MIDDLE TEMPLE HALL
That the Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition runs out of Worthing makes it sound sadly parochial (and seems to beg a line from Oscar Wilde: “from Worthing!”). But it’s actually a major international event that sweeps around the world.
Last time it was in Cardiff, next time Beijing; and this year was Oslo where volcanic ash caused all the problems you’d expect. When the 10 days of heats (this competition is a slog) began, half the jury and competitors hadn’t managed to arrive. But it eventually got itself together, only two jurors short and with 39 of the 42 hopefuls – some of whom had taken such extreme travelling measures you knew how driven their ambition must be. And this event caters for a peculiarly youthful kind of ambition.
Menuhin competitors are sorted into two groups: seniors from 16 to 22, juniors from zero up to 15. And that raises with peculiar intensity the usual questions about competitions. Have these children been exploited? Are they under too much pressure? Will they grow up broken and neurotic?
For myself, I think we’re too obsessively protective about children. They respond to challenge. And had you asked even the youngest in this competition – who were 12, and I did – they’d have told you they absolutely wanted to be in it. These were geniuslevel kids: an international fiber-elite, desperate to perform. And some of their performances were staggering.
The senior finals were a one-horse race – won by a brilliantly assured, slightly flashy (but good enough to get away with it) competitor from China called Xiang Yu. But for me, the real interest was at the junior level, where the race had more horses than you could keep on track. The capability of the contestants was phenomenal, far higher than you’d find in, say, the BBC Young Musician of the Year. And the junior winner, a ChineseCanadian called Kerson Leong, was without doubt worthy of the title. Tiny, aged 13 but looking more like eight, he had a bizarre assurance, a disarming technique, and interpretative powers way beyond his years.
That said, my vote would have gone to a west coast American of the same age called Stephen Waarts, who didn’t have such obvious presence but nonetheless struck me as very special: not just the mechanical wonder that some of his fellow entrants were, playing a repertoire of immaculately learned tricks, but a soul.
Sadly, the only British entrant to make it to the final, 14-year-old Calum Smart, only made fifth prize. But in a competition of this calibre that’s no dishonour. Looking back over its history, Nikolai Znaider – one of the biggest names on the violin circuit – never got beyond fifth and Tasmin Little only reached second. Undeniably the Menuhin is a tough call. But that’s music for you.
Less aggressively, the countertenor Iestyn Davies gave a wonderful recital in the current song series at Middle Temple Hall being curated by the no less wonderful pianist Julius Drake (visit www.templemusic.org for details: it continues to November).
Davies’s singing isn’t always comfortable or flawless: he can sound distracted, tired or cavalier – and there were moments of each in this concert. But he’s also capable of an intense and touching beauty, given edge by something like the pouting mischief of a small boy. Happily there was a wealth of moments of that too.
My only issue with the concert was that it took in repertoire – Vaughan Williams, Quilter, Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad – that wasn’t written for a countertenor and loses dimension when sung by one. Robust songs like Ivor Gurney’s “I will go with my father a-ploughing” don’t convince (it isn’t easy to imagine a falsettist at the plough). Although much of Shropshire Lad was lovely, it was over-elegiac – with none of the hearty bravado that makes the poems so poignant.
Houseman’s verses are all painfully suppressed gay fantasies, half hidden behind “manly” masks. And it’s this proto-manliness that gives their endless sorrowing about the early deaths of handsome lads some bite. Without it they’re too saturated in self-pity. And too close to doggerel.