Interview with Daniel Hope: My Tribute to Yehudi Menuhin

February 18, 2016, 9:57 PM · Generations of violinists all over the globe can point to the legendary Yehudi Menuhin as a great inspiration for their art and lives, but for Berlin-based violinist Daniel Hope, it's a little more personal.

"(Menuhin) used to say I fell into his lap when I was a babe of two -- that's a pretty good description," Hope told me, speaking over the phone last month from San Francisco, where he was performing a tribute concert to Menuhin with the New Century Chamber Orchestra.

For Hope, Menuhin was a musical grandfather, mentor and lifelong family friend. It all started in the early '70s, when Hope was a baby and his family fled South Africa. The anti-apartheid writings of his father, Christopher Hope, had been banned, and the family had been living under surveillance.

"We arrived penniless in England, and it looked very difficult for us because we'd had to submit our citizenship when we left South Africa," Hope said. "My mother, in sheer desperation, said, 'I'm going to get any job that I can find, just so that we have a chance to stay here.'"

As luck would have it, the director of a temp agency called his mother, Eleanor, with two possibilities for part-time work: as secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury, or secretary to Yehudi Menuhin.

"She got the job with Menuhin, and from that second on he became part of our lives, in every sense," Hope said. A six-month job turned into 24 years; she was Menuhin's secretary for the remainder of his life. "He became a member of our extended family, we became a member of his family," Hope said.

In honor of the centennial of Menuhin's birth this April, Hope, now 42, recently released an album called My Tribute to Yehudi Menuhin and is performing a number of tribute concerts, including the upcoming Menuhin at 100 with Daniel Hope on March 4 at Alice Tully Hall in New York and Hommage à Yehudi Menuhin on March 23 at Theatre du jeu de Paume in Paris.

Daniel Hope and Yehudi Menuhin
Left: Yehudi Menuhin with Daniel Hope in the '70s; Right: Hope today.

Daniel Hope, who plays he 1742 “ex-Lipinski” Guarneri del Gesù, is not only a violinist, but an author, conductor and world citizen. This year he will succeed Sir Roger Norrington as Music Director of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. His considerable discography includes Escape To Paradise - The Hollywood Album (2014); Spheres (2013); Recomposed By Max Richter - Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (2012); and Air- A Baroque Journey (2010).

"My first memories growing up are musical memories of being in Menuhin's house, or in his rehearsals, or backstage," Hope said. "My mother would take me to work at his house, or his various houses, and let me play, surrounded by music. I was extremely curious, and I would go into the rehearsal rooms and play around whilst they were making music. It was learning by absorption."

While most of us discover the great classical works and great musical artists through recordings or the concert hall, Hope made many of those discoveries in the living room.

"I'll never forget hearing the Beethoven Concerto for the first time, with him, or hearing Vivaldi Four Seasons or Mozart. Also, hearing him play with his sister, Hephzibah, practicing -- those are all the kinds of earliest memories I have," Hope said. "To this day, I have his incredible sound in my ear. It was a sound that was unlike any other violinist that has ever lived. In the concert hall it was one thing, but to experience it in a small room -- it was like a volcano. It was enormous, and yet it was incredibly warm and very very inspiring. For me, it's still that ideal sound, to which I try and somehow apply my principles of sound production."

The Hope family spent summers in Gstaad, Switzerland, where Menuhin had a home and founded a festival. "I would be there every single day," Hope said. "I'd hear him practicing all the time, I would hear rehearsals in his living room, where people like (Mstislav) Rostropovich and Wilhelm Kempff would show up to play chamber music on one afternoon, or on another afternoon Ravi Shankar and Stéphane Grappelli would come in. At the time, of course, I didn't know who these people where; they were just wildly eccentric and wonderful people. It was only later on that I realized, I was listening to some of the greatest musicians who ever lived!"

"There was such a wonderful atmosphere around Yehudi; he was so generous and so warm-hearted and such a great host that people just felt relaxed," Hope said. "His violin would often just be lying on the table, and he would just pick it up and start playing. Or he'd sit on the floor, playing cross-legged, practicing scales."

He also remembers the Mauritius Church in Saanen, next to Gstaad, where all the festival concerts took place. "I loved going there because the church was incredibly beautiful and the sound was amazing," Hope said. "The older I got, the more I appreciated the rehearsals; what they were doing and what they were saying. They were fascinating for me, as for anybody who was lucky enough to listen to those open rehearsals."

Considering this richly musical atmosphere, it was not a big surprise when four-year-old Hope announced to his parents -- neither of whom had any musical training -- "I'm going to be a violinist."

"At the same time, when a four-year-old says, 'I want to be a violinist,' he might also say the next time, 'I want to be an astronaut,' or 'I want to be a fireman.'" Hope said. "So they didn't think it necessarily appropriate to approach one of the greatest violinists in the world and say, 'Look, our four-year-old wants to be a violinist...'"

They told Menuhin that Hope was excited about playing an instrument, and Menuhin said, "That's fantastic, let's get him a teacher! Somebody who knows how to teach young children, and let's see what happens." He helped them find Sheila Nelson, "who at the time was a lady who lived around the corner in London and turned out to be one of the greatest pedagogues of young children ever," Hope said.

As far as Menuhin was concerned, "Let's see what happens" applied to the next 10 years of Hope's life. After getting started with Nelson, Hope studied with Russian violin teachers Felix Andrievsky, Itzhak Rashkovsky, and Grigori Zhislin.

"It wasn't really until I was 16 or 17, when I'd started studying with (Zakhar) Bron, that Menuhin became more interested," Hope said. Menuhin was fascinated by Bron's success with Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin. "I think he was very curious about the fact that I, the kid, had gone to study with Bron. He said, okay, that's interesting, let's see."

Menuhin asked Hope to come play for him.. "We had this extraordinary session in Gstaad in his house, which was supposed to last for a half-hour and went on almost three hours," Hope said. "I just played and played and played."

How did Menuhin react? "It was a mixture of total shock and absolute delight, like a little child in a candy store," Hope said. "I'd been so much part of the the furniture, in a sense. I think he just thought, here's the kid who runs around the house and behaves badly most of the time. It hadn't clicked, that I'd really taken the violin that seriously. Suddenly he saw that I had really worked and I had really practiced. He was absolutely over the moon."

That's when he made him an extraordinary offer: "He said, 'Look, what I can't do is I can't be a teacher to you, because I don't have the time and that's not what I do. But if you're interested, what I would do, is we could perform pieces together. I'll conduct you, and I'll take you on the road, and learn it that way.'"

"That was, of course, the most amazing offer that anyone could have made, and particularly at that stage in my life," Hope said. "By that stage, I'd had eight years of Russian violin teachers; I'd had three very strong and wonderful Russian teachers and then went to Bron. So I'd already had this tough and very direct schooling, the old (Yuri) Yankelevich, old (Abram) Yampolsky way of studying violin. Because of that, I was able to withstand a lot of things that were thrown at me. I had a chance to survive, going on the road with Menuhin."

By then, it was clear to Hope that Menuhin was far more than a grandfatherly figure with interesting and eccentric friends; he was a living legend. This was not going to be easy.

"By that stage, obviously I did know who he was, and I did know what I was up against," Hope said. "To perform those pieces night after night -- from Mendelssohn to Beethoven to Brahms to Elgar and all the rest of it -- and to deal with the incredible respect for him, the fear, and that overwhelming personality that he had -- that was going to be very tough. But it was also a fantastic way of getting inside those pieces, which he obviously knew like nobody else."

Hope performed with Menuhin, off and on, for the next 10 years.

On tour, Menuhin's star power was a constant presence. "It started the minute you walked out on stage," Hope said. Hope, walking in front, would be greeted by polite applause. "Then they would catch sight of (Menuhin), and suddenly the applause would go up, like a volcanic explosion in your ear!"

"Every single night was the same thing, and you realized that you're sharing the stage with a legend, an absolute legend," Hope said. Not only was he a legend, but also Menuhin was also so at ease on the stage, that he often changed the rules of the game, right there and then. "I can remember moments, for example, in the Beethoven Concerto where, in between the first and second movements, in the concert, he sort of beckoned to me, and he gave me different fingerings," Hope said. "He'd say, 'Why don't you try tonight -- don't play it on the A string, start on the D string and play 1-3-2-2-4-3-3 like this...' whispering in my ear while I had the audience in front of me. You have about a minute, maybe if you're lucky, just to mop your brow and retune before you start the second movement. So those were also pretty trying moments!" (He laughs)

Daniel Hope and Yehudi Menuhin
Yehudi Menuhin and Daniel Hope.

"It was trying, but it was never his intention to throw you," Hope said. "He was so immersed in the piece, how to improve it, how to look at the piece in a different light -- it was a natural extension. It actually helped me. Once I got over the initial panic, it actually calmed me down because it took me back to what I'm supposed to be doing as an artist. It's not just about performing, it's about getting as close as you can to the piece. Only by feeling comfortable with the piece do you have a chance to try and infiltrate the enormous challenges of all of those great masterpieces."

Sometimes, Menuhin was so immersed in the soloist's part that he would forget about his role as conductor.

"I know this was the case with several of my violin colleagues who worked with him -- sometimes he was so involved in your performance that in the cadenza, he would forget to bring in the orchestra," Hope said. "You would get to the end of the cadenza, and he was playing every note with you; he would put the baton down and he would be doing the alternate fingerings ... So there were tricky moments. For example, the cadenza in the Shostakovich (First Violin Concerto), which is always a tricky moment for any conductor and any soloist. That was really bad because he was with me, but he needed to be with the orchestra! You had to have very strong nerves at that point, as the concertmaster!" (He laughs).

Menuhin's incredible history made it hard to argue with him, too. For example, in Brahms Concerto: "He would say, 'You really should do a different fingering there,' and I would say, 'Okay but you know, I'm not sure that it really fits my hand,' and he said, 'Yes, but you know Enescu told me that Brahms particularly liked this passage to be played this way...' so of course I said, 'Okay, I'll do it!'"

That's not to say that Hope acquiesced to everything, every time.

"We did have very different feelings and approaches to music, especially in Baroque music," Hope said. "I was just starting to discover a whole world of historically-informed and Baroque playing. It was something he knew about, but it never became something he really spent time on. And at 16-17 you're throwing questions around all the time, so we had lively discussions, even some arguments about certain ways of playing."

One of the pieces Hope and Menuhin frequently played together was Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Violins in A minor, something that Hope included on the tribute album.

"That was one of the pieces we played the most, but the way I play it on the recording is not the way I played it with him. It's gone through an enormous change and amalgamation through years of working with Baroque musicians and fiddle players who inspired me," said Hope, who performs the work with Simos Papanas and uses a Baroque bow in the recording. "And yet, the great thing about Menuhin was that even if one was not always on the same wavelength in terms of the interpretation or the style or the taste, his goal always was to get as close to the source of the music as possible. Therefore the respect that he had for the music was so complete that even if there were different opinions, there was common ground. We got to that common ground, even with different views of sound. So it was a give-and-take, and yet at the same time I was always very reverential towards him; it was an incredible privilege to be sharing a stage with him."

Another piece that Hope included in the tribute album is Mendelssohn's D minor Concerto -- much lesser known than the composer's famous E minor concerto.

"A dealer by the name of Albi Rosenthal found the manuscript for the Mendelssohn D minor concerto and the Mendelssohn F major sonata and offered it to Yehudi in the 1950s," Hope said. "It's the kind of call that I think every musician dreams about: 'By the way, I just found, not only a concerto but also a sonata by Mendelssohn...'" (He laughs)

Menuhin bought the manuscripts, secured the rights from the composer's descendants and then went about bringing the pieces back to life. In 1952 he premiered the concerto in Carnegie Hall.

"He really loved that D minor concerto, and that was a piece we played a lot together," Hope said. Mendelssohn wrote the work when he was 13, and the manuscript included cadenzas for the second and third movements, but not for the first. In the recording, Hope plays a first-movement cadenza written by Alberto Lysy, who was one of Menuhin's main pupils.

"(Lysy) worked very much with Yehudi on the D minor, and Yehudi loved the cadenza that Alberto wrote, so that's why I played it on the album," Hope said. "Alberto was a wonderful Argentinian violinist who later helped to found the Menuhin Academy in Gstaad, created his own orchestra and became a great teacher in his own right. And so it was, in a sense, my tribute to Alberto, who sadly passed away a couple of years ago, to include that cadenza. It's beautiful, it touches on the E minor concerto, with the bariolage, and it's beautifully done." (By the way, the cadenza is not published, or even written down; to play it one would have to transcribe it from a recording such as Hope's, or the one by Lysy himself.

Other works Menuhin played with the young Hope were the Bartok duets, and Hope recorded these for the tribute album with Daniel Lozakovitj, now 13, who won second prize in the 2014 Menuhin Competition Juniors Division. "He's a wonderful violinist and a great musician, I think he's going to make a terrific career," Hope said. "This was his first-ever recording, and it was wonderful to be part of it, to watch this young kid go into one of the best recording studios in the world, with an amazing sound team, all extremely experienced engineers, and to in and start recording. It was like witnessing the beginning of something very special, and I'm sure he'll go on to make hundreds of recordings in his life."

Hope calls My Tribute to Yehudi Menuhin a "portrait in sound," and the other works on it range from to Joan Tavener's "Song of the Angel" (a favorite of Menuhin's composed in 1994 for the 50s anniversary of the United Nations) to Maurice Ravel's "Kaddisch"; from Steve Reich's "Duet" for two violins to a new piece by Bechara El-Khoury called "Unfinished Journey," which was commissioned by Hope and the Gstaad Menuhin Festival to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Menuhin's death.

"It may be a bit naive, but I always design the CD with the hope that somebody will sit down and listen for an hour, listen to how it takes you on the journey," Hope said. "That's what I'm trying to do, I'm trying to draw in the listener and I'm trying to show them that there is something behind it. I really put a lot of time and thought into it, so if somebody has got an hour to spend and is willing to sit down and listen to it, for me that is the dream way of doing it. But I'm also very much aware -- I'm guilty of it as well -- we don't have time nowadays, so we tend to consume bits here and there, that's the way it goes."

What is Menuhin's legacy, in Hope's eyes?

"There are a number of extraordinary institutions that he helped to create," Hope said. "For me, Live Music Now is one of the most amazing ones; it's a charity he created in the '70s, based on a very simple principle: there are many people in our world without access to music, for whatever reason - they can't afford it, or they are sick, or they are impeded in some way. At the same time, there are many young artists who don't have the experience of performing and reaching out to their audiences. Yehudi's idea was to bring those two together. So he would send young musicians into retirement homes, into prisons, into hospitals, into homes for mentally challenged people, and those young artists would have the chance, not just to gain useful experience but also to see how their music affects and reaches other people.

"That very simple principle now, 30 years on, has had an extraordinary success around the world, with literally tens of thousands of concerts," Hope said. "Just in Germany, in every single town there is a branch of Live Music Now, putting on hundreds and hundreds of concerts every year."

"The same goes for his school, The Yehudi Menuhin School, which continues to produce fantastic musicians of all instruments and has done since the 1950s. Plus his various foundations, which all looked at using music to further people's creative development, helping people and using it as a social power," Hope said. "So I think that's a particular legacy."

"In terms of playing the violin, there is his catalogue of recordings, from those early 78's where he plays the showpieces like nobody else, to landmark recordings like the Elgar Concerto with Elgar, or the Bartok with Furtwangler or the Beethoven and Brahms with Furtwangler. Then his idea to reach across to other music genres, years before anybody ever thought of using the word 'crossover' -- his performances with Ravi Shankar or with Stephane Grappelli, just show his openness and his respect of other cultures and other music forms," Hope said.

"For me, he is the ultimate violinist of the 20th century. I would never want to just pick one as my favorite, because there were so many in the 20th century that I love and adore and I just think are incredible, but he had a very strong and particular voice," Hope said. "Now that he would be 100 years old, if I think back, a quarter of that century was also my life with him as well. I'm not the biggest fan of anniversaries in general; I don't think one needs necessarily to have an anniversary in order to celebrate a great artist. But I've made an exception this time around, because it's so much a part of my story, my family's story, and where I come from. (Creating this tribute) was like meeting him again, really; it's all kind of come full circle."

* * *

BELOW: Daniel Hope plays "Rumänisch" by Jo Knümann -- Hope used to go with Menuhin to hear Gypsy bands. "I loved watching (Menuhin) watch the Gypsies; it was a mixture of total admiration and slight jealousy -- he wished he could have played like that."

BELOW: Yehudi Menuhin plays the Beethoven Violin Concerto, second movement, with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, 1953:

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Replies

February 19, 2016 at 05:53 AM · A moving story and a very warm report. Daniel plays as an angel and as a demon.(Guillermo Rochabrún)

February 19, 2016 at 10:49 AM · Absolutely amazing interview Laurie, thanks!!

February 19, 2016 at 05:42 PM · I agree with Jean -- very enjoyable interview.

February 20, 2016 at 06:50 PM · I thoroughly enjoyed this interview! How cool to be so closely associated with this great man. I wonder if Daniel Hope would be a violinist today without having sat under the tremendous influence he experienced?

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