It was a fairy tale come true. The beleaguered family that had been shoved across the globe — no money, no belongings, no prospects — was suddenly rescued by a mysterious, grandfatherly benefactor. He swept them away from an uncertain future in London to a magical chalet in Switzerland, and everything changed.
Daniel Hope was 4 years old when his mother received an invitation to work for Yehudi Menuhin as the violinist’s personal secretary. Menuhin brought the entire family to his summer home in Switzerland, the base for his summer music festival and a home-away-from-home for the world-class musicians who performed there.
Today, Hope is himself a violin virtuoso, celebrating the centenary of his mentor’s birth with a new CD, “My Tribute to Yehudi Menuhin” (Deutsche Grammophon) and a concert tour that includes a March 4 performance at Alice Tully Hall.
“He was the friendly grandpa,” Hope said of Menuhin in a telephone interview last week. “He called himself my ‘musical grandfather.’ I called him Houdini for a long time; he was the ultimate escape artist, constantly escaping into his music.”
Hope’s earliest memories of Menuhin (who died in 1999) are of the “beautiful chalet, filled with music, the most beautiful music,” and of the astounding, eclectic chorus of friends who surrounded their host.
“He embraced music universally, in all genres. [Sitar player] Ravi Shankar was there, and [jazz violinist] Stéphane Grappelli,” Hope said. “Of course I had no idea who they were.”
How did this little boy end up in such exalted company?
Both sides of Hope’s family were marked by historical tragedy. His father’s Irish forebears were driven from Ireland by the Great Famine, landing in 19th-century South Africa. His mother’s relatives were prominent Jewish-German industrialists forced to flee their home when the Nazis came to power. In South Africa, his father became a successful writer but, as a staunch opponent of apartheid, became a non-person, ultimately stripped of his citizenship and forced to emigrate to London.
“In the early 1970s it was impossible to find a job there,” Hope recounted. “My mother said she’d take any job she could find. She’d trained as a secretary when she was younger, but we still couldn’t make ends meet. We couldn’t go back to South Africa. She called everyone she knew and finally managed to meet the head of a high-powered employment agency, who had two offers for her. She could serve as secretary to Menuhin or to the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
The then-Archbishop had not distanced himself from the apartheid regime of South Africa, so Hope’s mother dismissed that option instantly, telling the headhunter that she’d go with Menuhin.
The job interview was as improbable as the rest of the story.
Hope explained, “[Menuhin] was practicing, he turned to my mother and said, ‘Do you know the difference between Bach and Beethoven?’ When she said she did, he asked her when she could start. And he told her ‘Pack your things, we’re going to Gstaad. Bring your family; I would never separate a mother and her children.’”
What began as a two-month engagement went on for the next 24 years, with Menuhin guiding young Daniel’s musical career. The two performed together many times.
It was, needless to say, an unparalleled learning experience for the younger violinist.
“The 60 concerts we did together, the hundreds of hours of practicing, he taught me to always look at the score as if it were the first time you were seeing it,” Hope said. “He said, ‘Never get comfortable with the music. These composers are always above you.’ You would think you know [a piece] and he’d throw you a curve. That’s why his interpretations were so different over the years. It kept him young and kept everyone enthralled.”
An appropriate insight from a man who told Hope, “Music is the only language in which you cannot lie.”
In putting together the program for his CD and concert tour, Hope found himself “trying to tell [Menuhin’s] story.”
He explained, “I wanted to focus on the pieces I really connected to him. The Bartok duets are ones I played with him as a kid. The Vivaldi [Concerto in A minor for Two Violins, Strings, and Continuo, Op. 3, No. 8, RV 522] was a piece I trained on with him. I started out with that and went through the musical influences, the diversity of his repertoire.”
The biggest surprise in the program is the prevalence of contemporary works from the likes of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Hans Werner Henze and Shulamit Ran.
“They wrote [pieces] for him, so his voice speaks out through these pieces,” Hope said.
Putting this program together was like a visit with an old, trusted, admired friend and family member, Hope remarked.
“It was incredibly moving; it was like being in touch again,” he said.
Daniel Hope will perform a program in tribute to Yehudi Menuhin at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center (65th Street and Broadway) on Friday, March 4 at 7:30 p.m. For information, go to www.lincolncenter.org.