Playing with time

As classical music’s original instrumental superstar Yehudi Menuhin celebrates his 80th birthday, Kenny Mathieson gauges the musical impact of a violinist who astounded Albert Einstein almost 70 years ago.

ooking back on the 80 years I have lived. 1 am struck most of all by the straightforwardness of the pattern. Everything that I am. or think. or do. almost everything that has happened to me. seems traceable to its origins with the simple clarity of geometrical proof. It is a curious. even a faintly disconcerting sensation to find oneself fulfilling what seems to have been a destiny.‘

So says Yehudi Menuhin in his newly-revised autobiography Unfinished Journey. published this month to coincide with his 80th birthday. It is indeed a peculiar destiny which takes a Russian-Jewish boy from a poor but cultured and closely-knit immigrant family in New York. to the grand title of The Right Hon Lord Menuhin of Stoke d’Abernon. OM. KBE.

18 The List 5-18 Apr I996

The vehicle for that fulfilment was. of course. music. A child prodigy on the violin. he made his

performing debut with the San Francisco Symphony in Lalo‘s notoriously demanding

.S'ymplionie I:'.s'pagnole at the ripe old age of seven. and moved no less an eminence than physicist Albert Einstein to exclaim: ‘Now I know there is a God in heaven!’ on hearing him play in 1929. aged twelve.

Nigel Kennedy. the most infamous graduate of the Menuhin School (Menuhin himself secretly funded his scholarship. as Kennedy later discovered). has now abandoned the music of the 'dead guys‘ which his mentor so revered. but back when he was still addressing classical music. be readily admitted Menuhin‘s significance to him.

‘Basically. I wanted to play like the

‘Basically, I wanted

with controversy. Many critics swear he never recaptured both the astonishing technical facility and intuitive musical expressiveness of his earliest years. His interpretations have often seemed to consist of a dangerous compound of brilliance and eccentricity. a trait which has been even more evident in his conducting than in his violin playing.

Others maintain these are the hallmarks of the great virtuosi. and that his ability to delve into the very heart of a given piece of music more than compensates for any quirks. The fresh. spontaneous genius of the youthful prodigy is counter-balanced by the depth of feeling and poetic insight of the mature artist.

Menuhin himself has always acknowledged that there was an extra-musical curriculum at work in

man.‘ says Kennedy. ‘His love for to p|ay|ike the his explorations. As he says in and knowledge of the music was man_ Hislove and Unfinished Journey: ‘My life has infectious— he has a natural touch and knowledge of the been spent in creating Utopia.’ and a sensitivity which brought his music was if his idealistic. single-minded

playing alive. Just imagine sticking an eleven-year-old in front of the New York Symphony Orchestra at

infectious he has a natural touch and

pursuit of it has sometimes been at the expense of more normal aspects of life. it is hard to deny that it has

Carnegie Hall. with all of a sensitivity WhiCh been a remarkable one.

bilanhattan‘s music elite right under brought his playing He acknowledges that those

his nose. and expecting the little brat alive_’ around him in family life. his

to )lav breathtaking Beethoven. . )arents and his two musicall 0ifted 4 ~ Nigel Kennedy Lisle” y C

That‘s exactly what he did in l927. and his career as a player and teacher has been brilliant.‘

Menuhin. who this month will conduct the Warsaw Sinfonia at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. was classical music’s first instrumental superstar. Millions of people around the world who had never set foot in a concert hall or bought a recording know his name. if not his work. and he has achieved a kind of personal fame which is given to very few. in any field. He has travelled constantly around the world. and in the process became almost a kind of surrogate international statesman.

Musically. his career has often been dogged

Yehudi Menuhin: 80 classic years

and. in his subsequent

marriage to Diana Gould (an earlier

marriage was short-lived). have often had to fill the role of supporting cast as he built a great concert career (‘tranquil domesticity must always be the victim of a career such as mine'). and a parallel humanitarian one which brought him honours like The Nehru Peace Prize in 1992.

Despite. or because of. having had no formal education himself— he was taught at home by his parents. having gone to school ‘for precisely one day at the age of six‘ education became an obsession with him. It was expressed in projects like the Menuhin School for musically gifted children. which began in 1963 in London. where he had settled permanently four years earlier. or the launch of the still-thriving Live Music Now scheme in 1976.

Menuhin has been patron of St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh since its inception as a specialist instrumental school in I972 (the school had trained choristers since the 1880s). and is now its president. He has always been supportive of the school. lending his name or presence to various enterprises on its behalf. and even teaching or conducting there on occasion.

His musical interests also took him beyond the usual boundaries of the classical field. He performed and recorded with the Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar and jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. a kind of collaboration which is commonplace enough now. but was unheard of for someone of Menuhin‘s eminence at the time.

At 80. he shows no signs of slowing down. He

still accepts the relentless round of travelling which has taken up much of his life. often to fulfil conducting engagements like the one which brings him to Scotland for an all- Beethoven programme this month. It has now become entirely second nature to him. and he shows no sign of relenting on that punishing schedule while ‘I have battles still to fight. all linked with the great universal battle forjustice and peace‘. Lord ri’lcnuliin conducts the Warsaw Sinfonia a! the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Sunday 14 April. Unfinished Journey is published by i’Wt’i/illt’li at [20 on Monday [5 April.