Chloë Hanslip: Musical Youth

Chloë Hanslip is the latest violin prodigy to rock the classical world - but you won't catch her sexing up her act, she tells Liz Hoggard
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A former child prodigy - she has been playing the violin since the age of two, and had her first recording contract at 13 - the violinist Chloë Hanslip seems remarkably sane. Especially when you consider that she was once nicknamed "Barely Gymslip" by the music press. She is also scarily bright. She took A-levels in German and music at the age of 12 and 13, and turned down a place at Oxford to pursue her music career. During our interview, she tells me that she is reading an improving diet of Umberto Eco and Seneca.

Now only 19, Hanslip is arguably our greatest new classical talent. Reviews for her new CD, an all-American album of works by John Adams, John Corigliano and Franz Waxman, have been rapturous. "Chloë Hanslip is the sort of musician every teenager forced to practise their scales dreams of becoming," raves Gramophone magazine this month. "The richness and clarity of her tone is beyond learning... this is the sort of performance that secures a reputation for life."

The new album, recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, marks her growing up in public. "When I was younger, people said, 'You've got to be careful about the transition,'" Hanslip recalls. "But I never thought, 'Oh, now I'm moving from being a wunderkind to a mature artist.' It's come very naturally to me. I've been carrying on my studies, I've been performing a lot, I've been doing more chamber music with fantastic musicians such as Christoph Richter, Ian Brown and the Sacconi Quartet. And while I'm still very much a soloist, it's brought a lot to my solo work."

She also credits her current mentor, Gerhard Schulz of the Alban Berg Quartet in Vienna, for her new emotional maturity. "Something I've learnt in the last few years is not always to give everything all at once. Not to show the audience what you want them to feel, but to let the music speak for itself."

Critics rhapsodise about her "lyrical imagination" and "full-blooded sound" - the way she can deconstruct the notes of a piece such as Adams's Violin Concerto, then put them together as a cogent narrative that sounds like her very own interpretation. Her violin, they claim, zigzags and breakdances. She is intense, passionate, sensual, but not without a cheeky waywardness. How does she know so much about life so young? "I think people do see a personality there. But it's in-built rather than put on. When I play, I just lose myself completely in what I'm doing. I forget everything."

In person, Hanslip is a 4ft 11in ball of energy. "People who see me after a concert say, 'Goodness, you're absolutely tiny. We thought you were 6ft tall.'" In the Nineties, there was a tendency to "sex up" female classical-music stars (one thinks of the supergroup Bond or the wet T-shirt poses on Vanessa-Mae's breakthrough album, The Violin Player), but Hanslip is being marketed with real sophistication. On stage, she's more likely to be in a high-waisted Alice Temperley dress than a miniskirt. "I'm not really the kind of person who would show everything. I let the music speak for me." Only the Callas-style eye makeup gives her a touch of exoticism.

But then Hanslip isn't a classical crossover star, she's the real thing. And she has powerful supporters. She has performed twice for the Duke of Edinburgh. The opera singer Bryn Terfel invited her as the first ever instrumentalist to play at his Faenol Festival's Opera Night. "He's so warm and so generous, I think of him a bit as an elder brother." She gave the European premiere of Sir John Tavener's Ikon of Eros. And at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Festival, she performed the world premiere of the first act of Phantasia, an arrangement of tunes from The Phantom of the Opera, with Lloyd Webber's brother, Julian.

In fact, Terfel has just won the prestigious Shakespeare Prize (previous winners include Ralph Vaughan Williams, Margot Fonteyn and Sam Mendes). Part of the prize involves awarding a scholarship to the most promising performing artist of the next generation - and Terfel has chosen Hanslip.

Born in Guildford in Surrey, Hanslip has always been precocious. By the age of two, she was playing a tiny 16th-size violin. At four, she performed solo at the Purcell Room. A year later, Yehudi Menuhin invited her to study at his school. By seven, she and her mother had moved to Germany to continue her studies with the Russian pedagogue Zakhar Bron, who taught Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin (her father commuted over from the UK at weekends). By 10, she was playing in major concert halls throughout Europe and North America. At 13, she was the youngest-ever recording artist to be signed to Warner Classics UK. In 2000, she was awarded a scholarship by the Sibelius Foundation, one of Norway's highest honours. Two years later, she made her Proms debut, and she is now a regular on Radio 3 and Classic FM. Her second album, Bruch - Violin Concertos Nos 1 & 3, won her the Classical Brits Young Performer award in 2003.

You assume that she must be the offspring of exceptionally pushy parents, but the start of her career was almost accidental. Hanslip is the youngest of four children. Her sister, Virginia (18 years older), trained as a pianist at the Royal Academy of Music. One day, she was practising at home on the family Steinway, when baby Chloë tottered over and picked out the notes with one finger - rather to her elder sister's chagrin. Her parents didn't want another pianist in the house, so they started her on the violin. As a child, her mother recalls, Hanslip was a classic late baby, full of "tremendous energy". "She was good at pretty much everything she tried: riding, ice-skating, skiing. She had a board full of medals for dancing."

When she was 10, Hanslip was chosen to feature as the "infant prodigy violinist" in the film adaptation of Onegin, which starred Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler. "It was such fun. They gave me 10 days to learn the cadenza from the Devil's Trill sonata by Tartini, which is one of the hardest pieces in the repertoire. I remember being very disappointed, though, because I thought I was going to get lots of hair and make-up, and Martha Fiennes, the director, said, 'Well, you've got the perfect Russian complexion, you don't need any make-up.'"

Hanslip does have considerable self-assurance and a steely determination. It can't have been easy for her parents to live separately while she studied in Lübeck in northern Germany, for example. "My mother had retired from running her ballet school and was planning to grow old gracefully. Then she had me at 46, so that sort of went out of the window! My parents are both wonderful and they have devoted a lot of time to me."

But Hanslip has known setbacks, too. At school in Germany, she was bullied by older children for being young and small and English ("they bent my thumbs back and hit me on the head"), so from the age of 10 she was taught at home. And, while she insists that she has never felt pressurised by her career, she did develop an alter ego - called Annie - to act out her tantrums. "She was around from when I was four to 10. She was my little gremlin, if that doesn't make me sound too psychotic."

Today, she lives for performing. "My therapy for dealing with nerves before I go on stage is to jump up and down like a maniac. It gets the adrenalin going." But she is the first to play down the "glamour" of touring. "Often all you see is the hotel and the concert-hall practice room. It can be lonely for my mother because I just practise five to six hours a day. So I travel mostly on my own."

How does she relax? "I go to the gym, I love swimming. I do a form of Pilates for my posture - because, playing the violin, you're hunched over in a rather unnatural position for hours on end. Mum and I go salsa dancing. I also do bhangra and Bollywood dancing. And I have the usual female weaknesses: chocolate and retail therapy." Support comes from her Christian faith, although she admits that she is thinking of converting from the Church of England to Catholicism, "because it has too much modernisation. I like Catholicism: they stick to their views." Does touring ever get lonely? "I'm lucky that pretty much everywhere I go, I have friends there. I have to rely on MSN and texts to stay in contact... Let's just say phone companies get good business from me."

While her earlier discs for Warner Classics embraced the Romantic repertoire, on the new CD Hanslip is tackling the American Modernists. As well as Adams, she loves Philip Glass and has toured his Violin Concerto around Europe with the Czech Philharmonic. You sense that it is a timely escape from playing Bruch for the hundredth time - although it first put her on the map. "People might be surprised," she agrees. "The Adams is quite an extraordinary concerto. He said that he wanted the violinist and the soloist to 'sing' throughout. It's very exciting because there are lots of different cross-rhythms and the last movement especially is very, very cool. John Corigliano's Chaconne comes from the film The Red Violin. And the Waxman Tristan and Isolde Fantasia is wonderful - perhaps slightly over-the-top, but I love it. And it's also quite an unusual combination with violin, piano and orchestra."

It's slightly unnerving to meet a teenager who has "a family" of agents around the globe (nine at the last count). But Hanslip is no snob. She likes listening to the Black Eyed Peas, Gwen Stefani, Gorillaz and Linkin Park. She's also passionate about cars - and has already written off at least one Mini. "What you see is what you get. I'm a pretty normal person who just happens to be able to play the violin... I love my life and I wouldn't change it for the world. I feel very privileged that I have the chance to give so much pleasure to people."

Chloë Hanslip's recording of John Adams's Violin Concerto is out on the Naxos label