Menuhin is the world’s toughest violin competition. Why is it packed with Asians, and no Brits?

The world’s toughest violin competition is jam-packed with Asians – and this year,  not a single Brit

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

‘The truth is,’ says Gordon Back, lowering his voice, ‘that if the violin finalists from the BBC Young Musician of the Year were to enter the Menuhin Competition, they wouldn’t make it to the first round.’ Not through the first round, note, but to the first round: they wouldn’t be good enough to compete.

Back is artistic director of the Menuhin, held every two years in a different country. In effect, it’s a search for the next Yehudi Menuhin, who recorded the Elgar concerto with the composer at the age of 15.

Some critics think Menuhin never quite fulfilled that astonishing early promise — but I wouldn’t dare suggest that to Gordon Back. He’s a legendary piano accompanist, having partnered not just his friend Yehudi but also Nathan Milstein, Itzhak Perlman, Maxim Vengerov and Yo-Yo Ma. We have lunch in a hotel in Austin, Texas, where the 2014 competition was held last month. Back is a genial, hyperactive Welshman with a combative streak. He beams when we discover we share a dislike of someone. ‘If I can speak candidly…’ I say. ‘Oh, please do.’

This is the day of the under-16 junior semi-finals. ‘You won’t believe your ears,’ says Back. ‘Some little kid who’s never been outside Taiwan starts playing Kreisler with an authentic Viennese tone and you see tears on the faces of hardened judges.’

Sure enough, Alex Zhou walks on to the stage of the Bates Recital Hall and out pours a gloriously refined performance of Beethoven’s ‘Spring’ Sonata. As fragments of melody bounce between violin and piano, I think: this would earn fierce applause at the Wigmore Hall even if Alex were 24 instead of 12. Surely he’s going to win. But he doesn’t, because this is the standard of the competition and 14-year-old Rennosuke Fukuda from Japan makes my jaw drop even further. I meet him afterwards: he’s sweetly fidgety and you wonder how he can display such mature musical intelligence.

Of the 42 junior and senior competitors, 28 are ‘of Asian heritage’, as we must now say. Whatever their nationality, their parents hail from the Far East (but not south Asia, oddly). I was expecting ethnicity to be the elephant in the room, too risky to mention. In fact, everyone’s talking about it. There’s a consensus: the Asians are simply better than most of their rivals. Menuhin competitors are chosen by a blind tasting of audition tapes. That makes a nonsense of claims that Chinese, Japanese and Korean conservatoires churn out players with steel techniques but zero imagination (though that may have been true 20 years ago). Also, competitors born in the US are disproportionately Asian.

‘Maybe it’s the Tiger Moms thing,’ a violin teacher tells me, ‘or maybe it’s something deeper. I don’t know. What I can say is that if you show an Asian four-year-old how to hold a bow, that’s it, you need only say it once. But if it’s a [audible pause here] white kid, then the next week they’re back to holding it sloppily.’

Does this new Asian musical hegemony actually matter? The answer’s simple: no. Making a fuss about it is as racist as complaining about Jewish violinists in the 20th century. On the other hand, surely it does matter that no British youngster, Asian or otherwise, submitted a tape that passed the Menuhin test.

That’s embarrassing and sad, because this is a lovely event. Of course it’s nerve-racking and of course there’s disappointment: I watch one (Asian) lad whose eyes keeping darting from his computer game to a TV on which another (Asian) boy is playing the same piece as him, only better. But there’s no whiff of the nastiness of the competition circuit. Violinists who are eliminated are given master-classes with the judges. ‘It’s as much a festival as a competition,’ says Back.

In the senior finals, we hear four concertos — the Mendelssohn, the Prokofiev First (twice) and the Prokofiev Second. Two soloists stand out: In Mo Yang from Korea and Stephen Waarts from Holland. Yang’s filigree virtuosity and Waarts’s range of colour take the breath away. Neither is ‘better’ than the other but someone has to win and it’s Waarts. He’s six-and-a-half feet tall and an amateur mathematician — a proud geek. When I tell him that he need never enter another competition, he says: ‘Oh. I guess you’re right.’ He sounds despondent — a tribute, perhaps, to the Menuhin’s nurturing ethos.

Pamela Frank, one of the judges, reckons the Austin finale ‘was one of the best concerts I’ve been to in my life’. I’ll second that. Even so, a problem looms. In 2016 the Menuhin comes to London for Yehudi’s centenary. That’s appropriate: he founded a famous school here and ended up in the House of Lords. But what if, once again, there are no British competitors?

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  • Will Honeycomb

    And the sub-editorial spelling test.

  • Harvey John Brown

    ‘That makes a nonsense of claims that Chinese, Japanese and Korean conservatoires churn out players with steel techniques but zero imagination’…..Are they playing composed Music with clearly given (and recorded umpteen times) rhythmic, dynamic, phrasing etc. direction or are they improvising?……Doh!

    • Daniel Maris

      Quite. There aren’t so many brilliant jazz improvisers from that part of the world. 🙂

    • IainRMuir

      Are you seriously suggesting that playing “composed music” is a mechanical process and that a score contains every detail necessary for the perfect performance?

      And of course, jazz is never recorded?

      • Harvey John Brown

        Manual dexterity and close reproduction from clear symbols Iain- Whilst training I encountered players who reached great heights with many hours of practice, the right training/programming and regurgitation, knowing less of what they were doing musically than most of the the audience suspected.
        Jazz is often recorded and copied but it also often involves more creativity, being closer to composition/improvisation by the player, as Classical music was only 100 yrs ago.

        • IainRMuir

          “Only the other week I witnessed a Russian Violinist with extraordinary technical prowess yet absolutely no idea of what the Bach piece she was playing required in terms of phrasing and movement. She certainly played with a passion but it didn’t disguise her musical ignorance.”

          I think you’ve proved my point. Presumably the violinist was following the symbols but, in spite of this, was failing to deliver a musical performance. In other words, her creative input fell short in spite of the fact that she was playing composed music. Playing the right notes in the right order with dexterity will not even guarantee success in an orchestral audition.

          I don’t understand why manual dexterity, which you seem to have a thing about, and creativity are mutually exclusive. Surely many jazz musicians also have dexterity?

          Lastly, are you really saying that classical was improvised as recently as 1914? No scores back then?

          • Harvey John Brown

            Kriesler was expected to improvise a Cadenza at his Paris Conservatoire grad. performance. How many of these fine leading violinists today from the East are contributing pieces to the repertoire Iain?

  • Shreedevi Nair-Pal

    You will not find too many south Asians playing Western Classical music because we have very ancient and vibrant classical music traditions of our own, the North Indian and the South Indian. While they often reference each other, each of them is distinct. When such musical traditions have been lost, then Western music steps into the breach.

    • Daniel Maris

      Absolute nonsense. The Japanese never “lost” their musical traditions but appreciate western classical music.

    • mingus khan

      Absolute bull carp.

  • Private Idaho

    Stephen Waarts is American — he started studying violin in the SF Bay Area when he was five.

  • Daniel Maris

    Music belongs to the whole world as nearly all musicians will tell you.

  • Shreedevi Nair-Pal

    Not nonsense at all!If you lived in India you will realise the truth of this. You will not find a rich European classical music tradition in India – yes we do have our Zubin Mehta – but the best musical talents seem to invariably veer towards Indian classical music. That is not the case with China and Japan, for some reason. I do not know enough to comment about their traditions but I do happen to know enough about mine!
    When i lived in NY, I even found Indian parents getting their children classical Indian dance and music lessons!

  • rtj1211

    Is there any correlation between extreme musical performance and living in repressed societies??

    • cbayley

      Or well educated ones perhaps.

    • Corbus

      Think Jewish Ukrainians, and you have the single greatest selection of gifted pianists. Horowitz said famously “there are only Jewish, gay, and bad pianists”.

  • Adolf

    Asians (and I mean far east Asians) are over-represented, at least stateside, within orchestras. It speaks to their single minded pursuit of mastery of an instrument. Virtuosity, while requiring talent, relies mainly on exhaustive practice, and an unwavering commitment: something that can be drilled in by Tiger Moms.

    Asians have not shown any real talent, or distinction in musical composition. It seems their focus lies exclusively on technical performance. It only perpetuates the stereotype that Asians are good at rote memorization and skills that require practice.

  • Corbus

    Slightly off topic and a hurrah for a Brit, but, congratulations to Martin James Bartlett, 18-years old winner of the 2014 BBC Young Musician of the Year keyboard final on May 8. Breathtaking performances, in particular Liszt’s Petrarch.
    JS Bach: Partita no.2, Capriccio Liszt: Petrarch Sonnet 104 Moszkowski: Etincelles Barber: Piano Sonata op.26, 4th movt