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Little Star Shines on the Violin Strings

Ani Bukujian could carry a tune at 8 months and started playing a mini- version of her instrument at 2. Now, at 7, she is going to perform in a re-creation of Vivaldi's all-girl orchestra.

May 17, 2000|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sarkis Bukujian first knew his daughter was unusually talented when he heard Ani sing the Mozart lullaby known as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

She was 8 months old at the time.

On Ani's second birthday, her grandfather gave her a toy violin. She liked it so much that Bukujian, a Glendale music teacher and founder of a youth string ensemble, started giving her lessons on a miniature violin, one-tenth the size of an adult instrument.

By 4, she could distinguish among works by Handel, Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Chopin and, of course, Mozart. And at 5, an age when many youngsters are taking up finger painting, Ani Bukujian had already participated in numerous music festivals and competitions, even winning top honors at the Pasadena String Festival in 1998. In April, she performed seven classical pieces backed by an orchestra of her father's friends in a Glendale theater.

This month, at the advanced age of 7, the Edison Elementary first-grader will travel to Washington, D.C., as the youngest-ever performer in "Viva Vivaldi!" the Washington Chamber Symphony's second annual re-creation of baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi's famous all-girl orchestra.

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Steven Simon, the symphony's music director, says he chose Ani for one of the orchestra's 40 seats from among 400 candidates on the basis of a tape she made with her miniature violin when she was 6.

"We received tapes from a very sophisticated bunch of young ladies," he says. "The tapes had no identification except Social Security numbers. I didn't know how old the girls were. Lo and behold, when we shook it all out, there she was. I thought, 'Wow, that's pretty good.' "

Back at the Glendale apartment Ani shares with her family, baroque music flutters through the screen door to the tricycle-strewn walkway outside. The child is practicing "Winter," the most difficult of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and one of five she memorized in 15 days for the Washington concert. She is dressed in a little red knit suit and lavender slippers. Her oversized dark eyes, calm and benign, consider her visitor.

Her mother, Gayane, also a music teacher, brings refreshments to the coffee table covered with lace from the Bukujian's native Armenia. On the piano is a photo of Ani playing violin at 3, on the wall, a poster from her April concert. Ani's brother David, 5, also has a good ear, the parents say, but they're not working with him yet because his powers of concentration aren't developed enough.

Though shy with strangers, Ani often calls the shots musically, her father says. She picked her own violin (now one-quarter size) and critiques other's fingering notations.

"She tells me which fingers will be better than that," says Bukujian, who has been her only teacher so far. Music schools wouldn't admit her, he says, because her hands were too small.

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When Ani eventually joins in the conversation, it is not about music at all. Rather, she wants to share her illustrated book reports from first grade.

"There's a pumpkin. There's a girl," she says. Soon, she is enthusiastically confiding her wish for a dog, a cat and a rabbit and asking if she can show a visitor her computer, her radio and her favorite books--Disney's "Tarzan" and "Mulan."

When she grows up, she says gravely, she wants to be a violinist. Or maybe a dentist.

Dentistry isn't exactly what her parents have in mind.

"It's as if Ani was born with a violin," Sarkis says. "I saw the talent inside. If you don't bring that out, maybe it will be bothering her, maybe it will be dead inside."

For now, she practices two hours a day, five hours during vacations.

A child of 2 1/2 is unusually young to begin violin lessons, music director Simon says. But if youngsters are willing to work and enjoy it, it should be no surprise that they excel at young ages, he says. Children born into musical families

are no different from circus children, he says.

"Before you can blink, they're on a tightrope, jump-roping on the back of a horse."

The era of troubled prodigies like cellist Jacqueline du Pre (subject of the recent film "Hilary and Jackie") is largely over, he says. Most of the girls coming to the May 21 concert in Washington are "sweet, fun and funny." Vicious competition doesn't play a large role because everyone who comes gets to play, he said.

"Viva Vivaldi!" re-creates the all-girl orchestra founded around 1703 by Vivaldi, an Italian priest and music director at the Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage for girls in Venice. Vivaldi wrote many of his concertos for the girls, who performed behind a screen and became one of Europe's greatest musical attractions.

Eligible gentlemen from Venice often came to evaluate the young women as potential wives as well as musicians.

"The screen made the girls a little less visible, more mysterious," Simon says. "The object of the people who ran the hospital was to prepare these young ladies for future life, hopefully with the man of their choice."

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For anyone who has winced and wept at the earnest and squeaky efforts of elementary school orchestras, hearing a child perform maturely is another kind of emotional experience, observers say.

Los Angeles film producer Alba Francesca, a friend of the Bukujians, said she was overwhelmed by Ani's playing and her presence at the April 2 concert in Glendale.

"It's the most extraordinary concentration I've ever seen in a child," she said. "It was breathtaking."

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