Notes from the Violin Olympics Long Center

Story by Andrew Roush | Video by John Fitch | Site & photographs by Anna Donlan

Every two years, some of the world’s greatest violin virtuosos meet and compete in a different city around the world. This year, UT’s Butler School of Music hosted the event, and it’s the first time the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition has been held on American soil. Though the participants hail from different backgrounds, they have one thing in common—they’re all under the age of 22.

Here’s what we saw (and heard) through nine days of concerts, events, and of course, competition.

Violin in hand, American-Korean Christine Seohyun Lim, 19, walks onto the stage of Bates Recital Hall. She’s followed by the Miró Quartet, UT’s string-quartet-in-residence. Lim is wearing a pearlescent white gown with black ink-stain embellishments down the front. After acknowledging the audience, she sits down with the quartet and digs gleefully into Haydn’s String Quartet Op.64, No. 5 (movements one and four).

She’s in the running to win gold at the “Olympics of violin,” as the Menuhin Competition is often called. For one week at the end of February—and for the first time in the U.S.—42 violinists under the age of 22 took Austin by storm. They took part in master classes, engaged in public events at the Blanton Museum and the Long Center, and they competed. And the competition was fierce.

Like the Olympics, cities compete to host the Menuhin. Austin’s pedigree as the “live music capital of the world” didn’t hurt, but like London, Oslo, and Beijing, (which have each hosted both the violin Olympics and the other kind), Austin had to prove that its facilities were equal to the task. UT’s Butler School of Music offered a central location to host competition rounds as well as public events. The university’s proximity to downtown and the Long Center helped, as did the Butler School’s willingness to participate—including putting two Butler faculty members on the jury that judges the competitors.

And for a music school that’s long been one of Texas’ best-kept secrets, hosting the Menuhin was a major coup. It seems safe to say the secret is now out. “The competition brought us national and international attention,” says College of Fine Arts Dean Doug Dempster. “It’s a great tribute to the School of Music, the university, and the city.” All proceeds from the competition’s events went to Children’s Opportunities for Music Participation, a UT program that brings classical music to at-risk kids.

Semifinals Menuhin competitors

Clockwise from left: Christine Seohyun Lim performs at Bates Recital Hall during the Menuhin Semifinals; Josephine Chung, Taichi Miyamoto, and Dongyun Kim perform at the competition opening; Lim plays with the Miró quartet.

To layman’s ears, Lim is flawless. On long, legato passages she stretches out and raises her head like a cat waking from a nap. In the more frenzied sections, she curls up, pulling her whole body tightly around her instrument, bowing her head down, and shuffling her feet as she rocks to and fro, like she’s fighting the magnetic pull of her music stand. On the soaring high notes, she rears back, suddenly upright and rigid. The three-story, 24-ton Visser-Rowland organ suspended in the air behind her, complete with 5,315 pipes, is barely noticeable as she plays.

She leaves the stage and returns alone. Like the rest of the semifinalists in the senior division, she plays Black-Eyed Suzy, a wailing, humming whirlwind of a piece written specially for the occasion by UT professor Donald Grantham. The song sounds like it could be the ready-made soundtrack for a movie based on the work of William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams.

The performance concludes alongside pianist Colette Valentine. Lim plays Henryk Wieniawski’s Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 15. It is also a wailing, also a whirlwind, but this one more suited to “Masterpiece Theatre.” By the end, she’s played meticulously for nearly 30 straight minutes, thousands of notes passing through her fingers and across the strings of her violin as nine international judges watch and listen. And it’s only the semifinals.

“In a field this good, they could pick anyone,” William Hagen, 19, says. “At the end of the day, it’s a very subjective thing. But coming to this competition is a great way to improve your playing and,” he scrunches his brow, “just play some awesome concerts.”

Ari Boutris on his fellow Menuhin competitors.

Hagen, 19, has just witnessed an awe-inspiring concert—free to attend—at the Blanton Museum of Art. He’s sitting in the museum with Aristides Boutris, 13, with whom he shares a homestay house. Both Americans, they share a quiet kind of earnestness. And they are both obsessed with their instrument.

They talk about the violin the way a chef talks about food. It’s clear that practice is not a menace to them, but something else. Words like intense and difficult get thrown around, mixed with words like inspiring and awesome. They have practiced countless hours before ever auditioning, and they’ll practice many more after they leave. It’s not something they’re required to do, it’s something they have to do. Their families and friends not only put up with it, but encourage it.

“It’s truly amazing that they accept everything that I have to go through,” Boutris says. “It’s really a wonderful experience.”

Blanton Blanton

   Menuhin Competition jurors David Kim and Brian Lewis perform at the Blanton Museum to a crowd of listeners.

But violin isn’t everything, though it’s close. Both Hagen and Bourtis have played what Hagen calls “very competitive” baseball. The effort that goes into competition, the practice and the focus, is complicated and bewitching for them. They discuss life balance more often than most people with careers and kids.

“Before,” says Hagen, “I had to balance my time between violin,” he holds his hands wide apart, “baseball,” he brings his hands closer together, “and school,” he claps his hands together. “But now that I’ve gotten to college, it’s just violin,” he laughs. “I practice all the time.”

Boutris, who spends his days at college prep school and the rest of his time playing, agrees that it’s hard—and that it’s worth it.

“The violin has influenced me so much. It’s a part of me,” he says. “I always strive to become better than I am today. When I practice, I always think: How can I do better than I did yesterday? If I get that accomplished, I’m happy for that day.”

William Hagen and Ari Boutris perform at the Blanton Museum. Video by Anna Donlan

The closing event of the Menuhin Competition, a gala concert at Austin’s Long Center featuring the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, has the feel of an Olympic closing ceremony. There’s even a Olympic torch-like hand-off. A young Texan walks onto the stage in boots, jeans, and one of the bright white cowboy hats given to all the contestants. She’s playing “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” At center stage, she hands the bow to a boy representing Britain. He leads them off stage playing Elgar’s March No. 1, or as most high school graduates know it, Pomp and Circumstance.

This is the culmination of the weeklong event, and parents, well-wishers, and competitors fill up the center’s massive main hall. It’s also one of the week’s few ticketed events. This concert is the coming out party for the winners, but everyone seems to be in a good mood. Win or lose, the contestants have experienced intimate master classes with the Menuhin jurors, and played for rapt audiences across the city. They may have even made a few friends.

After the orchestra opens with a jubilant version of Dvorak’s Carnivale Overture, the audience greets the winner of the 10-15 year-old junior division, Rennosuke Fukuda, from Japan. Fukuda, 14, plays Fritz Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro like a professional. He’s clean and emotive. His sound is full and mature. He sounds downright violin-y—not like a young person coaxing sound out of the instrument, but like someone in full control. The crowd gives him a standing ovation that lasts a full minute.

Long CenterStanding Ovation

   Scenes from the opening and closing Menuhin Competition galas at the Long Center.

Christine Seohyun Lim isn’t playing tonight. She finished third in the senior division, which includes 16-21 year olds. She does, however, walk away with $5,000. William Hagen and Aristides Boutris didn’t place, but they still have time before they age out. Fukuda earns $7,000 and the use of a prized violin for a year. The senior winner, American-Dutch Stephen Waarts, gets $10,000 and a one-year loan of a rare Italian violin. Prizes aside, the mood is celebratory. The crowd is generous with their applause and the now-former competitors are having fun.

Stephen Waarts

Stephen Waarts, winner of the Menuhin Senior Category, stands as the audience applauds.

Waarts, 17, is tall and thin with thick, wavy hair. Before he begins he hitches up his baggy pants. A woman sitting in the audience learns over to her friends, her shiny brooch twinkling in the dim light, and jokes that “somebody needs to feed that boy some fried chicken.” But when he plays, it’s clear that he’s not just a prodigy. He’s a virtuoso. On Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 in G Minor he is expressive, clear, and in no way puny. The song balances on his bow as he creates and dissolves tense phrases with intense skill. Waarts’ ovation lasts another minute, and the lady with the brooch is the first to stand.

Ari at the Blanton

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