The new Mozart? 11-year-old prodigy heading for Galway

From Schubert and Mendelssohn to 11-year-old Alma Deutscher, Finghin Collins is about to present a whole weekend of music written by composers aged under 18

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In the context of classical music it’s almost impossible to hear the words “child prodigy” without conjuring up a mental image of a cherubic Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart producing a torrent of notes from a keyboard, arms flying, tiny toddler legs way too short to reach the floor.

Such is the prevalence of the prodigy in this milieu, however, that it’s not difficult to reel off a string of prodigious names from more recent times. The Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich made her orchestral debut at the age of six. A seven-year-old Yo-Yo Ma played cello for John F Kennedy. The biggest name on the classical music scene, Lang Lang, was inspired to become a professional pianist after watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon featuring “the cat concerto” – aka Liszt’s second Hungarian rhapsody – when he was just two.

But when he decided to make Prodigy the theme of this year’s Music for Galway Midwinter Festival, artistic director Finghin Collins took a slightly different approach to the word. And so the festival programme focuses on compositions, rather than performances, by young musicians.

“I’ve always been fascinated by certain pieces of music that I’ve played or heard over the years,” he says. “There’s a Schubert song called Gretchen am Spinnrade, and I’ve always been blown away by the fact that he was 16 years old when he wrote that. It’s got such maturity, and it’s so perfect. Then you come across Mendelssohn’s Octet, which has four movements and is totally accomplished and brilliant – and he was 16 when he wrote it.

“So I just thought, wouldn’t it be lovely to have a whole weekend of music where every piece was written by a composer before they got to the age of 18?”

According to the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, it was Mendelssohn, not Mozart, who was the ultimate child prodigy, composing 13 string symphonies, four operas, choral works and plenty more while he was in his teens. To compare his work and that of Mozart at the same age was, Goethe declared, like comparing “the prattle of a child” to “the cultivated talk of a grown-up person”.

Collins has also programmed music by the Bilbao-born Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, known as “the Spanish Mozart”, and by Erich Korngold, who, in later life, would decamp to Hollywood and write Oscar-winning scores for movies starring Errol Flynn.

Astonishing mastery

But in Galway, on the afternoon of Saturday, January 21st, all eyes will be on the young English musician Alma Deutscher, who is both a performing and composing prodigy. Not only does she show an astonishing mastery of several instruments, she has also been composing since she was six years old, with piano and violin sonatas, string quartets and a full-length opera under her belt. She will present and perform some of her own music in Galway, alongside works by the young Beethoven and Clara Schumann.

There can be no doubt that Alma Deutscher’s talent is as dazzling as the young lady herself is disarmingly modest. Not everyone, though, applauds classical music’s ongoing passion for the prodigy. Dissenting voices ask whether it’s acceptable for audiences to be so easily charmed by the wow factor of accomplished child performers, especially if it means the work of older, arguably more emotionally mature musicians is relegated to second fiddle.

The American psychologist and cultural commentator Andrew Solomon points out that although musical prodigies are sometimes compared to child actors, “no one pays to watch a six-year-old playing Hamlet”.

Does Collins, who was himself an old hand on the concert platform at a relatively young age, have a theory as to why this type of music produces so many early achievers?

“I suppose if you’re going to have your child playing music when they’re four or five, you’re not going to put them in a rock band – it’s probably the piano or the violin,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re very, very young. There are lots of things you can’t do. Both the piano and the violin lend themselves to youth and precocity, and then young players gradually build up repertoire and technique.”

As far as composition is concerned, he agrees that few of the compositions written by young composers are likely to be game-changers in musical history.

“Take the Mahler piano quartet, which we’ll have in Galway,” he says. “It’s like a sketch, or a fragment, or an attempt to write a longer piece. It’s Mahler trying out composition really. You couldn’t say it’s in any way experimental. But it’s a very beautiful, very dark, very dramatic piece.

“Many composers were incredibly self-critical and destroyed a lot of their works [from their youth]. Janacek did. So did Duparc. But I don’t think people like Mozart and Mendelssohn and Schubert even had time to look back at what they did. They were so busy, in such a frantic race for composition – and, in many cases, died young.

“But what strikes me across all of the music I’ve programmed for the festival is that it doesn’t sound like music written by a child. That’s what unites all these prodigies: that they were able somehow to produce music of an incredible standard.”

The Music for Galway Midwinter Festival, with Anna Devin (soprano), Christian Chamorel (piano), Alma Deutscher (piano and violin), the ConTempo quartet and the Esposito Quartet, is at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway over the weekend of January 20th to 22nd; musicforgalway.ie

A NEW MOZART? ALMA DEUTSCHER

When she arrives in Galway to make her Irish debut, 11-year-old Alma Deutscher will be just back from Vienna, where a production of her two-and-a-half-hour long opera Cinderella earned her a standing ovation at the Casino Baumgarten theatre.

Deutscher’s father, Guy, is an Israeli-born linguist who has written several books on language. Her mother, Janie, is a former organ scholar and teacher of medieval English literature who hails from Co Wicklow. Alma’s younger sister, Helen, is also a talented musician. Alma herself could play the piano at two, the violin at three and could read music before she could read words.

According to her father, Alma had hoped she would learn to read on her first day at the local school and was frustrated when this didn’t pan out, so both girls are home-schooled. This allows Alma to spend at least five hours a day involved in musical activities of one sort or another. She likes to compose while twirling a skipping rope and running around outdoors; she also has weekly lessons at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

Is she, as Stephen Fry tweeted to the world at large after watching the videos on her YouTube channel, a new Mozart?

“What she is doing now is definitely no less sophisticated than what Mozart was doing at her age,” her father says. “What that says about the future, only the future will tell.”

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