John Walsh plays second fiddle to Vanessa-Mae Nicholson, the Nineties answer to Nigel Kennedy. Photograph by Harry Borden
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 24 January 1998
You would be, wouldn't you? The most seen-it-all Manhattan cabbie would raise an eyebrow if he found an unscheduled virtuoso in an abbreviated frock playing high-speed divertimenti on his canary-hued bodywork. She did it again two months ago, in Madison Avenue, when attending the launch of her friend David Tang's ritzy new clothes shop, Shanghai Tang. Surrounded by A-list luminaries (Jeremy Irons, Sarah Ferguson and her mum, David Frost, Isabel Goldsmith) flown over by the obscenely rich Mr Tang, Vanessa- Mae played selections from her new CD, China Girl, swaying and bowing with all the passion of her 19 years, on the roof of a (thankfully parked) limousine.
She launches China Girl here on Monday, and if she elects not to do the public-exhibition routine in Chinatown or at Tower Records, you can still catch it in Leicester Square on 1 February, when she'll be flaying the sexy fiddle to the accompaniment of a small orchestra, a band and some Chinese lion dancers. The critics will shake their heads about her technical deficiencies, the music snobs will bitch about her attempts at pop-classical "fusion", the tabloids will go "Phwoaarrr!" at her flimsy silk dress and the crowds in the Square will love every bold, hair-tossing minute of it.
In four years, this slender prodigy has become a one-girl zoo of talent, controversy and sassy marketing. Not since Nigel Kennedy first wrapped an Aston Villa scarf around his instrument has the fusion of classical music and pop promotion caused such a fuss. ("I think he and I share a common interest, which is to make as many people as possible love the violin, but I think we have different desires about what we want to play." Which, translated, means: "Jesus. Don't even think of bracketing me with that yob.")
Trying to establish how good Vanessa-Mae is at playing the violin has long seemed less important than assessing her role as a meretricious moneyspinner, writing her off as a gorgeous package got up like a miniature Asprey's box with nothing inside. Meeting her in the chintzy lounge of a Victorian hotel, I wonder how anyone could think of being horrible to her. She is beautiful in a number of ways, from the fullness of her huge lips to the glint of hauteur in her fathomless black eyes, and she hugs her crimson Issey Miyake coat around her like a comfort blanket. But within 30 seconds of encountering this doe-eyed ingenue, you realise why people might have given her a tough time over the years. For she comes across as an invention, a Stepford Girl, perfect in every millimetre of flesh and hair, but quite unreal. It's not just her face that is made up. Her conversation is, for the most part, a brilliantly edited recital of responses, some of them close to the subject under discussion, some of them careful little bromides and pieties, like a sort of booby prize you've been given instead of an answer. You know you'll never get behind the doll persona that's been invented for her - Sindy's Little Chinese Friend.
How did she come to choose the three compositions on China Girl? "I've always been trained, and always played," she says, "as a classical artist, in the Western style. As a child growing up, I went on my first international concert tour when I was 11. There was something I fell in love with on the Far East leg of the tour, and that was the Butterfly Lovers' Violin Concerto. I've grown up in London all my life as this little Western girl who has a link to China. But as soon as I heard that piece, there was something special in it that talked to me." The Butterfly Concerto, composed this century by Ho Zhan Hao and Chen Kang, turns out to be an amazingly lush pastiche of European romanticism, with a few vertiginous chromatic runs. Was it musically demanding? "It's quite virtuosic in parts. But I think it's challenging in so far that you're discovering a different culture and injecting your own personality into it. And also I wanted to show off the concerto to people like you who might never have heard Chinese music before." The remainder of the record features two of Vanessa-Mae's compositions, an 11-minute "violin fantasy" on Puccini's strongly oriental Turandot, and a six-minute Reunification Overture that was played in Hong Kong the night China got the province back.
Though technically as English as Yorkshire pudding, Vanessa-Mae plays the family Chinese card for all its worth. Her exact nationality is as complicated as an ideogram. Born in Singapore in 1978 to an English hotelier of Thai descent called Vorapong Vanakorn, and a Chinese mother called Pamela (see what I mean?) she was playing the piano at three. Her parents split up a year later, and mother and daughter came to London. She took up the violin at seven. At eight, she was the youngest pupil at the Central Conservatoire of Music in Beijing, accompanied by her mother, and stayed for six months. "It was a real culture shock for me," she says now. "I didn't speak Chinese, and the things the Chinese kids enjoyed were different from what I'd enjoyed as a child growing up. But I managed to adapt and blend well into the culture. And now I think, if I'd never gone to China except for a holiday, I'd find it really hard to communicate with the Chinese people. But because I went there at eight years old, I find I have more of a connection."
Her only true connection to the ancestral mainstream was through her wholly-Chinese grandfather, whom she remembers with wary fondness. He was responsible for her first-ever memory - of seeing the tip of his nightly cigarette glowing just beyond the end of her cot. He spoke little English, she spoke litle Chinese, and he rather disapproved of the direction her life was taking. "He worried about me, because in his generation, to be a singer or entertainer or musician was not a guaranteed profession. It wasn't respectable. He told my grandmother he was worried about how I would find a future." She raises an ironic eyebrow, this most alarmingly self-possessed of teenagers, and you begin to like her more. Though she never quite drops that interview-by-numbers routine, moments of off-message- feeling break in from time to time. Like when I ask if her grandfather ever sang to her. "He wasn't one for showing his feelings. He was born in the year of the dog, and they're very proud people. But he did go through a funny stage when he was dying of cancer. We were staying at our country house in Suffolk, and he'd go up to the pond and feed the koi carp. I heard him start to sing these really weird Chinese opera melodies to himself. I never knew him do anything like that before because he was so reserved in public, and used to be really embarrassed if I ever fooled around."
The country house and the expensive carp - Vanessa-Mae Nicholson has always, it seems, been a high-maintenance item, with a rich and doting family. Her mother, having left the hotelier in Singapore, married an English corporate lawyer called Graham Nicholson. The tiny Vanessa-Mae learned to ski at five; it has remained her second-greatest passion after music. She was dressed in designer rompers and has been indulged all her life. After her appearance at the Hong Kong handover, her parents gave her a present of a Cleopatran bath in milk ("cow's milk, not ass's", she says reassuringly). For her 18th birthday, they provided snow in London in October. Did she always get everything on her Christmas list when she was young? "I always grew up in a very loving family environment." she says, in I-speak-your-weight mode. "My mother always denies she spoilt me. She says if she ever did, it was because I deserved it. She was pretty strict about manners and grades. But I think I've had a very good childhood up to now."
Despite her mother's Svengali-like ubiquity in her career (Pamela Nicholson is credited as executive producer of China Girl and lyricist on the Reunification Overture; she is also a semi-professional pianist who sometimes accompanies her daughter on stage), Vanessa-Mae insists that she wasn't forced into becoming an infant prodigy. "My parents said, `We haven't pushed you in this direction, but now you've chosen it, you must take it as seriously as your father going off to work every morning and earning money every day as a lawyer." That was a bit of a facer for a nine-year-old, I say. "But I've always had respect for my music," she says simply.
Indeed. It's a dedication that secured a concert debut at 10. At 11, she joined the Royal Academy of Music. At 12, she was touring with the London Mozart players. Meanwhile, she went to the Frances Holland school in central London for her more orthodox education. I wondered how she'd stood the various traumas of being different, being brilliant, being Chinese in Baker Street, Anglophone in Beijing, being constantly on the move ... didn't she feel different at school? "No, I never felt that. They turn out really nice girls at Frances Holland."
Would she have liked to go to university? "Yeah, I'd like to in the future." To study what? "Oh, French or English or history.But if I wasn't in music, the only thing I could devote my life to is skiing. I'd only want to be a world-class, professional downhill Olympic skier."
For the moment, however, she has quite enough on her plate. Having found a niche in the classical racks as a crossover phenomenon, she's gone for the pop market with Storm, released last October, and has been re-born as a singer. You might have caught the video of her singing Donna Summer's "I Feel Love", her hair blown back by wind machine, her eyes sleepily alluring, her small pure voice insinuating its way against the relentless backbeat. A modern girl, she feels no strain about playing violin in different musical styles, from folk to techno to jazz, and back via Chinese classical, then switching to singing disco classics of the Seventies.
She starts a world tour in May. When I ask her if she thinks the teenybop audience is an important part of her public, and she says, "Yes I do think so. You've a daughter of 10, who plays the violin? That's a big part of my audience, definitely," and I realise she's right and that I've been stuffy and censorious and got her wrong, and that Vanessa-Mae is actually the very model of a modern, transoceanic, musically adventurous, culturally eclectic little diva who wants to be all things to all music lovers - well, you have to doff your hat to her. If only she didn't talk as if everything she does and says was scripted, blueprinted, storyboarded and filed away in some record company database, four or five years ago
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