Meetings with remarkable men

Daniel Hope caught the violin bug from his mother's boss, Yehudi Menuhin. Now, after studying under a succession of formidable Russian teachers, he's collaborating with Ravi Shankar. Michael Church meets a rising star
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The Independent Culture

In the beginning - 1967, to be precise - Yehudi Menuhin made a record named West Meets East with the sitar-master Ravi Shankar, during London's rush of love for the sounds of Rajasthan. Three decades later, Nigel Kennedy released East Meets East, in homage to that initial foray by the violinist who was his mentor. Now, a young violinist named Daniel Hope has put out a record called East Meets West and brought the story full circle.

Garlanded last year with Classical Brit and Gramophone awards, the 30-year-old Hope is one of nature's explorers. It's thanks to his championing that the true version of Berg's "love-code" concerto is now in the shops, and that a noble but forgotten work by the British composer John Foulds is back in the repertoire. And, since Hope's collaborators include mavericks such as Uri Caine and Bobby McFerrin, it's no surprise to find him teaming up with Ravi Shankar; what does surprise is the extent to which he has transformed his style in the process. Menuhin's playing retained its characteristic sheen on that original record with Shankar; Hope has managed to shed all traces of his Western training, and replaced it with an authentically Indian sound.

Moreover, with its additional pieces of Orientalism by Western composers, East Meets West - Shankar jokingly suggested they call it West Eats Meat - represents an epic musical journey that was entirely Hope's idea. Now seems the moment to catch this shooting star and see what makes him tick. The answer, I find, lies in a remarkable succession of father figures.

His actual father - the South African novelist Christopher Hope - played no part in this musical story, but his indirect influence was crucial. Exiled to London and strapped for cash after publishing a book that the apartheid regime hated, Hope senior sent his wife out to work, and she landed a job as Yehudi Menuhin's secretary. "As my father needed peace and quiet to write, she took me with her," says Hope junior. "And Menuhin loved having children around. Every day of my first four years was spent in his house, and all my memories are of what I saw there, and the people who came to visit - the politicians, the Stéphane Grappellis, the Shankars. All that ignited a spark."

His manner is bright and eager, and you sense the drive that was clearly there from the start. When he was three, he says, he announced to his parents that he was going to become a violinist. "Their reaction was complete and utter shock. And when my father told Menuhin, he simply replied: 'Poor chap.' He was very discouraging - he basically washed his hands of me. The last thing he wanted was to get involved."

Hope persuaded his parents to take him to a local violin teacher, but she was discouraging too. "Her first comment was: 'He's too small. Come back in a couple of years.' Yet hanging on the walls all round were tiny violins. I had the most incredible tantrum in front of her, so to quieten me she took one down and said, 'Here you are. I'm not making any promises, but we'll try.' And I just grabbed it - and the moment I had it in my hands, I knew that was my future."

When he was eight, though his parents were against it, he decided to go to the Menuhin school. "Menuhin himself didn't comment. I guess he just thought I'd grow out of this obsession." His parents' doubts about the school proved justified. "The problem was that it had a blanket rule for all students, whether eight or 18 - everyone had to practise a set amount each day. That worked brilliantly for some people, but not for me. So at nine I decided to leave."

You yourself decided? "Yes. From the age of four I've basically run my own life. I've always known within a few minutes whether something I've done is good or not." The one positive legacy he took from the Menuhin school was a tutorial invitation from a Russian-Israeli teacher named Felix Andrievsky, who also taught at the Royal College of Music. "And thus began my induction into the Russian way of playing, which is how I play now."

What is that way? He thinks for a moment, then gives a short lecture. "It's an approach to the violin, and to the way sound is produced on it. Russian musicians all have the ability to create a certain type of sound, using a certain kind of pressure on the bow, with a certain hand position that is unique to them. This started from the time of the great Leopold Auer, and continued with gods like David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan - extraordinary musicians. And there's an approach to colour which goes with that - many layers of colour. I'd been used to playing loud and soft, and then somebody tells you there are five types of loud and five types of soft, and between them an enormous spectrum. And it's all done technically, yet the goal is an aesthetic one."

At 16, Hope met another Russian violin teacher, named Grigory Zhislin, who broadened his horizons further. "Felix's way was to talk, but Grigory's was to play. And with his right arm and hand he was able to create a hundred times more colour than I'd even then thought possible. By tilting the bow, by a variety of tricks with the right hand, he unlocked something else. I was in a state of shock."

Hope uses that same phrase to describe his reaction to his coeval Maxim Vengerov's Wigmore debut that year. "That was one of the greatest experiences I'd ever had - to hear this 16-year-old boy playing the Bach Chaconne amazingly, as his opening piece. I knew he'd been taught by Zakhar Bron - who'd also taught another of my heroes, Vadim Repin - and I knew I had to go and study with him."

He did, and became addicted to his style of teaching. "It was totally different from my other Russian tutors, but it had the same thread. Bron is like a sports coach, with a big presence and big voice, who holds up an enormous mirror in front of you - exaggerating what you're doing. He doesn't let a single phrase pass without comment. A lesson with him is like going 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. You just feel shattered."

All his other tutorial relationships had ended with an angry cut-off: "With most Russian teachers, when you leave, the drawbridge comes up - they think you've rejected them. After three failed relationships, I decided not to have that break with Bron. So I still sometimes go back to him."

Menuhin, too, had heard about Bron, and one day he rang Hope to ask how he was getting on. "So I went and played for him, and he was absolutely horrified." Why? "Because I'd taken it all so seriously. He was genuinely shocked - he never thought my violin-playing would be anything serious - yet I'd gone on and done it. He realised that during all those years when he'd studiously ignored me, the violin had meant absolutely everything to me. He became very emotional, and asked me to play more, so I played the first Schnittke sonata, which he didn't know, and then he said, keep going, so I did the Mendelssohn, the Bach Chaconne. Three hours later he stood up and said, 'I had no idea, and I'm so happy. Would you like to play for me regularly?'

"When I said I'd love to, he said, 'I can go one better than that - would you like to play concertos with me conducting?' So we started with the Mendelssohn, and eventually we did 60 concerts together, up till his final one in Düsseldorf - he died three days later. But I was so happy it had all worked out like this. Because I hadn't learnt from him as a teacher but as a colleague who knew those pieces probably better than anybody else in the world."

East Meets West begins and ends with ragas by Ravi Shankar, which Hope's liner-note describes as being "In memoriam Yehudi Menuhin" (which is right, since they were composed for him). But first - after two years' retraining, sitting cross-legged on the floor with Shankar's anointed successor, Gaurav Mazumdar - Hope had to get the Indian master's blessing. "I had to play to convince him, and for three hours he listened with his wife and daughter and students. When I'd finished I asked if he would permit me to take it into the studio, and he agreed. But he also said that - much as he admired Yehudi's playing - they'd never had time to do it as he wished, and he wanted me to remedy the faults. He gave me a detailed list - things to do with the way one uses the bow and a very sparing use of vibrato. He wanted a pure sound."

Next week, Daniel Hope will premiere a John Casken piece at the Barbican, and the week after that he'll be helping the Beaux Arts Trio celebrate their 50th anniversary at the Wigmore Hall. When I ask how on earth he came to join that august ensemble, I get another strange tale, involving a suddenly incapacitated player in New York, a call on Hope's mobile as he left the stage in Brussels, and a hurried but searching audition...

Daniel Hope, Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891) 15 January, and Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020-7935 2141) 27 January. 'East Meets West' and 'Foulds: Mirage' are on the Warner label