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Violin Prodigies 

The artistic director of the Menuhin International Violin Competition on what to expect in May.

click to enlarge Violinist Caecilia Lee at the Menuhin International Violin Competition held in Geneva in 2018.

Courtesy of Olivier Miche Photography, Menuhin Competition Geneva 2018

Violinist Caecilia Lee at the Menuhin International Violin Competition held in Geneva in 2018.

For two weeks in May, Richmond will become a center of the musical universe with technical virtuosos regularly on display.

The Biennial Menuhin International Violin Competition, the world’s leading competition for young violinists, has been called the Olympics of the iconic classical instrument, with musicians ranging from 11 to 21 years old competing in two categories.

Founded in 1983 by American-born violin giant Yehudi Menuhin, the competition is a sprawling movable feast, with 20 concerts encompassing more than just the essential classical repertoire, including performances from jazz violinist Regina Carter and the debut of an Appalachian suite by Americana-bluegrass artist Mark O’Connor. The top prize includes $20,000, a two-year loan of a multimillion-dollar Stradivarius violin, and the glittering launch of a lifetime career.

The Richmond event is the second time the competition has been held in the U.S. The first time was 2014 in Austin, Texas, which parallels this city’s creative charm.

“Richmond is the kind of city Menuhin would like,” says Artistic Director Gordon Back. “It’s kind of small, a bit unknown, but very vibrant in the arts scene.”

A first-rate pianist, Back was Menuhin’s accompanist for 20 years and took over the competition leadership in 2002. The city has been on Back’s radar since he performed five years ago at the University of Richmond. “For me, it is very exciting. I feel it is rising. And I think we can leave a legacy,” he says.

“The violin is the closest thing to the human voice,” Back continues, and like language, it is best mastered in youth. All of the players are young, the youngest only 11 years old. They are veterans with years of instruction and disciplined practice.

“If you listen to the 10- to 11-year-olds, you won’t believe how well they play,” he says. “None of those under 15 get nervous. That’s more after puberty and adolescence, which are difficult ages for a young person.”

How they mature into adult players can be difficult to predict.

“But you can look at the list of very young winners of the competition and see how many have gone on to be leading soloists, concertmasters, or leaders of string quartets or chamber ensembles,” he says.

So how will it work? The 44 players coming to Richmond were selected from more than 300 applicants in 51 countries. For many in this select group of 18 nationalities, this will be their first trip to the United States. The competition progresses in rounds, with the initial 22 in each group trimmed down, first to 10 semifinalists and finally, five finalists. The challenges are diverse, from composing and improvising a Mozart cadenza to playing self-chosen pieces in a chamber setting, to performing a Piazzolla nuevo tango and premiering the O’Connor commission.

Scattered throughout are the other concerts, including performances by the jury, the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra, champions of classical diversity and Menuhin artists in residence Sphinx Virtuosi. The closing gala features the winners and renowned soloist Ray Chen, winner of the competition in 2008.

While the jurors will be listening for specific details of technique, timbre and micro-intonation, in-depth knowledge isn’t necessary for audience delight.

“The artist needs to communicate. People will recognize when they hear greatness,” Back says. There is an audience prize so that people in the hall or watching via stream or on TV can vote for their choice of winner. VPM will broadcast the opening and closing concerts

For Back, nothing beats the immediacy of being in the hall, but the closing concert, attended by ambassadors and people from around the world, is already sold out.

Who wins and loses is both significant and beside the point. The biggest hurdle is just being accepted into the competition. From there, who wins is a matter not only of execution but of taste.

“The jury will disagree,” Back says. “The players are all different and all brilliant. It is oranges and pears.”

The Menuhin Competition runs May 14-24. Style Weekly will have more to come as we get closer to the competition. For information, visit 2020.menuhincompetition.org.

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