Classical music: Tiny hands, sure grasp

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Despite the dire warnings of a certain former classical wunderkind, Korean-born Helen Huang appears to have survived a decade of her prodigious piano talent with happy equanimity. On the eve of her UK debut, Michael Church meets a regular girl with an extraordinary talent.

No one loves a fairy when she's 40: as any concert agent will tell you, the evanescent prime of prodigies implies a short shelf-life and a very hard sell. Nigel Kennedy's celebrated television attack on the prodigy-circus last year scored a direct hit, but the same programme (in C4's Naked Classics season) showed the time-lapsed flowering of a fairy who may prove the exception to the rule.

First image: six-year-old Helen Huang being lifted on to the piano stool, stretching out her chubby arms, and playing a Mozart sonata with such joyful precision that one was reminded of the infant Shirley Temple singing "Good Ship Lollipop". Second image: 10-year-old HH, still at the puppy- fat stage, but now playing a Mozart concerto with ease and authority. Third image: HH at 12, effortlessly dominating a chamber ensemble, and scampering off in her Doc Martens to hang out with her pre-teen mates. "I'm not a prodigy," she tells the camera. "I'm just a regular person, who happens to have a talent."

Look through press cuttings about her and you find that word "regular" cropping up again and again, in tandem with references to her "great gift". She's as determinedly ordinary in life as in her art she is extraordinary. She is looking forward to her London debut recital this Sunday as much for the sightseeing the trip will afford as for the music.

When I interview her, we start with the standard loop. "I really do have a great gift - not from heredity, because my family is not musical. I guess it must be a gift from God."

Yes, they are Christians, from Taiwan, which is where her pathologist father has gone back to live. "He couldn't get used to America, so my mother has raised us more or less on her own." She speaks with quick smiles and a frequent high-pitched giggle: interviews, she says, make her more nervous than appearing on stage.

Since the age of two, she has lived with her mother, elder brother and sister in New Jersey: all three siblings played the piano young, but Helen's gift scared the others off. Like Evgeny Kissin, she can't remember a time when she wasn't playing the piano and, like him, she has spent almost her whole life under one tutelage. She had her first lesson with Juilliard teacher Yoheved Kaplinsky when she was six: now 15, she intends to go on studying with her as long as possible.

"But when I was young, I wanted to be an animal vet or a teacher. I never consciously intended to become a pianist. The way it happened is kinda weird." She won her first competition at six, gave her first orchestral concert at seven, and at 10 captivated conductor Kurt Masur (music director of the New York Phil), who praised her "natural connectedness" with the music she played, and the fact that "she didn't play as a child".

Her daily routine now begins at 6.45am: after a normal day at her non- specialist high school, she comes home to do four hours' practice before starting homework, which can keep her up till 2.00. "But it's fine, it's the life I've chosen to lead. I don't want to close off other career options, and I still go out to see movies with my friends."

She spent most of her childhood playing Bach and Mozart because of her very small hands: even now she can barely stretch an octave, which rules out the big stuff by Liszt and Rachmaninov. (She should take heart from the glittering career of Harriet Cohen, whose world-beating Bach was in no way hampered by her inability to span an octave.) When asked whom she admires, she replies: "Old pianists. People like Rubinstein, who understood how much you have to give up, to get where you want to go."

She may not admit to concert nerves, but several times in our interview she returns to the pressure she feels under. "When I was younger, I just did concerts for fun, but now I know that I have responsibilities - to my parents, my management, and my record company. I have to live up to their expectations." You could interpret this as ominous, but you could also regard it as a healthy externalising of anxiety.

Teldec has already released two CDs by her: some Beethoven and Mozart concertos recorded when she was 13, and a medley of pieces by Villa-Lobos, Schumann, and Mendelssohn recorded a year later. And if Schumann's Kinderszenen ("Scenes from Childhood") lack the subtlety which (paradoxically) only maturity can bring, the Beethoven is spacious and heroic. Those tiny hands make a very big sound.

So what next? At the very least, an exhilarating concert at the Wallace Collection on Sunday. As for the future - or what Kennedy calls the musical rat-race - she's at pains to point out that others at the Juilliard routinely show more talent than she ("some of them are composing symphonies at eight!"). Does she feel the pressurised life she has chosen - or which has chosen her - has stolen her childhood? "No. I'm still having it!" That I can believe.

Helen Huang in recital: 11.45am this Sunday at the Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1 (0171-602 1416)

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