Premier jazz violinist Regina Carter is a perfect and unconventional guest artist at the classical Menuhin Competition. Founded by the late Yehudi Menuhin, a virtuoso whose career spanned the 20th century, the event attracts the cream of young classical players from all over the world.
The Richmond-based, if mostly virtual event, pandemic-delayed from May 2020, is only the second time the biannual event has occurred in this country. It climaxes in a series of ticketed showcases and free online performances from May 14-23.
“It’s like watching the Olympics,” Carter says. “They are young, but they play at such a high level. A lot of musicians don’t have a normal childhood. They spend so much of their lives practicing and listening. Not just for this, but to have a career. It is a calling, not a choice.”
Carter understands the challenges and sacrifices. She was a prodigy who started playing piano at 2 and the violin at 4. Over time, she realized her gifts were more aligned to the high-wire improvisational freedom of jazz rather than the nerve-wracking perfectionism of the conservatory. Still, she respects the artistic validity of both paths.
Carter’s meeting with Menuhin, as a young student in a master class, was life changing.
“My teacher said that I would ruin my career by playing jazz,” Carter recalls. “Menuhin said, ‘Leave her alone.’ He picked up a violin and played a jazz riff on it. From then on, he was my man. That was huge for me.”
Menuhin’s gentle, accepting approach now informs Carter’s teaching of young musicians as a faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music. And it’s one that applies equally to the man to whom the concert is dedicated, Richmond artist and educator Joe Kennedy Jr.
Playing jazz did not ruin Carter’s career. She’s traveled worldwide, been a leader or player on more than 100 recordings, been nominated for Grammys, and won a McArthur genius award. Her genre-spanning work includes playing as a soloist with a symphony, notably one of the few musicians permitted to play a famous violin known as the Cannon, made in 1743 and once belonging to 19th-century virtuoso Nicolo Paganini. That instrument is such a world treasure that armed bodyguards always flank it.
The divide between following a score and in-the-moment invention is a relatively modern development. “The funny thing is that back in the baroque days, musicians improvised,” Carter says. The archetypical classical composers – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – also were renowned for extemporaneous playing. Composed works included cadenzas as blank spaces for virtuosic expression. But over time, even those fluid sections froze into notation.
But music transcends conventions. “It’s all a gift, where we all connect,” Carter says. “It’s where people find their voids and their commonalities. There are so many genres, so much culture. Music is a vehicle for life-altering moments.”
So how does the competition work? The 2021 Menuhin challenge includes improvising a Mozart cadenza and playing a late 20th-century Astor Piazzolla “Nuevo Tango” composition and a self-chosen chamber piece. In preliminary rounds, a field of more than 300 aspirants narrowed to 44 first-round competitors from 18 countries, and for the Richmond event, to 10 junior competitors 15 and younger as well as nine senior semifinalists who are 22 and younger. There are ticketed opening celebrations with the Richmond Symphony on May 14 and 15. Junior semifinals stream on May 15 and seniors on May 16. Both finals are Friday, May 21. There are other performances through the week, including performances by fiddlers Mark and Maggie O’Connor, the diversity-championing Sphinx ensemble, a master class, and the set from Regina Carter’s band.
“My husband and drummer [and ex-Virginia Commonwealth University jazz studies major] Alvester Garnett is also an audiophile,” Carter says. “He set up a studio in our living room and recorded it with Chris Lightcap [bass] and Martin Sewell [guitar]. We were looking forward to coming to Richmond and hope to get the opportunity soon. But it has been a weird year.”
But, Carter suggests, also a necessary one.
“It was horrible, with everything shut down. But it also forced us to sit down and look at ourselves. I thought I wanted to always be on the road. If I had a week off, I was nuts. I didn’t know how to be still,” she explains. “Music is a tool for healing. It is like being dropped in a forest, and it doesn’t matter which path you choose. It’s the right path, no matter what detours you take or where you stop along the way. We are all on a journey, and there is a whole, beautiful world of using music.”