If you hear strange sounds coming from College Park in the next week, it's not a new form of cicada or a parliament of cats. It's more than 300 violinists tuning up for the First American Violin Congress, which will be held on the University of Maryland campus from Tuesday through Saturday.
The university, which is the host to an international piano festival and competition every July, has also arranged conclaves for the players of various other instruments in recent Junes. A few years ago, there was the memorable cello festival, with Mstislav Rostropovich presiding, that led to the formation of a national cello association. In other years, there have been specialized gatherings for instruments ranging from the plaintive oboe to the noble tuba.
This year, with no less a figure than Sir Yehudi Menuhin in charge, the university has finally gotten around to the most familiar of all classical instruments. Considering that in your average symphony orchestra the violins outnumber the tubas by about 40 to one, the most surprising thing about this meeting is that it is only the first American violin congress.
In a string quartet or an orchestra, the violin tends to be a cooperative, gregarious sort of instrument, possibly because it is awkward for a violin to produce more than one note at a time without a little help from its friends. In contrast, most of the time, when a pianist is at work, he tends to be the only one of his kind on the stage -- and he can produce 10 notes at a time without even bringing his elbows and forearms into play. So the June atmosphere in College Park is likely to be even more harmonious than it will be in July, when the piano contestants flock together while trying to eliminate one another.
Actually, the piano -- the constant and reasonably faithful companion of the violin in most recital programs -- will be given quite a bit of attention during the congress. "Perhaps the most outlandish of my suggestions was that we should bring a piano tuner over from France," Menuhin said in a recent interview. "Like my other suggestions, it was taken up with enthusiasm. So the man I consider the best tuner in the world, Serge Cordier from Montpellier, will be talking on the best way to tune pianos for performance with stringed instruments.
"He's a great authority, the author of a scholarly book on tuning through the centuries, and whenever my sister and I play in Montpellier he always tunes the piano . . . He makes it sound twice as resonant because the notes help each other; they don't fight each other. I really suffer, playing with pianos that are tuned according to the equal temperament with out-of-tune fifths. Serge Cordier is tuning a series of pianos his own way and others will be tuned the usual way, and the violinists, cellists and pianists will have an opportunity to play with these pianos and compare.
"I also suggested folk music, and we'll have American hillbilly and western music and jazz, improvised music and concerts of American contemporary violin music. We will have classes; we expect a great many teachers to come. And I have some pet approaches, pet theories that I'm anxious to put into effect, particularly for the left hand. I find that very few violinists handle the violin in the best way.
"There will be discussions about the role of the violinist in present-day society, his music, his career, his function. Then there will be concerts of chamber and orchestral music and concertos. It will be a very full schedule and one that I'm really looking forward to."
When they are not attending lectures and symposia on such subjects as "What Kind of Violinists Are Most Valuable to a Community?" or "Balancing Your Life for a Successful Career," the assembled fiddlers will be browsing exhibits of violins, accessories and sheet music, ancient and modern, playing or hearing concerts or just talking shop with Menuhin and the dozens of other distinguished violinists who are talking or playing or both during the congress.
The performers and panelists range from distinguished veterans such as Josef Gingold, Joseph Fuchs, Ruggiero Ricci and Joseph Silverstein to relative youngsters like Daniel Heifetz and Joshua Bell. And what the guests can't find on the campus, they may be able to find downtown on Friday when they are bused en masse to the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian for encounters with historic instruments.
In their spare time, the delegates will be rehearsing for the grand finale of the congress, featuring the Congress Violin Orchestra -- i.e., themselves.
Menuhin talks about the congress as one of the rewards of his long, busy life. "The rewards of age are really delightful," he says. "I'm enjoying this period of my life very particularly because I'm still active and, at the same time, there's the benefit of a fairly long career -- over 60 years -- and having played and studied with some of the greatest musicians of the century. And now I am able to work with all these wonderful young musicians."
On the whole, Menuhin finds that young violinists today "are quicker and more accurate than they used to be. The majority don't handle the left hand as ideally as I would like, but in our time, physical skills like gymnastics and swimming have taken on an importance they never had before, and I think some of this comes through in the teaching of young performers."
He also notes a welcome return to an emphasis on musicality and creativity in performance, as opposed to sheer technique. "For a long time," according to Menuhin, "if they could ape a good recording of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, that was good enough, and many careers have been made on relatively limited repertoire. I don't think that's possible today any longer. The sonata has come to be established as an integral part of any recital program, and a contemporary work is generally expected. The public now is ready for a variety of styles ranging from Bach to boogie-woogie."
As president of both the English and the European associations of string teachers, Menuhin believes young violinists enjoy a much better quality of teaching than in the past. "There have been great strides in the quality of basic teaching," he says. "We have audibly raised the standard -- not that it is yet everything it should be."
He also finds improvement in the life style of the average violin teacher. "He used to be such a lone man, enjoying very little contact with anybody else, teaching in his little room whatever he had learned in Russia or Germany or wherever he may have been," Menuhin says. Now the teachers' associations "not only have annual meetings of the whole group internationally, but we have dozens of local meetings at every level, city, county, regional and national. We have a publication which I think is one of the best publications in the world -- no murders, no political assassinations, no terrorism, no suicides, no divorce. It only speaks of wholesome, good subjects such as vibrato and style in playing Mozart and ways to teach intervals or that sort of thing."
One of the major changes in music since Menuhin's days as a child prodigy is in the audiences. "Concerts have become a little more formal than they used to be," he says. "In other words, the standees in the audience no longer rush forward to the stage at the end of a concert and demand five encores. Today the audiences generally remain seated.
"With radio, television and records and so many other things, the people who come to concerts are admirable. I wonder often that they will brave the bad weather and the streets to come to concerts. But concerts are not the only music they get. When I was a boy, there were very few recordings, certainly no recordings of the major works. The only way people could hear them was at concerts and a concert was a tremendous occasion, a very important occasion. Today, concerts take their place alongside other musical opportunities. And however enthusiastic an audience is, they don't surge forward. On the other hand, the standing ovation has become fairly regular. It happens much more often than it used to happen."
In his own relation to the violin and to life in general, Menuhin at 71 feels that he is still "improving."
"It's very curious," he says, "it's a race against time. With one's mind and one's understanding of the violin, one can refine one's playing. There may be certain things in matters of speed that are no longer what they were at one time. Thus, I haven't played the Paganini perpetual motion in public for some years. But if I can play Beethoven and Brahms and Barto'k and Bach and Mozart and Elgar, I'm quite content.
"It's also rewarding because the years have brought these young people into my life, whom I teach and many of whom are by now already enjoying very respectable careers . . . The violin is a very close companion, almost a part of one's body . . .
"You learn that you can only coax it, you cannot command it. You learn matters of subtlety . . . You'd have to ask my wife if it makes one a better or a worse husband, but it's a wonderful companion, and I must say the ability to play and express yourself and make a good sound is a great satisfaction. To communicate with other people, to establish a bond between the composer and the audience which goes through the performer, it's a form of mission."