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Violinist and Visionary Yehudi Menuhin Dies at 82

March 13, 1999|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Violinist Yehudi Menuhin, one of the century's great musicians and a visionary who promoted world peace through international cultural cooperation, died Friday. He was 82.

Concert promoter Jutta Adler said Menuhin had been scheduled to conduct the Warsaw Symphony Orchestra in Berlin on Tuesday but fell ill. He died of heart failure in a Berlin hospital.

Menuhin was an instant sensation when he made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra as a 7-year-old prodigy and went on to become one of the most influential and admired violinists in the world.

Although he seemed almost the embodiment of the classical musician who was lost in the spiritual intensity of his art, Menuhin, in fact, devoted his 75-year career to a remarkably wide range of musical, humanitarian and even political activities--building cultural bridges that ranged from defying the political climate during the Cold War to a groundbreaking collaboration with Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar in the 1960s.

"The world has lost a great soul, whose passion was music and humanity," Shankar said Friday.

Menuhin said in 1982 that as high as he put the priority of his performances, he placed the concerns of his fellow men even higher.

Consequently, he founded schools for gifted young instrumentalists in Stoke d'Abernon, England, and Gstaad, Switzerland, where he often conducted master classes and regularly used his own celebrity to promote his prodigies. The popular violinist Nigel Kennedy is a product of the Stoke d'Abernon school.

Menuhin worked to raise money for UNESCO and lobbied for racial equality in South Africa. He spoke out against narrow political nationalism in any form, including music. Not only did he create a rage for Indian raga music when he released his "East Meets West" recording with Shankar, he chipped away at the barriers between classical music and jazz by improvising with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.

During the last two decades of his life, as age diminished his violin technique, Menuhin also became increasingly known as a conductor.

"Yehudi Menuhin was a major figure in this century--an extraordinary musician and a great humanitarian," violinist Isaac Stern said after learning of his colleague's death.

"His style of playing, particularly in his early years, was a stunning patrician elegance with a very natural musical line, which fitted the style of whatever composition" he was playing.

And those compositions covered a broad spectrum. Menuhin helped make Bach's sonatas and partitas for solo violin well known with his stunning recordings in the mid-1930s, and he remained associated with Bach's music throughout his life. As a teenager he recorded Elgar's violin concerto with the composer conducting, and Bartok wrote his second violin concerto, one of the masterpieces for the instrument, for Menuhin. The violinist was also well known for his performances of Beethoven and Brahms.

'A Genetic, Jewish Missionary Need'

Menuhin felt a close kinship with Stern, who also was born of Russian immigrants. "He and I both have what you could call a genetic, Jewish missionary need," Menuhin said. "It's a need to establish moral justification for one's existence and to pursue what's close at hand."

Although in 1985 he decided to become a British citizen, the U.S.-born Menuhin was noted for his service to America. During World War II, he was a stirring cultural embodiment of the Allied war effort. He played more than 500 concerts during the war, often for the entertainment of Allied troops, and he followed the U.S. Army into Paris, Brussels and Antwerp, Belgium.

In 1947, Menuhin became the first major American artist to play in Germany after the war when he performed with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. Although Menuhin said he did this to further tolerance and "the brotherhood of man," the Israeli music critic Honoch Ron said Friday that "this was very hard for the Jewish people to forgive."

Still, Israel did forgive him and awarded him the Wolf Prize. Menuhin again entered the political arena in 1955. As the world powers glowered at one another over the Cold War divide, Menuhin helped to melt the ice culturally, bringing Soviet violinist David Oistrakh and Soviet pianist Emil Gillels to play in America, then going to Moscow to perform.

Menuhin was "America's best ambassador," said a State Department official, and the musician was awarded a Kennedy Center honor by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

Despite the adulation that followed him wherever he went, Menuhin's playing began to lose some of its technical brilliance in the 1950s and entered a slow decline. But Menuhin, who often appeared transfixed when he performed, readily made up for what a Times critic described as "thick-toned, raspy playing" with an increased spiritual intensity in his interpretation.

Moreover, he continued to tour well into his 70s, causing Canadian critic Jacob Siskind to dub him "a Teflon-coated violinist."

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