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A Violin Prodigy Who Venerates Masters

* Tamaki Kawakubo, 20, who will solo Saturday with the Pacific Symphony, has been a performer half her life. The Torrance native has an impressive list of mentors.


Violinist Tamaki Kawakubo was 10 when she began making her mark on the classical world.

"No one should be surprised anymore by child prodigies who apparently can be taught to play anything that is put in front of them," Times reviewer Richard Ginell wrote in 1991.

"Even so, it was startling to see tiny, poker-faced Tamaki Kawakubo handle the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the ease and authority of a touring veteran virtuoso."

Writing in The Times a year later, reviewer Donna Perlmutter seconded the opinion: "She is a dazzler, without question, a musician whose style, presence and authority owe no apologies to youth."

Now 20, Kawakubo will play the Tchaikovsky concerto with the Pacific Symphony led by Carl St.Clair on Saturday at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.

But it's not her Orange County debut. That took place in 1990 in the inaugural concert of the short-lived Robert Mondavi Wine and Food Center Chamber Music Series with Keith Clark, founder of the Pacific Symphony.

Born in Torrance, Kawakubo is the second of three sisters, who began playing at weddings when they were kids. Their parents were dental technicians who loved music.

"They didn't have the chance to learn to play any instruments, so they wanted to hand the chance on to the children," Kawakubo said in a recent telephone interview from Cologne, Germany, where she lives and studies.

She began playing piano, but because her older sister, Taori, was also studying it, she decided to try something else. She found the violin.

She was 8 when she started her violin studies with Robert Lipsett at the R.D. Colburn School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles. Lipsett soon began arranging performing dates. These didn't faze her a bit.

"When you're young, performing is very exciting," she said. "You don't really think about the nervousness. It's a very good experience to play in front of people and on stage with an orchestra."

Still, she wanted to make sure her life had some larger perspective.

"It's also very important to think about the child and not have them miss out on life. . . . Life is a very big part of making music, to experience every kind of emotion possible."

There was no specific moment when she decided to become a professional musician.

"For me it was, it's still, a very gradual growth. There wasn't a point where I said, 'I want to be a soloist.' It's just something you strive for every day."

Growth is the reason she studied with Dorothy Delay and Masao Kawasaki at the Juilliard School in New York, then left a year later to work in Cologne with Zakhar Bron, who had been the teacher of violinist Maxim Vengerov.

"I was very interested in Maxim Vengerov," Kawakubo said. "I heard him play the Tchaikovsky concerto. I was just blown away. His playing was just fire and softness and tenderness and everything combined together.

"Of course, the technique was also fantastic. Honestly, I hadn't heard anything like that before. It made a very big impression."

She auditioned for Bron when she was 16 and has stuck with him ever since.

"He has a very strong feeling for the structure of each piece, of how the composer wrote the music. He's very specific in how to make phrases. He has a different way of thinking, of approaching, of making music."

Trips back to New York keep her in touch with her family; they moved there four years ago because, she said, "my parents were worried that I was too young to go by myself to New York."

She finds a lot of America in Germany, she said.

That includes movies, which along with books and restaurant outings with friends fill her calendar--that and up to seven hours of practice daily.

"Everything American is basically here. But after 10 or 11 p.m., if you're starving, you can't get something to eat unless a gas station or kiosk is open."

Kawakubo plays a 1707 "Cathedral" Stradivarius on loan from the Mandell Collection of Southern California. Previously, the Mandells had loaned her a Guarneri "del Gesu." Peter Mandell is a friend of her former teacher, Lipsett of the Colburn School.

Kawakubo first played the Tchaikovsky concerto six years ago with the New York Youth Symphony conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and has repeated the work several times since then.

"Every time I play it, it's always like a new piece," she said. "You always find something new. You never play it the same way."

She is still developing her own interpretation.

"When I listen to all the great artists, each of them has an original, personal sound. They know the way they want to play. To reach that point takes a lot of studying and a lot of courage and self-confidence in the way you play.

"It's very difficult to do that. You listen to other people and try to copy them and do something they do which you think is very good. That never works, to copy another person. . . . But to make your music individual takes a lot of work."

* Tamaki Kawakubo will be the soloist in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with the Pacific Symphony led by Carl St.Clair on Saturday at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, 8808 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. $15 to $60. (714) 755-5799.


Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at

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