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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The boy who would be Wagner

By Norman Lebrecht / May 30, 2007

A 14 year-old English boy is about to conduct his new ballet in Moscow. His picture has already entered the National Portrait Gallery as one of Britain’s most promising youngsters and the BBC’s Horizon programme has tested him among the most intelligent. He is the youngest student to be admitted to the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in St Petersburg, where one of his works was performed in concert last weekend alongside Mozart’s Requiem and Rachmaninov’s Liturgy.

Alex Prior is what used be to be called a child prodigy and is now regarded as a freak of nature. Were his gift of the sporting kind, he would be playing in gold studs at Wembley or Wimbledon and grinning from roadside hoardings from here to Calcutta. But modern times are suspicious of precocity and feel threatened by junior genius. When Ruth Lawrence, the home-educated maths wizard, went to Oxford aged 11, the consensus of press comment was that she had been deprived of her rights as a child and should be set loose for a few years in a bog-standard comprehensive. It is against such prejudices that Alex Prior will contend when he conducts Mowgli: The Jungle Book at Moscow’s summer festival in mid-June, and again at the Kremlin in November.

Alex is, by anecdotal account, a remarkable creature. Taken to Covent Garden at two years old by his Russian mother, Elena, he danced steps from Sleeping Beauty on the carpet when they got home. Elena, a sometime singing pupil of the Russian bass Evgeny Nestorenko, had come to England on a British Council scholarship and married Peter Prior, a Maidenhead businessman with four older children. Prior was unconvinced of Alex’s gift. ‘My husband didn’t want him to be a musician,’ says Elena. ‘He wanted him to play cricket and rugby, but when Alex played cricket he sang all the time.’

Sat at a piano, ‘he immediately began to improvise’. Taken to the junior department of the Royal College of Music, he was assured he would become ‘an outstanding composer’. Still in short pants, he sang at Carnegie Hall in an evening of Russian folklore and privately recorded a selection of opera arias. ‘Then he said: that’s not what I want.’ At 11, he composed a piano concerto. ‘He was never pushed,’ insists Elena. ‘It’s Alex who pushes; it scares me sometimes. But he’s very happy.’

At Dartington summer school two years ago musicians were taken aback when the boy walked into Stephen Montague’s composition class announcing ‘I am a genius.’ When Montague took issue with one of his assertions, Alex got up and walked out, followed by his mother.

He was ‘invited’ to study in St Petersburg, he says, after ‘some of the professors heard my piano concerto and were impressed.’ While I am talking to his mother on the phone, Alex prompts her loudly in the background. Now, the phone to his ear, he tells me how much he craved a conservatory education. ‘Weekends at the Royal College was not enough.’

He keeps up with schoolwork by seeing a tutor in England every few weeks and by following a correspondence course on computer. When I ask if he does not miss having friends his own age, Alex snorts with contempt. ‘Own age?’ he exclaims. ‘People here in the Conservatory are 10-15 years older than me. What’s important is people your own sort, not your own age. I don’t agree with general schooling – it’s too superficial.’

I ask what he is reading at the moment. ‘Ibsen. The Doll’s House. I’m writing an opera on it. Also Kalevala, the Finnish saga, and Beowulf – in the original Anglo-Saxon. I love ancient languages.’

I ask whether he has tried Harry Potter. ‘I read the first 20 pages. It’s not my taste. As a religious person, I find it devilish.’

A preposterous self-confidence suffuses his conversation, taxing the listener’s patience with a recitation of second-hand ideas. ‘All art, including my own, comes from God,’ declares Alex Prior, 14. ‘In this, Michaelangelo and Bach were absolutely right.’

His father, he mentions parenthetically, ‘is pretty much an atheist.’

Changing the subject, he announces that ‘I agree with (US composer) John Adams that music should bring joy to people. It is the only point where he and I agree.’ Of his Mowgli ballet, Alex insists that it is not a work for children ‘although they may enjoy it. Kipling is very deep.’

I wonder whether he has seen the cartoon version of The Jungle Book. ‘It really doesn’t depict what Kipling wants,’ scorns Alex. ‘I much prefer the Russian avant-garde version of Sofia Gubaidulina.’

What are we to make of such precocity? Musically, not very much. Although Alex admits to the influence of Wagner, Musorgsky, Sibelius and ‘the older Rimsky-Korsakov’, the leading voice in The Spring Running, asuite played on his website, is the ingratiating Tchaikovsky (dismissed by Alex as ‘slightly light’), with an overlay of para-modern instrumental effects. Elegantly finished, it leaves nothing to the imagination. Other works prove equally unadhesive.

What Alex displays is more of a productive facility than a creative gift, a youthful exuberance untamed by any degree of self-detachment. He may grow into something more but for the moment he depends on novelty value, commanding our amazement that a boy so young could move an orchestra to play.

He is not alone. Jay Greenberg, an American of the same age, had the London Symphony Orchestra record his fifth symphony last year for Sony, a work in which every technical demand was met except original interest. Another 14 year-old, Kit Armstrong, is studying at the Royal College of Music while completing a maths degree across the road at Imperial; his works have yet to reach the public ear.

What these boys have in common is the same impetus that drove Mozart to compose a symphony at six and Mendelssohn a piano concerto at 12. But the world has grown less naïve and the art of composition more demanding. It would be as unrealistic to expect an original composition from a child as it would an adult novel. Both require an immersion in experience, more than a gift with notes or words. Naivete is no excuse in a symphony or a novel.

Not that this will bother Alex Prior, whose destiny is secure - in his own estimation, at least. ‘I am going to learn German this summer,’ he tells me. ‘I see myself one day as chief conductor at Bayreuth.’

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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