How did Yehudi Menuhin first come into your life?
My family were forced to leave South Africa in the 70s as my father is a political writer who was an anti-apartheid activist. We ended up in London but ran out of money. My mother went out to find a job and by chance landed the job of secretary to Yehudi Menuhin. It was supposed to last six months but she remained for 26 years. Menuhin became a huge influence on all my family. He called himself my “musical grandfather”. That is the way I like to remember him.
You must have heard some amazing performances and collaborations?
I was incredibly fortunate to grow up in part in Yehudi Menuhin’s house, surrounded by wonderful musicians, ranging from Menuhin to Rostropovich, but also from Ravi Shankar to Stéphane Grappelli. I can recall a rehearsal Menuhin did with Rostropovich and Wilhelm Kempff – at which I tried to pull Rostropovich’s spike from under his cello!
Daniel Hope. Photo © Nicolas Zonvi
When and how did he become an active force in your violin education?
When I was four he paid for me to study with Sheila Nelson. This was an incredibly generous gesture and really set me up in the best possible way. But it was not until I was 16 that we really started to work and perform intensively together.
What were you able to learn that you might not have through a more conventional student-teacher relationship?
I had the great fortune and privilege of performing over 60 concerts with Lord Menuhin. During the two decades we knew each other, there was not a day with him without some invaluable piece of advice, both musical or professional. Most important of all were his tips and advice on performing the great concerti, from Elgar and Bartók through to Mendelssohn and Brahms. He told me you have to play every day. He would say: “You must be like a bird: and can you imagine a bird saying, I’m tired today, I don’t wish to fly?” He also always said: “anyone can get an engagement: it’s the re-engagement that makes a career”. How right he was.
What do you think are the most important things he taught you?
That sound is the most important quality of the violin. That you must always give 110% on stage – and that you must always know your place.
In the performance at the Sydney Opera House (and in your album) you pay tribute to Menuhin – how did you whittle the program down to these repertoire choices?
With great difficulty! I could have easily made 50 albums with Menuhin-inspired repertoire. But as always, my recordings and projects are the result of extensive research and thought.
How do you navigate the balance between paying tribute to Menuhin in your performances and exploring your own interpretation of the works?
I always begin with the “source”: the work itself, and mostly the historical context in which it was conceived. Of course one is influenced by many musicians and other factors too, but at the end of the day, our job as an interpreter is to be as true to the composer as we can.
What can you tell us a little bit about how Bechara El-Khoury’s Unfinished Journey came about?
Bechara is a phenomenal Franco-Lebanese composer. It was Kurt Masur who first told me about him and insisted I look him up: I was searching for a composer to write a piece to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Menuhin’s passing. Bechara produced this little jewel: and called it “Unfinished Journey”, which was also the title of Yehudi’s autobiography.
How does Menuhin feature in your experiences of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons?
I first experienced Vivaldi as a toddler at Yehudi Menuhin’s festival in Gstaad, Switzerland, in 1975. He was playing it with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. I heard what I thought was birdsong coming from the stage. It was the opening solo of La Primavera from the Four Seasons. It had such an electrifying effect that I still call it my “Vivaldi Spring.” How was it possible to conjure up so vivid, so natural a sound, with just a violin?
What do you feel you’ve brought to the Four Seasons yourself over the years?
I have been playing the Seasons all my life. And learning from the people with whom I have played it. I began with the more ‘romantic’ approaches by Menuhin and Zakhar Bron, and from there I moved on to great musicians such as Kristian Bezuidenhout or Christopher Hogwood, who completely changed my vision of sound and ‘authentic’ performance. Over many decades the Seasons have evolved into a kind of hybrid, which I play today.
Did Max Richter’s Recomposed change the way you thought about the original
It certainly allowed me to take a step back from the original and to appreciate the Vivaldi with new ears and eyes.
You’ve been busy in the studio with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra since your appointment as Artistic Director in 2016, how do you think your musical relationship with the orchestra has evolved over that time?
When I first heard the Zurich Chamber Orchestra over 40 years ago, I never could have imagined becoming their Music Director! They are such an outstanding ensemble, and I think we have grown together. We perform all over the world and they are at home in any musical style. That is particularly inspiring.
Daniel Hope and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra perform at the Sydney Opera House September 9