was mostly stopped by a jacket I was wearing.

Laurie: How soon were you able to get help after this happened?

Frank: Well, there were still a couple of musicians in the parking lot. Todd Levy was there, he's our principal clarinet player for the Milwaukee Symphony; and Christopher Taylor, who's the really amazing pianist who had played with us that night. I was yelling, I was making a fair amount of noise by that time, and Todd ran right over. He's a very old friend of mine, and we were all just trying to figure out what just happened. He put it together pretty quickly -- I was probably hysterical. But I did call 911 almost immediately, even before Todd got over there. It took them a little while to find us; we were in the parking lot in a university.

So they showed up, but it did take a bit of time to explain what was going on to a couple of guys in the squad cars. They're beat cops, and they were great, but they didn't really understand what we were talking about: a violin? That's worth how much? How do you spell that? S-T-R-A…

Todd ended up making a lot of phone calls that sort of saved the day because I think within about an hour, some other people were involved that were trying to move things along a little faster, and the gravity of this situation became a little more apparent.

Laurie: I suppose time was of the essence, too.

Frank: Well it was to me, and I knew that. But if they didn't exactly understand what I was talking about, it wouldn't make a lot of sense to them. They were trying to get the facts of what happened, and honestly it took them a little while to figure out whether they should get a detective involved. They wound up with about 40 detectives involved, so it was eventually a good decision!

Laurie: I understand that they discarded the violin case during the getaway. But were your bows in that case?

Frank: They got rid of the case, and I'm not exactly sure what the timeline was, but the police found the case the next morning. It didn't take them long to find the case, and everything was in the case except the violin and those two bows. They took the two bows, which were also recovered with the violin, in reasonably good shape.

Laurie: Can I ask what the bows were worth?

Frank: Well, the bows were both mine, and they are quite nice. One is a Nicolas Maire and the other is a Emile Ouchard -- so you can do the math. Well into the five figures!

It was a clue that meant, to me, that at least the person knew something about what they were taking; nothing else in the case was touched. The police took the case right away, they were processing it. I'm sure they got some good evidence from it.

Laurie: You and I had spoken about this fiddle and your project, A Violin's Life -- but how long have you been playing it?

Frank: I've been playing it since 2008.

Laurie: How bonded are you to this instrument?

Frank: That's difficult question. It's sort of a cliche, that people develop a special kind of relationship with whatever instrument they're playing for a lengthy period of time. But this is a really unique violin. It also has been a big part of a project for me (A Violin's Life) that wasn't too old yet. There's probably more depth to my involvement with this instrument than any other instrument I've played, as spectacular as the others were. There's also been a shift in the way I've approached my playing because of this instrument as well. So I'd say it was maybe a little bit more intense relationship than with some other instruments.

It's always a challenge not to have your identity completely wrapped up into it -- if you're trying to be some sort of healthy human! You don't want to get totally taken away. That said, it's the thing that I spend the most amount of time in my life with. That's how it is, if you're doing what I'm doing. I think when something with that relationship is disrupted in some way, especially if it's suddenly or unexpectedly, it's very disorienting and, of course, traumatizing in a certain way, at least at first.

Laurie: What has it been like to be at the center of a media circus, or did it feel like that?

Frank: It was also disorienting. The first couple of days after it happened were kind of a blur. Media from literally all over the world were trying to get in touch with us -- calling us at home and, in some cases, just showing up at the house. I've got to say, everybody was pretty nice about it. I think once they figured out I wasn't going to say much, it got a little easier. But that was going on at the same time that I was dealing with a lot of things like police, and FBI, and insurance companies…it's just time-consuming. Instead of practicing, I'm doing a lot of things that I didn't think I would be doing! (he laughs)

And then the same thing started, in a completely different way, when they found the violin! Then it got even more intense. It was truly insane, because I was out of town, and we were trying to play these fundraising events for the orchestra. People were trying to reach me by phone and by email, and I was trying also to play. I feel sorry for our press and marketing person at the orchestra who really had to deal with most of it -- Susan Loris, she should get some sort of medal for what she was able to achieve! But I've never turned down so many interviews in my life! (He laughs)

Laurie: What was it like when you had the first concert back with the violin last Monday in Milwaukee?

Frank: This story resonated with so many people, on so many levels, around the world. Locally, it kind of took on a life of its own. It was quite amazing to step out there and play for those people who I knew were there for a lot of great reasons. At the same time, you could tell that things were going to be different in my life, because there was this enormous security presence. It was a concert that I certainly had the choice to cancel, but even before the violin was found, I felt that (pianist) Bill (Wolfram) and I should just go and play, almost to make a point. Either way, we were going to do it. But it involved a lot of logistics that I wasn't necessarily used to dealing with.

Laurie: How have things changed for you, as far as security is concerned?

Frank: Obviously, I can't really get into the details. I think anybody that's playing any kind of instrument like this is most likely reassessing or reexamining how they live with these things and work with them. Logically or not, I think it's a natural human reaction. In my own situation, it's so fresh, that I'm certainly cognizant of things that I wasn't before. I've had to make a few adjustments.

Laurie: People have said a lot about this incident, good and bad, but one of the things was that if you have an instrument like this you shouldn't tell anybody and you should keep it secret. I don't know if that makes any sense.

Frank: I don't know of any Golden-Period Strad that's being played publicly where nobody knows who has it. I defy anybody to name one. I mean, people play them publicly, they're usually in their bios. I think that to keep the identity of an instrument at that level secret is not realistic or practical. The question is more: how do you handle it on a day-to-day basis, what precautions do you take, what kind of protocols do you follow?

I can totally understand the questions from some people: why are you walking in a parking lot like that, late at night after a concert? On the surface, that seems like a logical question. But I think a lot of people also don't understand that part of the protocol of living with these things is being inconspicuous and sort of practical in terms of not drawing attention to yourself or the instrument. That, coupled with the fact that they are almost never stolen. You're much more likely to be in a plane crash than have a Stradivarius stolen. Even if it is stolen, the chances are it's going to resurface at some point; it may take a couple years. But the odds are very much against trying to steal them, for a variety of factors.

All of that is a huge argument against drawing attention to it. I mean, you can walk around with an armed guard, sure. Or you could handcuff it to your wrist -- but if somebody wanted to steal it, they're not going to get a key for the handcuffs! And if you've got an armed guard, that's much different than having a little brown case that you're carrying, walking down the streets of New York. People carry briefcases full of jewelry all the time, nobody knows what's in them. But if you have 15 security guards with you, everybody knows that it's something significant.

It's always a balance, and I think that the normal way of doing it has certainly worked well for most people, as evidenced by the fact that they're hardly ever stolen. I would also say that there were many precautions that were taken in my case, that a lot of people don't know about. I've been extremely lucky to be given these instruments, off and on, for 30 or 35 years, and I'm pretty familiar with how to take care of them and what to do with them. My biggest fear was doing something stupid with it, like leaving it in a parking lot, or on top of the car like a coffee mug or something.

Laurie: Those things happen fairly frequently with instruments.

Frank: It happens all the time! Most of the time you see people leaving them on a train, or in taxis, and these are not dumb little kids. Yo-Yo left his in a cab, and Lynn Harrell had problems with it, Gidon Kremer left his on an Amtrak train a few years ago. I totally understand, when those sorts of things happen, and that really was my biggest fear, I think.

Laurie: I did read what the owner of the 'Lipinski' Strad wrote to you -- how was she about the whole incident?

Frank: We were all just devastated, of course. I think she was the first person I called the next morning, after they found the case, I got home at about 5 a.m. and they found the case a couple hours later. The owners and I have a very unique relationship, we're pretty close. So that helps quite a bit. We had a lot of shared pain, and once in a while, moments of levity, because the whole thing was just so insane. And we spent a lot of time together, she was over at my house quite a bit, for sometimes hours at a time. One of us would be in one corner of the living room on the phone, and the other would be in the other corner, talking to somebody else. It just went on for days like that. We're very honest and very trusting of each other, and I think her statement said a lot about who she is as a person and what her priorities are.

Laurie: It looks like you received some pictures from kids!

Frank: Right, yeah! (He chuckles) My two daughters drew the picture that I put up on my Facebook page.

Child's picture for Frank

They drew it one day and left it for me, and I thought it was really funny. Very, very touching. One daughter started it and the other one finished it. But I got a lot of other stuff from kids in the mail. The detectives actually wound up getting some pictures, too, which was very touching. For homicide detectives, that's a different kind of thing! They're not used to getting pictures from kids, thanking them!

Laurie: It sounds like the whole city of Milwaukee really went on a ride with this whole thing.

Frank: Yes, and it's ongoing. There's still tremendous discussion about it, and deservedly so. It's extraordinary, what the police department did, what law enforcement did -- it's unprecedented, in my experience. I think it was just amazing, what those guys pulled off.

Laurie: The detective work was amazing, tracing the taser.

Frank: I didn't know a lot about what they were doing most of the time. That was one of the other interesting things: they were very quiet and reserved about what was happening. They seemed pretty confident that it was a local connection mostly, and that was about it. And I admit that I probably would have been very skeptical of that, from my knowledge of how these things usually work.

Laurie: How is the violin doing?

Frank: It seems to be okay; it sounded great at the concert, and I spent a lot of time with it over the weekend. I'm going to get back with the orchestra starting tonight, actually. There were a few little cosmetic things on it, but nothing major. It's astonishing, really, when you think about it. I don't know exactly why or how that happened, but it was in good shape.

Laurie: Do you have anything to add?

Frank: The one thing I do have to say is that, from the very first day this whole ordeal started, it was an unbelievable, colossal outpouring of concern and support, a lot of it on social media, a lot of it people sending me email messages and I'm sure a lot of your readers stepped right up. Almost without exception, it just brought out the best in everybody. No matter how it ended up, I was extremely touched. That was very meaningful to me and my family, and it helped a lot. So I just wanted to thank everybody again for that. It made more difference than I think some people realize.

7 replies

Gordon Back and the History of the Menuhin Competition

February 14, 2014 11:10

Menuhin Competition Artistic Director Gordon Back knows how to support a violinist at a competition -- he's been there at the piano for many a young violinist's most trying -- and triumphant -- moments.

This year's Menuhin Competition, which begins one week from today in Austin, Texas, has a history that started with violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) and continues under the direction of Back. Before taking charge of the Menuhin Competition in 2002, Back had a long career as a collaborative pianist.

"I've played with violinists all my life, really, since the early '70s," he said, speaking to me over the phone from London earlier this month.

Back has been the official accompanist for the Carl Flesch Competition in London, the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. He accompanied for the Indianapolis Competition for its first four competitions and of course, for the Menuhin Competition.

Gordon Back

In fact, he met the late Yehudi Menuhin 40 years ago, when Menuhin asked him to accompany his master classes in London, at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. All this experience accompanying allowed him to meet some amazing talents, at very young ages.

"I accompanied (Leonidas) Kavakos, when he won the second prize (in Indianapolis), then I played concerts in Europe with him when he was in his early 20s," Back said. "I played with Sarah Chang from the age of nine, and Maxim Vengerov when he won Carl Flesch when he was 16. I accompanied Julia Fischer at the Menuhin Competition when she was 13, when she won first prize. So I came across many great young talents then."

Gordon Back, Sarah Chang, and Yehudi Menuhin
Gordon Back, Sarah Chang, age 9, and Yehudi Menuhin. Though Chang was never in the Menuhin Competition, Menuhin greatly admired her talent. Photo courtesy Gordon Back

He was also well-connected with an older generation of violinists, playing with Menuhin in concert, and with Nathan Milstein and Josef Suk.

Back was official pianist for the Menuhin Competition from the time it began in 1983, when it took place in the small, seaside town of Folkestone in Kent, England.

"What I remember there were these informal master classes (Menuhin) would give," Back said. "It was like the Pied Piper; there would be all these violinists sitting around him, in a very informal way in a room, when he'd be talking about the Bach Chacconne, or the Beethoven Violin Concerto. It was absolutely fascinating."

Experiences such as those gave him ideas for how to continue shaping the competition after Menuhin's death in 1999. "One of these ideas was to move it around the world, because the talents were coming from all over the world," Back said. "Also, turning the competition much more into a festival, where the nine members of the jury would also perform big, high profile concerts, depending on who was on the jury, and give master classes."

Indeed, this year's jury members are doing all of those things and more, with a full schedule of events that has jury members playing at opening and closing concerts, giving lectures, playing chamber concerts and giving master classes.

For Menuhin, the competition was about more than the winners, Back said. "He didn't really care necessarily about the First Prize winner, it was all about discovering the talents, the stars of the future."

The whole idea for the competition grew from an idea by violinist Robert Masters, who was the first director of the Yehudi Menuhin School, in Surrey, England in 1963. (Here's the article from when we visited the Menuhin School in 2012.) Masters "was on the jury of a competition in Russia and thought, wouldn't it be great to have a competition for young violinists? Because there are very few in the world for violinists who are so young," Back said. "He proposed this idea to Yehudi, and Yehudi thought this was a fabulous idea. That's really how the Menuhin Competition came around, in 1983."

As for Menuhin, "he was very interested in discovering and nurturing this talent of the young ones, but I'm not sure he actually liked competitions a lot," Back said, "so it was about almost trying to create a sort of festival-among-competitors atmosphere. That's a sort of hard paradox, isn't it? Because inevitably, it is a competition, and people will disagree between the First Prize and Second Prize. But for him, you're identifying this talent."

A First Prize is no guarantee of a career, and sometimes it's the competitor who wins Fifth Prize who goes on to the bigger career. Certainly, the Menuhin Competition has recognized many gifted young artists who are building or have achieved solid careers, among them: Julia Fischer, Nikolai Znaider, Jennifer Koh, Tasmin Little, Lara St. John, Ilya Gringolts, Ray Chen, and many more. Though they did not all win first prize, many of them had some of their earliest competition experiences at the Menuhin.

"Nurturing the talent was very, very important to Yehudi," Back said. "The Menuhin (Competition) is different from (other) competitions, it's not about finding the gold winner and pushing them like crazy, which many competitions do. This is about nurturing the talent and in a way, actually not pushing them. If somebody's incredibly talented, it's almost more about letting that talent develop in a natural way and not getting in the way of it."

Menuhin was born in New York City and took the stage at age seven, spending most of his childhood touring the world. At age 19, his world tour included some 73 cities! He spent much of the rest of his life advocating a well-balanced existence.

As a teacher, "the biggest influence in (Yehudi's) life was probably (George) Enescu," Back said. "He also drew upon lifetime experiences, sometimes outside of music. He was a great advocate of Ravi Shankar and Eastern music. He was a great philosopher, he was a world citizen. He loved art, yoga. It's all those influences that came out through music, as he got older. He was such an incredibly well-rounded human being; he was much more than just a violinist. You'd always feel this incredible depth of knowledge, and he'd make you think of things that you'd never thought about."

Since Back took directorship of the Menuhin Competition, it has also become more of a world citizen, in a sense, as it has moved from place to place. Since 1984 the competition has been held in Boulogne sur Mer in France; London in the U.K.; Cardiff, Wales in the U.K.; Oslo in Norway; and Beijing in China. This year it crosses the Atlantic to the United States, to take place in Austin, Texas.

"Some people said, 'Why not New York?' But there's so much happening in a city like New York, I think it gives it a different feel to have it in Texas. The Butler School of Music has a fabulous international faculty, and the school's got a great infrastructure. The UT Orchestra is good, the Austin Symphony is 100 years old, Menuhin performed with them in '52, and of course the added ingredient there, to give it a bit of international flavor, was to bring in an international orchestra, so Cleveland Orchestra are coming for the last three days."

"In a sense, the competition reinvents itself every two years because you have the influence of the host nation," he said. "One of the joys of this has been to work with different partners. When we went to Norway in 2010, we introduced improvisation there for the first time; this was something the hosts wanted to bring in. In Cardiff, we got the kids to direct the Four Seasons without a conductor. After that, the obvious thing to me was to take the competition East, because so many of the entries come from China, Korea, Japan. That was one of the reasons to go to Beijing, and that was a spectacular success. Then the question was, where do you go after that? The obvious choice was America, because that's where Menuhin was born, and so many entries are coming from the States now, in terms of people from all nations studying in the States. In 2016, the centenary (of Menuhin's birth), the obvious answer was to come to London because that's where he spent most of his life. So each competition has evolved, has taken a different path."

But one thing has remained the same: at the heart, the competition is a celebration of young talent and hard work. This year, the Menuhin Competition had more applications than ever -- 275, and 42 of them will arrive in Texas next week.

"There's enormous quality in all the concerts; I think there's a bit of something for everyone there," Back said. "The real stars are the kids themselves, they are amazing, they are just great kids."

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Stolen 'Lipinski' Strad Found in a Suitcase in Attic, Bridge Still Standing

February 6, 2014 12:13

The "Lipinski" Stradivarius violin was recovered from an attic in a Milwaukee residence overnight, and the violin was apparently treated with care during its adventure with art thieves, police said at a press conference Thursday at Milwaukee Police Department headquarters.

The violin, valued at $5 million, was recovered in an attic at the residence of a friend of one of the three suspects police had arrested yesterday. Police said that the owner of the residence was unaware of the contents of the suitcase that the suspect asked to leave there.

The violin was stolen on January 27 from Milwaukee Symphony Concertmaster Frank Almond, who was walking to his car after a concert when he was shot with a taser, then robbed of the violin. The violin, made in 1715, was the subject of a 2013 project called A Violin's Life.

Police said that the violin had been treated well.

"In the realm of things stolen, it was treated carefully by the people who stole it," said Milwaukee Police Chief Edward. "They didn't have a violin case, but they had a suitcase, and they treated it gingerly."

Press conference
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn at Thursday's press conference

Police had recovered the violin's case when it had been discarded near the crime scene during the getaway, so when they recovered the violin, they returned it to its case. It remains at Milwaukee Police headquarters.

"The FBI literally handled it with kid gloves. We took great pains to put it in a very safe place, we handled it like a baby, but we didn't powder it," said Flynn. He said the fiddle looked good, joking, "I think it looks pretty damned good for a 300-year-old, not a day over 250…"

Frank AlmondFrank Almond, who is currently in Florida, has not seen the recovered violin in person, though he has viewed photos of it, said Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra President Mark Niehaus. "He's thrilled the violin is back," Niehaus said, adding that the bridge appears to be intact, the sound post is up, and the strings are in place.

He did not know if Almond would continue playing the violin, but said that "these instruments must be played to live on -- if you just put them in a case, they tend to deteriorate."

Two male suspects were identified as Universal Knowledge Allah and Salah Jones. With the help of Taser International, the FBI tracked the purchase of the taser to Texas, where it reportedly was purchased by Allah.

Police did not uncover a third party, or a deeper conspiracy in the theft. "It appears we had a local criminal who was interested in art theft," said Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn. "He has a previous history as an art thief."

The suspect was tied to the theft in 1995 of a statue called "Woman with Fruit" by Nicolas Africano, from the Michael Lord Gallery in the Pfister Hotel, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Though police said they did not know the suspect's ultimate plans for the violin, Flynn pointed out that in the 1995 theft, the suspect kept the $25,000 sculpture for four years, then tried to sell it back to the gallery's owners. He did appear to understand the value of the violin. "He had done his homework," Flynn said.

District Attorney John Chisholm said that charges will likely be filed tomorrow. Police did not say whether a female suspect who had been arrested yesterday would be charged.

Police are still looking for a getaway van.

9 replies

Lipinski Strad Recovered in Good Condition

February 6, 2014 07:18

Lipinski StradThe "Lipinski" Stradivarius that was stolen from Frank Almond on Jan. 27 has been recovered, according to news outlets in Milwaukee.

The violin, which was found in the home of one of the three suspects arrested yesterday, is reported to be in "perfect condition." Experts are in the process of confirming whether this is indeed the stolen Strad, and the Milwaukee Police department will hold a press conference at noon (Central Time) to release their findings.

Yesterday, three suspects were arrested in connection with the crime: two men, 36 and 41, and a woman, 32.

Update: The violin was found on the east side of Milwaukee after police were tipped off about its whereabouts by one of the suspects. It is being kept at Milwaukee Police headquarters, according to TMJ4 in Milwaukee

5 replies

Three arrested in theft of 'Lipinski' Strad

February 5, 2014 14:58

It appears that three people have been arrested in connection with the theft of the 'Lipinski' Stradivarius in Milwaukee. Charges have not yet been filed.

Here is the report from Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that one of the suspects is a 41-year-old Milwaukee man who was convicted of stealing a $25,000 statue nearly 20 years ago.

The Strad was stolen on January 27 from Milwaukee Symphony Concertmaster Frank Almond, who was walking to his car after a concert and was allegedly shot with a taser, then robbed of the violin. The violin, made in 1715, was the subject of a 2013 project called A Violin's Life.

A $100,000 reward was offered for the return of the Strad. It is not yet clear if the violin has been recovered, but the Milwaukee Police Department is holding a press conference this afternoon. This story is still developing; please feel free to add comments as we learn more information.

Update: The New York Times reports that the suspects are two men, 36 and 41, and a woman, 32.

Update: From the 4:30 p.m. press conference in Milwaukee: The violin has NOT been recovered, according to Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flinn. "I think there is still a good chance it's....still in our jurisdiction." Physical evidence links these suspects to the crime. "At these point we don't have any indication they were working for anyone but themselves."

Update: The violin case had been recovered within hours of the robbery. Police don't know if any steps were taken to protect the instrument after the case was discarded. The police also have not yet located the getaway van.

Lipinski Strad

3 replies

Violinist.com interview with Ilya Gringolts: the Menuhin Competition

February 4, 2014 15:22

Menuhin logoThe Menuhin Competition gets underway in less than a month in Austin, Texas, and as the clock ticks down, we have a few previews for you here at Violinist.com. Also, I'll be traveling to Texas later this month to write about the competition, which begins on February 21 and culminates with a final Gala Concert (with the Cleveland Orchestra, no less!) on March 2.

Today, we are talking with Russian-born violinist Ilya Gringolts. Gringolts, who took home a prize in the Junior Division of the Menuhin Competition in 1995, will serve as a member of this year's international jury, which also includes Pamela Frank (Chair), Joji Hattori (Vice Chair), Olivier Charlier, David Kim, Brian Lewis, Lü Siqing, Anton Nel and Arabella Steinbacher.

Ilya won First Prize in the 1998 Paganini Competition, also receiving special prizes for being the youngest-ever competitor to be placed in the final and the best interpreter of Paganini’s Caprices. Lucky for us, just last year he recorded the Paganini 24 Caprices.

Ilya Gringolts

In May, Orchid Classics will release a recording of the complete Brahms quartets, featuring his Gringolts Quartet, in which he plays first violin; his wife Anahit Kurtikyan, second violin; Silvia Simionescu, viola; and Claudius Herrmann, cello. In September, he will perform the original version of the Sibelius Concerto (recorded in 1992 by Leonidas Kavakos), which has seldom -- if ever -- been performed live. He also continues a busy performance schedule with the Gringolts Quartet, which in 2011 recorded the Schumann Quartets. A member of Violinist.com since 2002, Ilya has added substance and humor to many of our discussions here, over the years, as he is a true violinist in every way.

Ilya spoke to me via e-mail about how he got started with the violin, how competitions were always a part of his Russian upbringing, and more. With his usual candor, humor and humility, he shared his feelings about both the rewards and the stress of competitions!

Laurie: What made you want to start the violin, and how old were you when you did so?

Ilya: It was just a thing to do - not to be reduced to a stereotype, but in Russia a Jewish boy had to play the violin, so I didn't ask any questions. It was basically my parents' idea, but I warmed up to it. I was never good at sports, so it never felt like I was missing out on the outdoors.

Laurie: It's obvious that you had a lot of experience with competitions. How old were you when you entered your first competition? Do you remember the feeling?

Ilya: We had to compete in presenting ourselves from a very early age. Curriculum was interspersed with class concerts and at the end of each school year there would be something called "otchyotny koncert", loosely a "report performance", an animal of the bygone era where teachers were reporting on their achievements by exposing their unsuspecting students to a jeering crowd. Competitions, be it regional or country-wide, were part of the system. I did around one each year, starting at 9. My grand warhorse then was the lovely Concerto No. 13 by Kreutzer, a work duly forgotten by humankind the moment it left the publishing house, but lovingly preserved for competition purposes in Russia.

Feelings are another matter. I don't remember having any feelings at all really until a much later stage. I must've not minded - things mostly ran according to plan, and people mostly said good things about my playing. So as long as that was the case, there was no room for worrying.

Laurie: What made you want to continue to enter so many competitions? In the ones where you were most successful, what helped you win?

Ilya: This may sound beaten to death, but you can't win those things without a good tutelage and a fair amount of practicing. All the rest (including all sorts of psychological problems one loves to concentrate on these days) stems from the lack of either former or latter. Of course, as in any competition, you can't exceed your own level, so if others that are stronger happen to be competing - tough! Otherwise everything depends on you :)

Laurie: Competitions sometimes get a bad reputation; people can get very bitter about the politics, worn down by the work, or carried away by a competitive feeling. But it seems you embraced competitions, and there must be a reason. How did competitions help you? In general, what is valuable, for a young person, about doing a competition? And a related question: do competitions have value also for music lovers and the public? For the art itself?

Ilya: Let's not fool ourselves - even the staunchest competition supporters would concede that they do little in terms of adding value for music lovers and for the art itself (in fact, the art of music doesn't actually need performers - no performance is as good as the score. However, we are getting carried away here), but it is a fact that competitions have been instrumental in forging many careers. That might just be the single most valuable aspect of them. As to my relationship with competitions - it is indeed the one in which I was the most successful (Paganini 1998) that made me swear them off for the future (as a participant, mind you - turns out I am on the inside now!). In retrospect - and looking at some of my colleagues - I should have perhaps tried my luck at a few more, but the terror that I experienced in Genoa was simply much too strong. Bone-chilling stuff really - I don't think I had any sleep before the second round.

Laurie: What, to you, was different about the Menuhin Competition (in which you were a Junior Prize Winner in 1995) than the many other competitions you did?

Ilya: But I didn't do so many! I just remember being very surprised that I'd made it to the finals in the first place. I was competing against an 11-year-old Julia Fischer, who already at that point could play the Schumann Concerto on the piano and Saint-Saens Concerto on the violin on the same night (she won Junior First Prize); and there was Corina Belcea in the senior group (who won Second Prize), probably about 14 then. I also remember enjoying Yehudi's master-classes - a revelation! They way he taught how to speak with your bow, that's something that was also so special when he played - the 'living playing.' Only Szigeti had that same speaking quality. I have a photo with him - I am about as tall as him on the photo. What a personality - they don't make them like that any more.

Menuhin, and Ilya
Yehudi Menuhin, with Ilya Gringolts, age 12

Laurie: What was it like, to be a student of Itzhak Perlman? We all love the man, and I've seen many master classes that he has done, but I truly don't think it gave me a true idea of what one-on-one, continuous lessons with him would be like. What is the most important thing that you learned from him? What was he like, as a conductor, when you were recording Tchaikovsky?

Ilya: Well, the thing about Mr.P is that what you see is what you get. He doesn't make a secret of it, and that's how it's always been, I suppose. His master-classes in that respect are really like a one-to-one with audience present. Plenty of positive emotions - I don't think he was ever in the bad mood once - and lots of puns intended. He wasn't a big fan of demonstrating on the instrument which is perhaps a bit of a shame, but he would go at great lengths to explain himself verbally.

We played together on a few occasions besides recording the Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. Mozart 5, Beethoven, Prokofiev 1, Mendelssohn were just some of the things we did together. The orchestras adored him - in fact, I think he was what the perfect conductor would be for most orchestras. He let them play and was always on their side.

Laurie: I understand you are teaching now. Where do you get your inspiration for teaching?

Ilya: I like to say that there is a very selfish idea behind it - I like to get into the chemistry of it to improve my own playing and experimenting on my students helps :) Seriously though, I happen to think it's every performing musician's duty to share the experience, and I simply can't understand those who don't. Thankfully there are not so many these days. However, I am very far from being a motivator - as someone who looked for motivation elsewhere, I don't think it's a teacher's job necessarily - no one's in fact but one's own.

* * *

Ilya Gringolts plays Tchaikovsky's "Meditation" with pianist Itamar Golan -- exciting, beautiful, soulful live performance:

Ilya Gringolts plays the last movement of the Bach Double with Maxim Vengerov (who is married to Ilya's sister, Olga Gringolts) in December 2011 with the Moscow City Symphony "Russian Philharmonic":

7 replies

Review: Hilary Hahn plays the Nielsen Violin Concerto with the LA Phil

February 1, 2014 20:42

Something I love about Hilary Hahn is that she asks more of her listener than to sit back and be entertained.

Sure, she can whip up the best of traditionally palatable and entertaining virtuoso fare. But she also can make the unlikely seem inevitable, like a chef who makes spinach ice cream seem like the most delectable creation since buttered toast. After tasting it, you never quite feel the same about spinach, or ice cream -- or maybe buttered toast!

Some of the less-likely pieces she's recently championed include the Schoenberg Concerto and the Ives Sonatas. She brought modern composer Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto to life (before it won a Pulitzer), and most recently, she commissioned the composition of 27 encore pieces by living composers. What do these all have in common? The conviction with which Hilary Hahn plays them.

Hilary Hahn
Photo: Peter Miller

And so it was with the Nielsen Violin Concerto, which Hilary is playing this weekend with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was musically challenging, presented with fire and precision, by an intelligent and thoughtful artist. I attended Friday night's performance, there are two more, tonight and Sunday, all conducted by Andrey Boreyko.

I had to read the program notes several times before I could believe that the Los Angeles Philharmonic had never performed the Violin Concerto by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen before last night. Though it's not played often, I certainly knew of it. I didn't realize it was quite that obscure to the more general public. The work has had a good many champions over the last few decades: Vilde Frang recorded it in 2012; Eugene Fodor in 2002; Nikolaj Znaider in 2001; and Maxim Vengerov in 1996; In 1990, Cho-Liang Lin recorded it, with LA Phil conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen at the baton, no less!

Hilary's interpretation of this work felt fully formed; the Los Angeles Philharmonic's, still a little bit under construction. Her presence completely took over when the orchestra dropped out for the first-movement cadenza, as she filled the hall with perfectly-in-tune 10ths and double stops and plenty of other tricks. Riding back on a wave of dazzling bariolage, she seemed to charge the orchestra into action. The more complicated this music became, the more she dove in. The lyrical "Poco Adagio" movement had the violin singing the whole time -- a pleasure, with Hilary's strong and sure singing violin-voice. The last movement, "Rondo: Allegretto scherzando," was perhaps my favorite, "scherzando" meaning "jesting." It was a back-and-forth between orchestra and soloist, a conversation. And who wouldn't want conversation with someone with so many witticisms at her disposal? It's cleverly-constructed music, full of musical humor. Every time the orchestra starts to get too serious or moody, the violin solo seems to coax it back to good humor. The cadenza winds itself into a state of virtuosity and self-importance, but returning to the orchestra, it delivers a punchline: the simple statement that started the whole movement off. Hilary pulled this off so well, I nearly laughed out loud. It was all so interesting, I found myself at the Disney Hall gift shop afterwards, poring over the score!

Following the standing ovation and several curtain calls, Hilary played an encore -- not one of the ones she commissioned, but something traditional and much beloved: the "Gigue" from Bach's Partita in E Major.

The rest of the evening included more Nordic treats -- as I overheard someone say: "It's an Esa-Pekka night, without Esa-Pekka!" Before Hilary's Nielsen was the U.S. premiere of the 1999 composition "King Tide" by Scandinavian composer Anders Hillborg. The piece won me over with its shimmery waves of sound, which at times made me think of the "wabba wabba" of sheet metal vibrating. With no percussion, the music still delivered effects resembling bells and static. The composer emerged from the audience at the end of the piece, to enthusiastic applause. The second half of the program was devoted to the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius.

2 replies

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