At the age of 3, Vadim Repin liked to make musical noises with toys. At 4, his father gave him an accordion, which he planned to study when, at 5, his parents enrolled him in a music school in his Siberian hometown of Novsibirsk.
"But they said all classes were filled - except violin," Repin says. "So I took violin. A week later, I didn't even remember the accordion. Six months later, I gave my first concert."
Today, at 31, Repin is still at it, enjoying a busy career and a reputation for uncommon technical skill, a sumptuous tone (with help from the 1708 Stradivarius on loan to him) and artistic insight.
A month ago, he gave a sensational recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. "It was the best fiddle playing I've heard live in a long time, if ever," says Sel Kardan, a violist and executive director of the series. "I'm astonished that he doesn't have a bigger reputation in this country."
Repin's reputation is sure to get bigger in Baltimore, at the very least. He's back this weekend to help open the Vivat! festival with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, his first appearance with the orchestra since 1996. He has an admiring partner on the podium - and BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov is not easily impressed.
Remember what Herodias says in Oscar Wilde's Salome: "I don't believe in miracles. I have seen too many." The subject of prodigies invokes a similar response from Temirkanov - he has heard too many.
"A generation of young violinists has made the profession a little bit of a circus," Temirkanov says. "Many of them can play very fast and perfectly, but most don't know what they're doing onstage. Very few are really gifted, and most of these wunderkind just get worse as they grow older. One of the few exceptions is Repin. He's a wonderful musician. It's always a pleasure working with him."
Repin and Temirkanov are collaborating this time on the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Shostakovich. The score was finished in 1948, at the height of official condemnation of the composer's supposedly un-Soviet music, and published only after Stalin's death. The alternately brooding, sarcastic and defiant work presents considerable physical and intellectual challenges to a violinist.
"It's one of my absolute favorites," Repin says, "right along with Beethoven and Brahms. It has a really emotional side. It's universal in one way, so personal in another way. The first movement is all darkness, without a future, but the finale - it is like giving the finger to the system. There is hope after all, no matter what."
Repin, who now makes his home in Geneva, experienced the end of the Soviet era and the beginning of the new Russia. "I was lucky to get the best of both systems," he says. "My parents didn't have to worry about the financial side of my education in the Soviet time. And when it came time for me to be playing internationally, the system was breaking up and I was allowed to travel."
Those travels included a trip to Brussels, where he won the important Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1989, and concert tours of Europe, Japan and the United States. By the early 1990s, Repin was being recognized as an important new product of the famed Russian tradition of violin playing - romantic and patrician - that produced such legends as Oistrakh, Milstein and Heifetz.
Not that Repin necessarily accepts the idea of a distinct Russian style. "To my tastes, there are great artists everywhere," he says. "But there is a Russian tradition of learning, an attitude toward music that is different. Once you choose music, nothing else matters. All the time, your effort is directed to music. In other countries, you might get a law degree or something so that you can make a living first."
Repin's embrace of music is broad. Besides the standard repertoire, he recently added the Violin Concerto by American minimalist John Adams. "He proposed the idea to me," Repin says. "I played it in San Francisco and Chicago with him conducting. It was tremendously interesting to be able to ask him questions about the score, and to be one of the guys creating a tradition of playing this concerto." Another contemporary choice is Offertorium, a large-scale, deeply spiritual violin concerto - "A great, great work," Repin says - by prominent Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina.
The violinist's musical tastes also stretch beyond the classical. He enjoys jamming with authentic Hungarian gypsy fiddlers and is fond of jazz. He counts among his favorite memories jam sessions he had with two celebrated French jazz violinists - Stephane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty. These days, he's also very keen on African-American jazz violinist Regina Carter - "A helluva player with incredible technique," Repin says.
For a while, he seriously contemplated a project totally outside of musical spheres - becoming a paying passenger on a Soviet space mission. "I have friends in Moscow who are in this field," the violinist says, "so it was potentially possible. But [after the U.S. space shuttle disaster], I'm not interested anymore."
Instead, Repin will continue to do his soaring with a violin.
What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 8 tonight, 3 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $29 to $78