East Lyme's Max Tan throws his bow into violin competition

Max Tan of East Lyme, a member of the Harvard University Class of 2015 and concertmaster of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, is competing, beginning today, in the Menuhin International Violin Competition in Austin, Texas.
Max Tan of East Lyme, a member of the Harvard University Class of 2015 and concertmaster of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, is competing, beginning today, in the Menuhin International Violin Competition in Austin, Texas. Courtesy max Tan

The prestigious Menuhin International Violin Competition begins its first round today in Austin, Texas, and among the youth musicians vying for the title will be Max Tan, who grew up in East Lyme.

Tan was selected from about 300 applicants to be among the 42 musicians to participate. The finalists come from more than 30 countries around the world

This is the first time the competition has been held in the United States. It is broken down into two divisions, with a junior category for musicians ages 10 to 16 and a senior group for those 16 to 21. The winners in each group walk off with $10,000 and the loan of a vintage Italian violin for one year.

Tan - a junior at Harvard University, where he is studying human development and regenerative biology - had to submit a DVD of his performance of the pieces required to be considered for the Menuhin contest.

"I never thought I'd be able to participate, but I feel very honored to have this opportunity," he says.

Tan hasn't taken part in a great deal of contests but decided to take a chance with this one.

"One of the things that's unique about this competition is the age limit is set at 21. So competitors here are fairly young. I'm turning 21 next week. I felt like I might as well go for it and give it a try and see what happens," he says.

Tan actually began in music by playing the piano. He focused on the keyboard from age 4 to 9, before branching out to the violin.

He is currently concertmaster of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and he is involved with other musical ensembles and organizations in various capacities. Tan has been described by the New York Times as an "eloquent" musician and concertmaster and by the Boston Globe as a "warmly rhapsodic" player.

The Menuhin International Violin Competition, which runs through March 2, is divided into three rounds. In the first round, the pieces that the senior performers have to tackle include a Mozart violin concerto and a Paganini caprice of their choice. Those who make it to the finals will face a full concerto by Mendelssohn, Barber, Prokofiev or Saint-Saëns - and they'll perform it with the Austin Symphony Orchestra.

Judging will be a panel led by chair Pamela Frank, who has performed as a soloist with such esteemed groups as the New York Philharmonic and the Vienna Symphony.

Tan had been contemplating taking part in the Menuhin event since last spring, but he didn't make a final decision to apply until the summer.

"One of the issues was, what am I going to do with schoolwork? What am I going to do with other things I'm interested in, other projects I'm working on?" he says. "Obviously, being away from school for two weeks, there is a lot of work to make up."

Just on a regular basis, balancing his stem-cell biology studies with his music work is about time management, which Tan says he still finds challenging.

Unlike in high school, though, the college schedule is more flexible. So if he has a one-hour break between classes, for instance, he can use that time to practice. He even practices mentally; if he doesn't have time to physically touch his violin and practice, he can at least think about what he'd like to do.

As for eventually choosing between music and biology, Tan says, "I'm trying to keep both as long as I can, which is difficult. ... Come graduation, I have to decide: Do I want to pursue graduate studies or do music or do I want to do something else entirely? I haven't really made up my mind. ... I'm passionate about both things."

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