Interview with Violinist María Dueñas, 2021 Menuhin Competition winner

August 15, 2021, 1:50 AM · It may not be as fun to perform over a computer livestream, without an audience, but that didn't stop Spanish violinist María Dueñas this year. Her energetic and authoritative performances in the virtual 2021 Menuhin Competition in May landed her First Prize in the Senior Division, as well as the competition's Audience Award. Though she was just 18 years old, it wasn't her first win - in 2017 she won First Prize at the Zhuhai Mozart International Competition in China, and in 2018 she won first Prize at the Vladimir Spivakov International Competition in Russia. In 2019, she was named artist of the month in Musical America. Just earlier this year she won First Prize in the the Getting to Carnegie Competition, which will bring her to Carnegie Hall in January 2022.

Maria Duenas
Violinist Maria Duenas. Photo by Tam Lan Truong.

"I wouldn't be a musician if I didn't love to perform," Dueñas told me in a Zoom interview earlier this summer. "It has been difficult for me (during the pandemic) because I miss the energy coming from the audience. That was really missing during the pandemic, when we had to record or do live streams. It made me realize how important these feelings are, of connecting with the audience."

This week Dueñas will hit another 2021 highlight - and this time with a live audience: on Thursday she'll take the stage at the Hollywood Bowl with cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Sergio Tiempo to perform the Beethoven Triple Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. (Click here for more information.) She is already scheduled to perform again with the LA Phil in May 2022, when she will premiere a concerto being written for her by Gabriela Ortiz.

One might think that a violinist who wins major competitions and lands opportunities to perform in the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall before reaching age 20 might have come from a musical family, but "no one in my family was a musician or played any instruments," Dueñas said. However, her parents do love classical music. Growing up in Granada, Spain, "we were listening to music every day in the car, going to school. I remember growing up with the historical recordings of violinists like Menuhin, Heifetz and Oistrakh. That's how it started. And of course, I also went to a lot of classical concerts."

Dueñas was six when she started violin, and her two younger sisters, Julia and Daniela, started soon thereafter - one plays the violin and the other plays the cello.

In 2014, her family moved from Spain to Dresden, Germany, then to Vienna so that Dueñas could study with Professor Boris Kuschnir at the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna and Graz University. She has been studying with him for the last five years.

"I was always very serious about the violin," Dueñas said. "I wanted to experience new things, to learn about other cultures and other points of view. That's why it was important to me to move somewhere else to study. I'm so happy to be in Vienna - it's such an amazing city, with lots of opportunities."

She is grateful to her family for making that happen. "It is so unbelievable that my family uprooted everything we had in Spain to move to Vienna with me, and with my sisters, who are also studying here," Dueñas said. "It's such a huge sacrifice. Without their help, this would not have been possible at all."

And when it comes to Kuschnir, "he's an incredible teacher, and an incredible person as well," Dueñas said. "That is what inspires me the most. He really considers each student's individual needs."

Boris Kuschner Maria Duenas
María with her teacher, Boris Kuschnir. Photo by Ingmar Flashaar.

After being delayed for a year, the Menuhin Competition took place completely virtually in spring 2021. Originally, it was to have taken place in Richmond, Virginia, alongside a host of special activities.

"The whole competition was online, so I recorded three rounds here in Vienna," Dueñas said. "It was very different, but for me it was also a major source for learning -- after you analyze your recording, you can learn a lot of things. It was very unusual but I'm glad they still made a competition happen."

"(Competitions) are a huge motivation for me," Dueñas said. "I have to give my everything. The preparation is really intense, in a personal way. It's very good opportunity to prepare a lot of repertoire really, really well, in a short period of time. You have to be very concentrated."

Despite the inherent limitations of an a virtual event, the competition made sure that participants met each other, through online activities and video conferences.

"Of course I didn't meet anyone in person, but we wrote to each other," Dueñas said. "I hope that we get to meet somewhere. I also hope that one day I can go to Richmond, as well, because I was so excited about traveling there and it didn't happen. I would love to meet the people and visit the city there."

One thing that stood out about Dueñas performances at the Menuhin Competition was that she wrote her own cadenzas for Mozart Concerto No. 4.

BELOW: From the 2021 Menuhin Competition Senior Semi-Finals; María Dueñas plays
Ravel's "Tzigane" (00:00); movement 3 from Franck's Violin Sonata in A Major (10:17); the first-movement "Allegro" from Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K. 218 (18:17); and Mark O'Connor's "Menuhin Caprice" (26:34).

"Actually I wrote one cadenza a while ago, but for this competition, I wrote a new one because I felt very inspired," Dueñas said. "So I have a couple of cadenzas for the Mozart concerto! I've also written cadenzas for Mozart's Third Concerto, and for smaller Mozart pieces like the Adagio in E major. "

"With Mozart, I feel this need to give some part of myself in the music, something that is unique," Dueñas said. "I'm very creative, and if a composer allows it, I think I should just take the opportunity. So I usually always write cadenzas for Mozart concertos, and also for the Beethoven Concerto recently."

"It's a very interesting process for me. It begins with improvising, I just try things out," Dueñas said. "I have these themes from Mozart in my head, so I'm able to write something based on these themes. I improvise, and if I like something, I write it down."

Dueñas actually has written a number of compositions, including one for piano called "Farewell," which won her a prize in 2016 at the Robert Schumann International Piano Competition.

"It all started with these Mozart cadenzas, that was the first thing I composed," Dueñas said. "Then I started playing the piano a little bit because I love the instrument as well. As I was playing, I realized that this was the best instrument for trying things out. So I started trying harmonies and experimenting, and that's how this piece 'Farewell' came to life. I was just having fun - it came out of my mind very naturally. I never had composition lessons, so it was very intuitive process."

Dueñas also has written a number of arrangements to play with her sisters. "There are a lot of pieces for a string trio, or a trio with piano, but not for two violins and cello," Dueñas said, "so I arranged pieces, or wrote an extra cello part for a piece. We all love to play together."

As far as instruments are concerned, Dueñas plays on a Niccolò Gagliano violin, on loan from the Deutsche Stiftung Musikleben; and on the Guarneri del Gesù "Muntz" 1736, on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation. As a result of her Menuhin Competition win she also will receive the two-year loan of a Stradivarius violin from the private collection of Jonathan Moulds CBE, through the Beare’s International Violin Society, and a bow made by Christophe Landon.

For Dueñas, her recent successes are all a dream come true. What would she tell other young and aspiring violinists?

"I'm not one to give advice, but if you really want something and you dream about it, you can make it come true some day," Dueñas said. "I dreamed about being a violinist, but I could never have imagined that I would be in Vienna, studying with the best professor in the world. So if you really want something, then fight hard for it and give your everything. That is my only advice: lots of hard work and believing in yourself."

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August 16, 2021 at 01:49 PM · Congratulations to Maria. The future of classical music is safe with young stars like her.

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