Yehudi Menuhin: A Violinist / Humanist at 71

The area just behind Royce Hall looks more like a Rolls-Royce/Mercedes-Benz dealership than a mere parking lot on the UCLA campus. The patrons, departing from their fancy cars and bustling into the building for a recital by Yehudi Menuhin, convey that the event is an important one.

As it later turns out, this is not an audience of sophisticated concert-goers, the cognoscenti who follow the music scene avidly and know who today's prime artists are. But the name Menuhin , which has saturated the public for half a century and trades on its household recognition, still holds sway.

It doesn't seem to matter that the beloved violinist has arguably not played at peak form for many years or that he rarely appears anymore on the "A" circuit. The power of his reputation clings. And the love affair between celebrity and fans endures.

On this night, Menuhin encourages the adoring if somewhat naive crowd--welcoming applause between movements of a Beethoven sonata and even bidding the pianist to take a bow, mid-performance. His generosity backfires, however, when many in the audience mistake the end of this single piece for the conclusion of two works and head out the door to a presumed intermission.

Shortly after that recital, Menuhin received a 1986 Kennedy Center honor in a ceremony marked by Peter Ustinov's hailing the honoree as "a conqueror of continents and citizen of the world." Two weeks later, he appeared on a television talk show as guest of and intellectual equal to William F. Buckley.

Throughout the years, Menuhin, a first-generation American born to Russian immigrants in New York City, has explored the realm of ragas with Ravi Shankar; played jazz with Stephane Grappelli; worked for UNESCO; traveled to South Africa, where he lobbied for racial equality; built his own music school for gifted children in Surrey, England; been knighted by the Queen and made an honorary citizen of Great Britain and Switzerland.

With all these achievements and current options, must Menuhin still adhere to the rigors of life as a touring virtuoso, a job his wife describes as "a commercial traveler with a line in violin music"?

Apparently, yes.

"Wearing the violinist's hat," says Menuhin, welcoming a visitor to his shoebox-size room at an otherwise deluxe Beverly Hills hostelry, "is still the most important thing I can do."

He takes a seat at a small table where a score is spread before him. The soft half-light filters through lacy ecru curtains and shades his handsome, stenciled features, his lank wisps of whitening blond hair. A brown flannel suit and paisley tie complete this study in warm, shadowy tones.

Speaking with gentility, his words tinged with a slight British accent, Menuhin continues: "What distinguishes me, in the end, is that I'm not turned away at the door. Yes, I still choose to be a commercial traveler--carrying my goods and producing on command. Playing the violin opens that door."

Little wonder that his earliest identity as a child prodigy is his most lasting. When Menuhin was 11, he astounded the world, vanquishing Carnegie Hall and the Beethoven Concerto in one fell swoop. The excitement of that celebrity baptism branded him indelibly. And even after withdrawing into what Ustinov calls "a purgatory of doubt" at 20--a two-year retreat from public view during which he scrutinized the very basis of his artistry--the violinist came out to fight a lifelong crusade for his musical pre-eminence.

At 71, Menuhin's vigor and ambition show no signs of slacking off. He may be carting around a youth orchestra like the Camerata Lysy Gstaad, lending the cachet of his name and functioning either as conductor or soloist. He may land more often at such outposts as Greenvale, N.Y., and Thomasville, Ga., than at Avery Fisher Hall or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But his enthusiasm hardly wanes.

Yet there are traces of distress--if not here and now, then in his 1975 autobiography "Unfinished Journey." In it, he recounts tales of altogether remarkable parents, Russian Jews who held up for him the highest standards of social morality and education--vital people who regularly smuggled him into concert halls starting at age 2 but who also tutored him entirely at home, canceling the possibility of any child friendships.

One night, his mother kept the 9-year-old up memorizing a poem in French for next day's lesson with Mlle. Godchaux. It was a veritable battle: the boy fighting extreme drowsiness by midnight and the mother determined to exert her will no matter how late the hour. ("Unaware of the flesh sacrificed to every line of her poem," Menuhin wrote of Godchaux, "she would for decades thereafter advertise my extraordinary linguistic gift.")

But Menuhin says he no longer feels the ironic edge expressed in his memoirs.

"I took pride in my accomplishment the next day," he says of the French recitation, "regardless of the anguish I wrote about."

By the same token he no longer cringes, as he did, "at the sight of another child carrying a violin case to a music lesson as to conviction and sentence, gritting his teeth through the obligatory three daily practice hours and miserably repeating pieces he was utterly sick of."

Today Menuhin says: "I founded a school to correct that very problem, to see that goals are properly fulfilled."

Nonetheless, the school "runs largely without me." Most of his time is taken confronting all those beckoning doors that only the violinist can open. For Menuhin, vitality is tied up with performing, not teaching.

Just having come from Los Gatos, Calif., where he visited his mother, now 91, he remarks on how people's instincts do not change and, by extension, his continuing zeal for performance.

A half century of world travel has seen Menuhin at the diplomatic forefront not just as a virtuoso but also as a social idealist. He acknowledges his birthright as a predisposing factor and allows that fellow violinist Isaac Stern--also a child prodigy of Russian-immigrant parents, an international educator and good-will ambassador--belongs to the same ilk.

"He and I both have what you could call a genetic, Jewish-missionary need," says Menuhin, smiling at this image with a mix of self-mockery and considered seriousness. "It's a need to establish moral justification for one's existence and to pursue what's close at hand.

"Being an activist and wanting to influence society is part of my heritage. It's like interpreting the Talmud, this personal desire for fulfillment."

But Menuhin, distinguishing himself from his Zionist father, talks about transcending partisan causes.

"I see humanism as the proper guiding force. While it's true that my father championed the underdog, it's also true that he shifted from one god to another.

"I never had a god, just many loves. One of them is Israel and the powerful determination of its people. The stones speak there. It's history.

"But I could not be a Zionist, that would imply divided loyalties and a loss of humanist perspective. Israel must feel itself as belonging to the region and must collaborate with its neighbors. It cannot be secure unless there is a regard for sharable assets."

His beliefs have been misinterpreted, however. After World War II, Menuhin offered to play concerts for displaced Jews who at first regarded him as a Nazi sympathizer (for appearing in Salzburg). He also defended conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, whose presence in Germany throughout the Third Reich prompted an accusing finger from some.

With equal rectitude, Menuhin refused to play for a segregated audience in South Africa--obliging only after management arranged an admission-free concert for blacks.

The same desire for freedom from single causes explains Menuhin's drifting out of the classical-music cast. In his lengthy improvisatory explorations with sitarist Shankar he sees, "a chance to embrace all that is spontaneous without regard to written notes.

"It is the aural tradition," says the man of all musics.

"It's like letting loose someone who has been in a library all his life . . . to run free in the forest."

Yet Menuhin always comes back inside to the stacks, so to speak. Right now he's studying Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, in preparation for conducting it. The process, he says, is a game.

"It supplants the whodunit. Notes are only clues, not dead-ends. And the real challenge to the memory lies in finding the thread of thought that takes you through the whole work. Emotional memory is far more important than mere artifacts."

At this stage, it would be understandable for Menuhin to coast on his considerable backlog of musical memory. But nothing changes his "regimen of studying and performing."

He considers a line from his autobiography: "Beneath surface mastery lay quicksands of doubt . . . inevitably one faltering step would have me floundering in them."

He admits that "at various moments I still feel this way.

"One's ultimate vision counts, of course. But it's not possible to bypass the public. As long as the world keeps judging, I cannot be free from insecurity.

"There is no magnetic compass to propel and keep me on course. I may wish to move quicker and to escape, but there are detours. So I must wander in every direction to know the terrain, understanding that I am part of that terrain--a tree that grew up to light and found strength in the soil."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°