Twenty years ago an 18-year-old violinist whose credentials included being a featured soloist for major symphony orchestras in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit and Boston would have been unusual. Today, while it's not exactly the norm, it's not all that unusual either.
The child prodigy is the current marketing gimmick for classical record labels and symphony orchestras everywhere. Seasoned pros may have trouble filling performance halls, but concertgoers are flocking to see teen and preteen virtuosos attack the classical repertoire. Of course, the standard knock on child prodigies is that while they play the notes flawlessly, they lack the interpretive ability necessary to transform a piece of music into a moving performance. So argue the purists, who insist such ability only comes with age and a broken heart. Fortunately for the young lions, today's audience seems to care little about what the purists think.
Tamaki Kawakubo was one of the many prodigies to gain a following during the early '90s, and at 18 she is already something of a seasoned pro on the classical concert circuit. A deceptively mature player, Kawakubo took up the violin at five, and later studied at the Julliard School of Music. By her early teens she was appearing as a soloist in front of major orchestras and had a televised appearance with the Boston Pops to her credit. The big story was Kawakubo's dazzling technique -- impressive even for a prodigy. Teenagers aren't supposed to play concertos by Barber and Paganini with ease.
Attractive and full of fire, Kawakubo quickly proved marketable for more than her talent and youth; she also had looks and stage presence. Her attendance figures were high, and many orchestras, including the Houston Symphony Orchestra, asked her back. She's even landed spots on TV shows like Entertainment Tonight and a cameo in the movie For the Boys.
Of course, technique and showmanship mean little if the music isn't there. In that area, Kawakubo is growing nicely, and this weekend's performances of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto -- a piece with transparent intonation -- should provide much insight into where she is right now. Expect to be pleasantly surprised.