His legacy continues to contribute through schools, festivals, and competitions

In one way or another, Yehudi Menuhin has been a longstanding presence in the musical life of 21-year-old violinist Alexi Kenney. He began studying the instrument as a child, and received gifts of Menuhin’s recordings of Bartok and Vivaldi concertos.

Later, Kenney’s childhood violin teacher in Palo Alto, California, the late Jenny Rudin, who knew Menuhin, made references to his teaching philosophies and methods during lessons. And at age 18, Kenney traveled to Beijing, China, to compete in the 2012 Menuhin Competition, where he would win third prize.

“I grew up with his name in my head,” says Kenney, who recently received his bachelor’s degree in violin from the New England Conservatory.

Through his playing, teaching, and the institutions he founded to promote music education, Yehudi Menuhin has influenced countless players around the world, even after his death in 1999. For more than five decades, precollege students have attended the Yehudi Menuhin School in Stoke d’Abernon in England. Top students under age 22 participate in the Menuhin Competition, an international biennial event. Young adults with fledgling careers attend the summer Gstaad Menuhin Festival & Academy and the International Menuhin Music Academy in Gstaad, Switzerland.

Guiding those institutions was Menuhin’s keen interest in human relationships, says violinist Corinne Chapelle, who studied with him at the Menuhin School in the 1980s.

“Although Lord Menuhin was of course one of the greatest musicians to have lived, I remember him as a human being first, dedicated to bringing humanity together,” she says.

“He had an urge to connect, to discover, to bring people together.”

Menuhin was particularly devoted to the training of young musicians. Benjamin Baker, a 21-year-old alumnus of the Menuhin School, met him there just months before Menuhin’s death in March 1999. “He was so passionate about all the students at the school and interested in their hopes and dreams,” Baker says.

“I vividly remember him standing around the school talking to us as if he was just another student. He struck me as incredibly passionate about the school and wanted to make sure each and every one of us was prepared and given the right tools to accomplish our dreams in music.” Menuhin’s interest in music education reflected the strong instruction that he had received from many individuals, ranging from his father to George Enescu.

He believed in “an uninterrupted link between great composers, teachers, and musicians” to “ensure the passage of the European musical heritage from one generation to the next,” notes the website of the International Menuhin Music Academy.

At that institution, founded in 1977 and currently under the musical direction of violinist Maxim Vengerov, students from around the world spend three years attending lessons and master classes, rehearsing chamber music, and performing.

Likewise, the festival in Gstaad, started in 1957, over time grew to include summer “academies” for conductors, pianists, and string players.

The string academy, which stretches over ten days in the summertime, targets post-graduate players and offers lessons and master classes, as well as public performances.

Although the academies were founded after Menuhin’s death, director Christoph Muller notes on the academy’s website that “we would like the Gstaad Academy to remain linked in spirit” to Menuhin.

Chad Hoopes

Chad Hoopes

Menuhin’s interest in the musical education of young players found an outlet in the Yehudi Menuhin School, which he founded in 1963. At the time of its opening, the youngest of the 11 students was age seven. Menuhin himself taught at the school periodically in lessons and master classes.

Today, the school’s student body is about 60 string players, pianists, and guitarists, ranging in age from eight to 19. Baker, who studied there for ten years, recalls that every day was a mix of traditional academic classes and music lessons in ear training, improvisation, and music theory.

Baker adds, though, that the day always started with an hour-long practice session at 8 AM, a tradition that reflected Menuhin’s belief in treating the instrument as a natural and essential part of a young musician’s life.

“Anything that one wants to do really and one loves doing, one must do every day,” Menuhin has long been quoted as saying. “It should be as easy to the artist and as natural as flying is to a bird. And you can’t imagine a bird saying, ‘Well, I’m tired today. I’m not going to fly.’”

The Menuhin Competition, too, targets young players under age 22 and has become an aspirational event for its mostly teenaged participants, some as young as 13.

The competition sets a high bar for students and their teachers: Stringent repertoire requirements demand the playing of a full concerto, and include works by Bach, Mozart, Paganini, Enescu, and Beethoven. The incentives are huge: The first prize for the senior-level winners aged 17 to 22 includes a £10,000 cash award plus a yearlong loan of a Stradivari instrument. Prizewinners also earn concert dates in various venues and festivals around the world.

Not surprisingly, the competition carries enough influence in the violin world that some top prizewinners catch the attention of management heavyweights. Upon winning the top junior prize in the 2008 competition, then 14-year-old Chad Hoopes found himself courted by IMG Artists and Opus 3 Artists, both of whom wanted to represent him. Hoopes ultimately signed with IMG and has been performing internationally ever since. Ray Chen, the senior top prizewinner that year, quickly signed with Columbia Artists Management and launched a career of concerts, recordings, and festival appearances.

Even though the event is a competition, organizers nevertheless foster an atmosphere of learning to reflect Menuhin’s desire to educate and bring players together. Participants stay at the same hotel and are invited to share a meal together each day. And to encourage participants to regard their playing as a musical offering to an audience rather than a performance to be judged, jurors don’t sit all together but scatter themselves among the other audience members. “It makes you play better and makes you comfortable,” Kenney says.

Alexi Kenney

Alexi Kenney

Indeed, individual players say that their experience with Menuhin or with one of the institutions he founded has helped them move toward successful careers. Baker speaks fondly of his years at the Menuhin School. “It was a unique place to grow up and for me it was fantastic because all I wanted to do was play the violin and learn about music,” says Baker, who is now pursuing a solo and recording career. “I’m convinced that without this upbringing, I wouldn’t be the musician I am today.”

Chapelle remembers learning major repertoire, including the Beethoven Violin Concerto, with Menuhin at the school and recalls a teaching style that was non-judgmental and showed students that Menuhin himself was only human. “His way of commenting and explaining things was so free of negativity,” says Chapelle, who after graduation went on to win major competitions and has maintained a lengthy solo career.

“He had no ego. He was also totally unafraid to make a mistake. There was no good and bad, just wanting to serve the music. He made his share of mistakes, but if it was a rehearsal he would just say, ‘Shall we start again?’ The way Lord Menuhin approached music and teaching was so authentic.”

Menuhin School alumnus David Cohen recalls the musical inspiration he drew from Menuhin’s lessons and rehearsals. A cellist, Cohen remembers a lesson on the Beethoven Triple Concerto on just the opening section of each movement. Menuhin was “relentless, never giving up and taking care of absolutely every little detail—every note mattered, every stroke [was] controlled, each color and sound [was] produced for the best possible result,” Cohen recalls. “But this was always done with such calm and peacefulness.

“After the lesson I felt like I had been drained of everything, and yet was set on a new journey with new ideas and new goals to reach,” says Cohen, who performs as both a soloist and conductor. “I was always even more enthusiastic about the piece afterward and felt as if I had just seen new horizons.”

For Kenney, playing the Sibelius concerto in the final round of the Menuhin Competition served as a test of his nerves and a valuable learning experience in performing a concerto with a full orchestra.

Corinne Chapelle

Corinne Chapelle

“It was a turning point” in his musical education, Kenney says. Today, he says he plays as a concerto soloist with ease, having learned to think of concerto playing as chamber music, seeing his solo part as one voice among others.

Kenney’s prize from the competition has guided his career: At the competition he met people who opened doors to prestigious festivals, leading to yet more introductions and opportunities. “The competition was an important building block,” says Kenney, who is currently making solo appearances throughout the United States while pursuing post-graduate work.

“He is a constant inspiration to me,” says Chapelle, “and his mantra of helping to change the world for the better through music is a strong impetus for my own life.”

Comments