Yehudi Menuhin loves to talk about all the other things in his life besides music.
Surely the world's most famous living prodigy -- first public appearance at age 7, first concert with the San Francisco Orchestra at age 8 (he played Lalo), Carnegie Hall debut at 10 -- he has spent hours with his violin nearly every day of his life since he first picked up the instrument when he was 4 years old.
Next month he will be 64. He still plays an hour or two daily.
"The most successful and wise people I know are the ones who knew when to give up the violin," he remarked. "I never could. I'm stuck with it."
But he would rather talk about Germany. He was in town not only for a concert with his pianist sister Hepzibah but for a special ceremony at the German Embassy: He received the Order of Merit of that nation.
As Ambassador Peter Hermes pointed out, it was for being one of the world's great musical geniuses -- but also for being the first international artist to perform in Germany after World War II, visiting West Berlin in 1946.
In those years he championed Wilhelm Furtwangler, the celebrated German conductor who stayed in Germany through the Nazi era and was ostracized by most of the musical world afterward. Menuhin is a Jew. His first name means Jew. Though he was born in New York and raised in San Francisco, his parents were Russian emigrants.
He talks about Germany without bitterness. Often what he says has the same magisterial calm, the serene "universal" quality that critics frequently notice in his music.
"I was merely doing what I thought I should do as an American and a Jew, trying to bring about another climate. Germany, like China today, was ready to be receptive to the new world. The dreadful thing is we've seen all this before, in Russia and China and Africa and now Cambodia.
"We in America, Britain and France have our share of these things -- our decimating the Red Indians -- but we have come a long way. We permit free expression, don't forget that. A tremendous achievement."
He is excited about China, which he recently visited -- he's had a World Citizens passport since 1954 -- though he is appalled that the concertmaster of the Peking Orchestra was imprisoned for nearly 10 years ("It's bad enough that the Jews are persecuted, but violinists too!") And he predicts that the Communist revolution there will fade away because it is running out of scapegoats.
"You can't have a revolution without scapegoats, and now they're down to the Gang of Four. They'll have to make them last a long time."
He is slightly shorter than you expected. But the famous domed forehead and fine, thin, bent eagle's nose make him seem taller. His eyes, deep pure azure, look straight at you but do not fix you. He is aware of what he says, gives away no secrets. Hands: not large but bony, not spectacularly articulate; good, competent servants. There is a scratch on one knuckle. The nails are pared very short.
There is so much to do. Cloistered in youth, drowned in music and the playing of it and the whole apparatus of concerts, tours and appearances, he delights now in broadening his life, even to the point that many critics accuse him of not being singleminded enough in his playing.
He remembers those first concerts, but so well had his parents protected him from the public that he hardly realized there was anything unusual about performing at 7.
"I do find myself eccentric in some ways," he said. "I try to drink chlorinated water. It's so hard to get good water anymore. You have Evian water -- imported from France! It seems terrible to deny 200 million Americans really good water. It's a high price to pay for our technology."
He used to travel with an oxygen tank because of the terrible air in the cities. That used to make concierges' jaws drop, but not anymore. He likes being something of a prophet, vindicated after decades. (He did yoga before most of us even heard of it, now is up to handstands.)
On the sill of his hotel window sits a plastic humidifier with bicarbonate of soda in its aerating dish.
Then there is his food store in London, where you can get healthy grains and meat from happy animals. He loves whole grains, wheat, oats, eaten in a bowl raw with apple juice. He believes in porridge.
"I'd like to open a restaurant with all the international varieties of starch foods: wheat, rice, poi, cassava, mealies, yams, everything, just that and soup.Don't you think it would be a hit?
He is basically vegetarian, but not desperate about it. He likes a lamb chop now and then. His wife, Diana, sticks to fish. In his diet, as in everything, he seems to take Robert Louis Stevenson's advice: Sit loosely in the saddle of life.
Which brings us to that gypsy, Stepan Grappelli. Grappelli, very likely the world's greatest jazz improviser on the violin, is an outrageous musician, scooping up through half the scale to reach the note he wants, embellishing wildly on the simplest transitions.
Lately the austere Menuhin has cut some records with Grappelli, and they are glorious; lyrical, free, rollicking -- the gods at play. Menuhin's pure, clean line intertwines with Grappelli's mad curlicues, blending miraculously to lift a nice little song like "Honeysuckle Rose" right out of its shoes.
"I love him. He will improvise on any sequence, in any key, any pattern, said Menuhin. "And each time it's different. When we made the records, we'd go through the songs several times. Each one was different. I love that spontaneous joy. It's too bad we've lost that in this literary civilization of ours."
Maybe this is what Yehudi Menuhin is trying to get across to us all, he who knows far better than most the danger of purpose turning into obsession.
"When I play I feel I am responsible for a living organism, for its existence. It has all the qualities of a living thing, a pulse, emotions, passion and serenity. And I'm entrusted with it. When I practice I explore, I search for ways to make each repetition different, for it is the aberrations that form the life of a piece. If you have perfect order, you have death."
The tools of his trade surround him in the hotel room. The Guarnerius waits in its open case. The music waits on its stand. His triumph is that he has learned not to be tyrannized by them.