Life experience adds depth to childhood technical skill


May 26, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Midori, who will play Brahms' Violin Concerto this week with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, is only 19. That's unusual but not really remarkable. There are several -- though not many -- violinists who have played such profound concertos with important orchestras at so precocious an age.

What is remarkable is that Midori, who made her debut with the New York Philharmonic at age 10 and whose violinistic feats with the Boston Symphony made the front page of the New York Times at age 14, has been famous for so long. The violinist's appearance is the BSO's hot ticket this season, and the only way to get one is to beg, borrow or steal.

But Midori is just one of a number of ex-prodigies who have made the transition in the last several years to successful adult artist: Violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Matt Haimovitz and -- perhaps most prodigious of all -- pianist Evgeny Kissin are just a few of the others.

Almost all great pianists, violinists and cellists come from the ranks of the prodigies. What is unusual about all these youngsters is that each had public careers, albeit carefully monitored and not exploited. After several dec- ades in which prodigies were kept out of the public eye, there now seem to be more of them than at any time since the late 1920s when the 12-year-old Yehudi Menuhin's fame and box-office receipts unleashed prodigy fever upon the world.

This is at least partly a consequence of the remarkable success of the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in the late 1970s. At 12 she made her first successful recording with the great conductor Herbert von Karajan and at 16 she crossed the Atlantic to make debuts with every important American orchestra. Now in her late 20s, she has one of the most successful careers in the world and is living proof that a child prodigy can be carefully nurtured while still enjoying a public career.

Mutter's graceful leapfrogging over several of the other violinists of her generation seems to have impressed concert managers and audiences enough to overcome the bad reputation that prodigies used to have. Part of that awful reputation was based on the 1957 publication of Ruth Slenzcynska's "Forbidden Childhood," in which that ex-prodigy revealed how her father deprived her of food, beat her and otherwise abused her so that she would practice nine hours a day.

But even before that, interest in prodigies had waned because musical taste (in the United States at least) had matured. The circus aspect of prodigies -- children performing adult tasks -- was no longer as attractive because the public had finally realized that children can never (or, at least, rarely) play with the maturity of adults.

Prodigies arise only in music, chess and mathematics (including computer science). These three disciplines are characterized by complex rule structures that are not dependent upon life experience -- as, for example, writing or painting are. Prodigies have been programmed by their genes to learn at a very early age what the rules are and to manipulate them with extraordinary skill.

Musical prodigies usually occur only on piano, violin and occasionally cello because miniature string instruments require the same technique as regular models and because the action of a piano allows even 3-year-olds to produce sound effortlessly. Wind or brass or brass instruments require too much lung power or lip power for a child.

It's also important to remember that prodigiousness is primarily re-creative rather than creative. Mozart and Mendelssohn were both keyboard whizzes and they were writing music with adult competency at the age of 7. But they did not begin to write music that can be called great until they reached the age of 16 (in the case of Mendelssohn) and 18 (in the case of Mozart), when both were no longer boys.

Likewise in chess and mathematics, prodigies often exhibit extraordinary fluency -- beating great adult players or solving very difficult problems -- but almost never make a major creative achievement until their later teens.

The reason so many pianists and violinists come from the ranks of prodigies is that training on those instruments must start early when the muscles are flexible and the mind is receptive. While there are plenty of examples of musicians reaching interpretive greatness late in life, one can usually be sure that technical problems on those instruments had been solved long before the players' teen years were over.

But what can make the prodigy's transition to adulthood difficult is that in addition to all the problems of adolescence -- sexual development, separation from parents and rebelliousness -- the child must also take leave of intuition and figure out how and why he or she plays the way he does. It's the time when, to quote Yehudi Menuhin, "the goose may lose its ability to produce golden eggs." Menuhin himself was an example of such problems. In his late teens, he went through a crisis of self-doubt from which his violin playing never completely recovered.

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