Why the classical world is fascinated by young talent
Aged just nine, pianist Isabella Lu is the youngest person to headline at the Sydney Opera House. But she is by no means alone as a musical prodigy, Maxim Boon writes.
Classical music is shackled to more than its fair share of stereotypes – the highly strung prima donna, the rotund Italian tenor, the tortured composer and the megalomaniacal maestro, to name a few of the most iconic examples.
Most of these cliches have been relegated to the past, but one classical music trope still persists: the child prodigy.
There are few human endeavours that don't boast their own brand of prodigious youth; from advanced trigonometry to tightrope walking but perhaps more than in any other discipline, the child genius phenomenon lies at the heart classical music's most-hallowed histories.
One in particular stands out as the ultimate archetype. In the early 1760s, the aristocratic elite of Europe were abuzz with talk of a boy with extraordinary musical gifts. Touring the courts of monarchs and nobility across the continent, a precocious Salzburgian six-year-old filled countless gilded drawing rooms with music that left royal patrons agog.
However, the unparalleled prowess of the infant Mozart did not spontaneously emerge. His father, Leopold, a composer of only modest note, spent years cultivating Wolfgang's natural ability, abandoning his own career to champion the far greater talents of his son.
Indeed, focused parental support is a trait shared by virtually every prodigy, musical or otherwise.
To a point, this is the case for Isabella Lu, the nine-year-old Chinese-Australian pianist making her Sydney Opera House debut this week – the youngest musician to ever headline a performance there.
Unlike most prodigious children, however, her meteoric advances as a musician were not spurred on by parents who were also experts in the field.
"To be honest, we had never thought of her becoming a musician one day. She did learn songs quickly and responded to music actively when she was very young. But we did not realise that she might have substantial musical talent," says Isabella's father, Luke Lu, who works as a practitioner of Chinese Medicine.
"We got to know her abilities in the same way as putting puzzle pieces together to finally see the whole picture. We knew she loved the piano and music, but we did not know how advanced her abilities were until her teacher told us she had an uncommon talent for music, and that there was a huge potential in her which professionals would say is 'one in a million.' "
Born in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, Isabella relocated to Sydney with her parents and sister in 2014, at the age of 4. Now, just shy of her tenth birthday, she is embarking on her first Australian tour, hot on the heels of several successful performances in China last year. Not unlike the Mozarts, who toured tirelessly for years at a time, the Lu family have had to adjust to a more itinerant family life.
"Sometimes we've had to reduce working hours and negotiate a more flexible working time. But we don't really take these adjustments as sacrifices," says Isabella's mother Agnes He, a teacher. "We used to travel for holidays and now we travel for concerts. And music becomes part of our everyday life – as my husband puts it, 'cooking potatoes while listening to Bach.' "
Rare as prodigies are, the breakneck speed at which Isabella's star has risen is rarer still, sitting down for her first piano lesson just 2½ years ago, at the age of 6 – "which is said to be 'old' for a musical beginner," her father adds.
This rapid transformation from novice to virtuoso has been propelled by a strict practice regimen: 6½ hours a day during the school week and eight hours a day at weekends.
But if this is the "how" of a gifted child's ascent, what is the "why"? If the term prodigy seems a little clinical, those with a yen for more-exotic vocabulary may prefer the widely adopted German word "wunderkind".
Literally translated, it means "wonder child", and it's a curiously apt description that leads to a question: Is our adoration driven by the calibre of the performance or by the child producing it. Is our wonder commanded by the spectacle or by its substance?
Whatever the answer, it's a conundrum that has proved divisive in recent decades, both from within the music industry and without. There's no denying that public interest in musical prodigies is as healthy as ever.
Unavoidably, some of this popularity is rooted in the gimmick of a miracle child's freakish skill. Critics cite the same as a dismissal of prodigious talent, suggesting that while hothousing a child may make them technically impressive, it cannot substitute the emotional and musicological experience needed to truly understand the meaning of their performance.
There is, however, one innate advantage a prodigy may have over an adult counterpart. Unmoored from such hefty historical or philosophical pedigrees, a child may see fresh perspectives in familiar repertoire.
Tellingly, Isabella's touchingly uncomplicated passion for music is, for now at least, largely wordless. "I don't know why I love the piano – it's just very fun," she shares. "My favourite music is Bach. I don't really know why. I just think it is very beautiful and very energetic."
First published 11 April 2019, for Sydney Morning Herald.