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Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Nintendo : Music: O.C. family is gifted with a pair of piano prodigies, ages 11 and 8.

August 13, 1995|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA — When he was 4 years old, he would sit at the piano and terrify his parents, his talent so out of sync with his cherubic face that it seemed supernatural.

Timidly, they brought him to a teacher well-known for her work with prodigies, hoping she could offer some guidance about special schools, some advice about coping with a precocious child.

After hearing the boy play an impassioned, powerful program, after watching him render a grand piano helpless with his tiny hands, the woman could utter only one word.

"Amadeus," she said in an awe-struck rasp. "Amadeus."

Seven years later, Arthur Abadi has astounded thousands more people with his mature gifts, while disarming them with his wild mop of orange hair.

At 6 years old, he made his professional debut with a full symphony orchestra.

At 7, he demonstrated for his composition teacher a "complete mastery" of the piano and an "exquisite, velvety touch" that maestros five times his age would envy.

Now, for the lithe-fingered 11-year-old who plays Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Nintendo, the greatest test yet has arrived.

Fresh from performing a fiendishly complicated set of pieces Saturday night with the Orange County Symphony, he leaves for New York next week to attend the internationally renowned Juilliard School.

To finance his bright future, Marden and Debbie Abadi have drained their savings, sold their assets and mortgaged their condominium in Rancho Santa Margarita.

These are hectic, heady days for the Abadis. Between packing their house, counting their pennies and preparing to follow their pre-pubescent son east, the former high school sweethearts sometimes stand in their kitchen looking stunned.

Over coffee, they whisper pianissimo about the boy in the next room, the boy who one conductor recently predicted would become "a musical giant of this century."

But it is not just Arthur who worries them.

Arthur's 8-year-old sister, Nomi, plays piano too.

And she's terribly, frighteningly good.

*

Long before he was born, his mother saw his face.

Browsing in a museum gift shop, she glimpsed a copy of a famous Rembrandt, a portrait the artist painted of his son.

On an impulse, Debbie Abadi bought the print and toted it home.

This is what our son is going to look like, she told her husband.

"She had a premonition," Marden Abadi says, smiling at the portrait, which does indeed bear a vivid resemblance to pictures of the 4-year-old Arthur.

Debbie is a student of the fine arts, Marden a music teacher and former concert pianist who gave several nationally televised recitals in honor of the U.S. bicentennial.

(He also was a friend and consort of the legendary pianist Artur Rubinstein, after whom Arthur is named.)

Together, they made it a goal to fill their home, and their infant's ears, with the loveliest notes ever sounded in Western civilization, from Handel to Hank Williams.

The results were immediate.

When he was 1 year old, his parents took him for a daylong trip to Disneyland. Before they could carry him inside the amusement park, he glanced over a foot bridge and spied seven mechanical fish leaping in time to some tinny, recorded music.

Something about the music and the dancing fish fascinated him.

Repeatedly, his parents tried to coax him into the park, but he clung stubbornly to the bridge.

"He watched [the fish] until the park closed at night," Marden says. "We couldn't leave. I brought [Debbie] coffee. I brought her yogurt. We spent the whole day at Disneyland on that stupid bridge, watching the fish. He was studying the fish."

At 2, he was a rabid fan of opera, particularly the complex genius of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi.

At 3, he was as thrilled to meet Mikhail Baryshnikov as most children are to meet Mickey Mouse.

When it was clear that Arthur needed some formal instruction on the piano, the Abadis were disappointed by every teacher they interviewed. So they resolved to become their son's in-home instructors, training him in the Suzuki method, which stresses close listening, repetition and parental involvement.

They work hard with each child, six days a week, four hours a day. But they put more faith in genetics than practice. Effort, they say, is a slave to fate.

"A lot of what has happened in our lives is destiny," Debbie says. "We've just intuitively followed along."

Marden sees a gardening analogy in his work with the children.

"You can seed a rose," he says, "but you can't make a rose out of celery."

In their few spare hours, the Abadis read voraciously about Western civilization's greatest minds--Newton, Einstein, Mozart--and searched for a pattern.

"It's amazing, historically, how many brilliant children have come from older parents," Debbie says. She thinks it intriguing, and possibly significant, that she and Mozart's mother were the same age, 36, when they gave birth.

She also thinks it more than coincidence that Mozart had a brilliant sister, Nannerl, said by scholars to have been his equal, at least in potential.

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