Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Kids today

Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and its 26-year-old conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, have garnered rapturous reviews from recent concerts in Britain and this country. Critics also have been hemorhaging superlatives in the wake of performances by the 20-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang (see previous post for a representative example). Jay Greenberg, a composer who turns 16 next month, had five symphonies under his belt by the time he was 14; a Sony-BMG recording of the Fifth has gotten rave reviews, and Joshua Bell premiered Greenberg’s Violin Concerto on Oct. 28 at Carnegie Hall.

Graze through classical Web sites and blogs, and you’ll read of more leaps into the big league by musicians yet to reach legal drinking age.

Musical prodigies are nothing new – Mozart was knocking wigs askew when he was 5; but it seems today that prodigious talents are maturing more rapidly, thus earning more respectful recognition sooner.

In recent dates, Wang has played the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Boston Symphony. In 2003 she played Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto with the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zürich. The Tchaikovsky is standard young-virtuoso fare. Beethoven 4, on the other hand, has been assumed to be music for a long-seasoned pianist. For a European orchestra of stature to engage a teenager (she was 16 at the time), however acclaimed, as the soloist in this concerto is a pretty radical departure from past practice.

Dudamel and the Bolívar, meanwhile, have been touring with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. This is the sort of repertory normally taken on tour by mature conductors and major orchestras. Not surprisingly, critics have picked nits with Dudamel’s reading; but none of the reviews I’ve read suggested that a 20-something conductor and an orchestra of teenagers were too young and inexperienced to give a convincing performance of it.

When will some authority – teacher, psychologist, anthropologist – weigh in on the accelerated maturation of young artists? Is the same thing happening in other fields that spawn prodigies? Math? Chess? Gymnastics? Is some 12-year-old about to sort out chaos theory and win a Nobel at 15?

And how do we account for it? Is it nature (self-selective breeding by overachievers?), or nurture (infant brain food? Suzuki? Mozart-for-babies tapes of the '90s worked after all?), or what?