Kids on the Block

How the classical music industry devours its young

When Sommerfest convenes next week, July 12's concert will pivot on the Violin Concerto (1947) of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957), which the composer tailored for Jascha Heifetz, then at the summit of his still-unmatched powers. Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra propose to throw into the breach 11-year-old Yura Lee. Then, on Aug. 1, 13-year-old Han-Na Chang (coming off a deadly-dull concerto album) will be pitted against Haydn's Cello Concerto in D. Works that have stood as their respective composers' major statements in the genre are being entrusted to babes.

One danger in these highly competitive, highly demanding activities," says outgoing UM orchestra director Keith Clark, "is that talent is developed in a vacuum, isolated from the rest of life." Bach Society director Roderick Kettlewell points to the example of Mozart, paraded about Europe from ages 6 to 10 like a performing monkey, playing the violin blindfolded and the piano backwards. "He was fêted during these trips because he was this young freak," Kettlewell says. "Once the novelty grew old, his music and his genius were not appreciated."

The stunt aspect of the whiz-kid performer continues to be the tail that wags the artistic dog, with frequent collateral damage. Case in point: the 26-year-old violinist Midori, who burst on the scene at age 14. Industry sources currently claim that she's battling problems ranging from bulimia to controlling parents who would have her kept in enforced adolescence.

"I'm very nervous about that whole phenomenon," muses Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, "because of how harsh it can be on the development of a person. You see Midori [now] and these problems that she's having... because of parents watching [their children] grow from these adorable, little, sweet things to teenagers who are having boyfriends. All the things that could help them be more real as people become threats and stumbling blocks."

No question, classical music is in deep trouble. CD catalogs are glutted, "name-draw" artists are fewer and fewer, and finding a new star who can vitalize that zillionth "Four Seasons" is a crapshoot. Ya gotta have a gimmick, and prodigies are It. And for young violinists following that yellow brick road to the concert stage, Juilliard School is the Emerald City, and instructor Dorothy DeLay, the wizard. "She's perceived as a starmaker," laughs Juilliard grad Kettlewell. "There are those who believe she can finish a technique but can't build [one]. It's a political thing, as much as anything."

Why? Because DeLay's benediction can get you an audience with that cohort referred to in the business as "The Stern Gang" (a probable allusion to Menachem Begin's old terrorist front). The central kingmaker is the legendary Isaac Stern himself, flanked--depending on whom one believes--by Mstislav Rostropovich, Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and conductors Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim. The Stern Gang's concentration of power and perceived reach is such that nobody will criticize them openly. What, if any, obligations the young talents then feel to Stern & Co. is an open question and the subject of some speculation.

The Stern Gang's purported activities would only be the most unusual among those of a number of cartels operating in classical music. Given the high crash-and-burn percentage among classical musicians, new cannon fodder is always needed. On the Sommerfest slate, artistically blank Han-Na Chang is but the latest recruit.

In marketing departments, still more panicky tactics are tried. Soloists of both sexes have appeared topless on CD jackets, though rare execs like Denon PR director Dan Marks draw the line: "Some of the ways that the young artists have been promoted and made up to look even younger, I find distasteful." Marks cautions against the eventual backlash that awaits players who resort to sexpot gimmickry, as does conductor Keith Clark.

"One of the healthy aspects of pop," says the latter, "is that tastes change so quickly. If you use pop-music marketing technique, then you will probably have the shelf life of a pop record!" The most extreme example is a mediagenic young violinist whose flair for self-promotion has shocked even the jaded.

Yes, classical music has spawned its own Page Three Girl, Vanessa-Mae Nicholson, more often spotted in Britain's fashion pages than concert halls. In longhair music's all-time publicity low, Vanessa-Mae's press kit showed her with fiddle and wet T-shirt, filmy enough to reveal what one U.K. scribe delicately termed "her pelvic hair." "Jailbait" is one of the milder press descriptions deployed against this proto-Playmate. Fifty years back, talent was what made a classical star--no matter how homely. People like Vanessa-Mae, however, set a dangerous precedent in the growing objectification of classical performers.

Some young artists present cause for hope, like Sommerfest guest Gil Shaham (age 26), whose principal career threat has been described as Nintendonitis. By prodigy standards, Shaham was allowed a normal childhood, which has paid off in revivifying insight into "The Four Seasons" and Barber's Violin Concerto. Thirty-three-year-old Anne-Sofie Mutter, once a precocious celebrity, now tours selectively and midwives new music. When she finally recorded César Franck's warhorse sonata (DGG), it eschewed dazzle for an autumnal prescience.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue. Remember when you were 13? Now try to imagine yourself interpreting a Beethoven sonata, a Shakespeare sonnet, or "Send in the Clowns." However good you might be technically, only an exceptional child can possibly intuit and internalize the experiential wisdom that makes a great work of art.

Cellist Gregor Piatagorsky was asked by his students, "Master, should we practice eight hours a day?" To this Piatagorsky replied, "Eef a monkey practiced cello eight hours a day, after a while it could play preetty good cello. OF COURSE NOT! Go out, take a valk, talk to luffly girl." Meaning, of course, that ordinary life experience informs and enriches one's artistry.

There are exceptions. Yevgeny Kissin was all of 12 when he recorded both Chopin piano concertos (RCA) in one night, displaying a bardic mastery that puts many an elder to shame. "If there's a reason to believe in reincarnation," says Clark, "the maturity of these young people has caused me to contemplate it. The depth that one brings to a Bach adagio is what's remarkable. Unfortunately, it's the virtuosity that is most often explored."

"The profession is pretty heartless [with] this perfectionism that's put on them," says Fleezanis of her pubescent peers. "You listen to old recordings and they're slopping all over the place. I'm not advocating slop, but I don't believe in this squeaky-clean, everything-is-dependable sort of thing. You should be hearing the music, not the perfectionism. We shouldn't be afraid of our vulnerabilities."

When Anne-Sofie Mutter played Brahms's Violin Concerto last winter, she didn't play an impeccable string of notes. But would anyone there have traded Mutter's vulnerabilities and risk-taking for clueless impeccability?

Gil Shaham performs in the Sommerfest concert series on July 9 and 10; Yura Lee, July 12; and Han-Na Chang Aug. 1. Call 371-5656.

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