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Heart Strings

She is a 12-year-old cellist. He's a top author. But the prodigy and the writer have something in common: a passion for music.

September 04, 1997|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a difference between performing music and playing it.

On this particular night, Bronwyn Banerdt is playing. Her motions are balanced, fluid, the voice of her cello as natural and unfettered as her own.

She has been called by some a prodigy, a musician whose skills seem beyond her 12 years. Recently returned from touring Russia, Norway, Sweden and Finland with the New England Youth Symphony, she now sits onstage alongside author Mark Salzman, who has written a novel about prodigies.

Salzman's eyes grip each note with a seriousness and tenacity that--somewhat surprisingly--are his nature when it comes to music and, in particular, Bach. His jaw is tight, his movements on the cello carefully measured.

After each piece, Salzman's expression is one of wide-eyed glee, as if he were coasting to a stop, having somehow survived a whirlwind roller-coaster duet. The weight of his smile seems to push him back in his chair onstage at the Westwood United Methodist Church, the momentum forcing his right foot off the floor. At such times, it's debatable which one's the kid.

His exuberance prompts Bronwyn to scrunch her nose, pinch her eyes shut in laughter. Certainly she has played with more talented musicians, but usually it's not this much fun. His joy becomes hers.

The recital, sponsored by the West Los Angeles Symphony to thank its supporters, is an intriguing mix with Bronwyn, a rising star, and Salzman, 36, twice nominated and once a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

In his book, "The Soloist" (Vintage, 1994), Salzman fictionalized about a former musical prodigy, washed up from concertizing by 18.

The book draws from Salzman's own passion for music. He entered Yale as a music major before switching to Chinese language and literature and continues to practice the cello two to three hours a day. Music is a part of him seldom shared with the public.

Accompanying on piano is Michael Sushel, 39, a graduate of Julliard who by age 17 had performed with 11 orchestras, the result of winning competitions. He, too, was termed a prodigy.

"I was affected greatly by that word," Sushel says. "I was somewhat atypical in that even though I was winning these competitions, I wanted to be out developing the other parts of my life, but it was the thing I was identified with so strongly that I pursued it anyway."

Sushel never wanted to be a soloist, and he now works largely as an accompanist, primarily with young artists in competition and recital. To be holder of "the gift," he will tell you, can be as much a curse as a blessing. Its momentum, if not checked or countered, can tilt all balance from life.

Bronwyn, whom he has known for three years, has handled it well. "I think she truly loves what she does and has a perspective of life beyond the cello. I wasn't like that at her age."

There is a sense of mystery surrounding those we label prodigies. How is it possible for people so young to master such precise motor skills, to interpret complex music with depth and passion, to constantly measure up to extraordinary expectations? And, yet, to remain children?

In "The Soloist," Salzman describes how the pressures can be enormous. In examining his life, the central character poses the question, "Was I stricken or healed when my gift faded?"

The term "prodigy" has been placed upon Bronwyn in the same way brother Brendan, who entered college at 12, was labeled a genius, or, more commonly, a Doogie Howser.

The word, she says, creates distance between her and the rest of the world, building a wall where on one side there is most of life and on the other side, loneliness.

"It can be that way I think any time you do something unusual. I get it because I do all this traveling and playing music. Brendan gets it because he's so smart. People are standoffish. They're nervous to talk to you, and they don't want to talk to you. It's frustrating. I'm just a person like everybody else, no matter what I do with my cello."

While she enjoys the attention, the spotlight, she wonders if it will always be there for her. Sometimes she questions whether it's her age or her music that draws attention. When she's older, she asks, will people still think she's special?

"I don't want to be known for being a 12-year-old," she says. "It's not something I've chosen. It's a condition inflicted upon me by the world. Just because I'm 12 doesn't make me a different person, because it's not something I've chosen to be. I've chosen to be a cellist, and I like being called a cellist, but I don't like being called a 12-year-old cellist. . . . I don't even like being 12."

Most 12-year-olds don't. They long for an independent self-identity, freedom. If the gift becomes the sole identity, if requisite long hours of practice and dedication feel like chains, the gift becomes the burden.

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