A virtual violin competition and festival
In 1983, Joji Hattori, now 52, participated in the first-ever Menuhin Competition — a musical contest started by Yehudi Menuhin, one of the 20th century’s greatest violinists. This year Hattori is one of the judges of the international competition for violinists under age 22.
Known as the “Olympics of the Violin,” the Menuhin competition is typically held every two years, but, as we all know, 2020 was not a typical year. If it had been, 43 of the world’s best young violinists and nine jurors, including Hattori, would have traveled to Richmond last spring.
Because of the pandemic, the Board of the Menuhin Competition postponed the competition until this year. To adhere to current safety regulations, they decided to hold the event virtually from May 14 to 23.
The Menuhin Competition is more than a contest; it’s a musical festival and educational opportunity for both listeners and performers. Winning can launch a career in music, as Hattori himself found.
The competition encourages “young players who are extremely talented [to] be aware of their talent so they invest in their training to develop into international soloists,” Hattori said in an interview with Fifty Plus.
In-person performances, too
Cohosted by the city of Richmond, the Richmond Symphony, the University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University and VPM, the Menuhin Competition will engage the local community in a variety of ways.
The Richmond Symphony, for instance, will perform in-person concerts to open the competition, and they have commissioned works that finalists will perform.
Violinist and juror Angelo Xiang Yu will perform with the Richmond Symphony in a gala concert on Friday, May 14 and Saturday, May 15 at Dominion Energy Center for the Performing Arts. (Check richmondsymphony.com for ticket availability.)
In conjunction with the Richmond Symphony School of Music, the Menuhin Competition Trust will offer educational and engagement activities to Virginia-based violin students.
In addition, violinists will conduct virtual visits with schools and other community organizations to engage with local students and older adults.
In tandem with the competition, VCU will host a virtual Violin Day on May 8 with performances and workshops for students and teachers.
Events will be televised by VPM and are viewable for free on the Menuhin Competition website and on YouTube.
Nurturing young professionals
When Hattori participated in the first Menuhin Competition, he was only 14 years old. Though he didn’t win, he was encouraged that he reached the finals.
“What happens when you are 13 or 14 and a very good violinist is that often you are the best in your age group in your country. But there are many countries in the world,” Hattori noted. “It’s actually a very humbling experience to hear all the other competitors.”
Hattori participated in the competition again at 18, when he was awarded fourth place, and again at age 20, when he won first place.
For violinists the competition can launch a lifelong career, as it did for Hattori. Born in Tokyo but raised in Vienna, Hattori has enjoyed a versatile international career as a concert violinist, chamber musician and conductor of chamber and symphony orchestras. He knows firsthand how the competition can transform the trajectories of participants’ lives.
Violinists compete in one of two categories: junior, for violinists under 16; and senior, for violinists between 16 and 22. (This year, the youngest competitors are 12 years old.) For junior violinists, the competition provides an opportunity to interact with other talented young musicians.
This year’s participants include 19 students from across the U.S. as well as 24 others from all over the world. Winners will receive not only recognition but also cash prizes ranging from $1,000 to $20,000.
In addition, the winner of the senior category will be loaned a Stradivarius violin for two years.
How do jurors choose the winners?
As president of the Menuhin Competition Trust, Hattori has been instrumental in keeping the Menuhin Competition event going. He has been a juror in the past, too, and there’s an art to selecting the best violinists in the world.
“It’s quite easy to separate the more talented players from the slightly less talented,” Hattori said. “But among the top talent, if you have the 10 most talented players, it’s actually very difficult to number them in [winning] order.”
When judging the 43 violinists, jurors must evaluate musicality — the ability to tell a story through the music.
“It’s not enough just to feel it. They have to play it in such a way that emotion comes across,” Hattori said. “That’s something not everybody can do.”
Judging musicality through pre-recorded performances, as the virtual competition will require this year, may be harder to do than in person. But Hattori isn’t concerned.
“When I judge a video recording, I cannot tell as much how the sound of each violinist ‘projects’ in the concert hall [or] the emotional impact of the sound quality on the audience,” he said.
“Having said this, I am positively surprised how much … I still can tell by listening to a recording online.”
Yet the Menuhin Competition is about more than identifying the world’s most talented young violinists. The jurors work hard to nurture the musicians by leading master classes and providing individualized feedback.
“It’s wonderful that they can get nine jurors’ opinions of how they can improve,” Hattori said.
To watch the competition, visit 2021.menuhincompetition.org or watch it on YouTube at youtube.com/c/MenuhinCompetition. For more information, contact the Richmond Symphony at (804) 788-4717 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.