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Please, give him room to mature

Jay Greenberg's talent is immense, but for the teen to grow, the music industry has to back off.

September 06, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

I try not to be shocked by the depths to which the music business can sink. And I fail.

Remember David Helfgott, the mentally unstable Australian pianist? His handlers literally pushed him onto the stage and suckered a large classically clueless audience into feeling deep sympathy for this poor, lovable, deer-caught-in-the-headlights soul. Typically, his New York record company and Hollywood, which lavishly embellished his story in "Shine," threw him away once they had made their quick bucks off him.

Now we have the attempt to treat an unquestionably talented and perhaps profoundly musical 15-year-old as the next Mozart. I hope Jay Greenberg becomes a composer we one day cherish. But there is simply no way to know. Did I say he was born in 1991?

With great fanfare, Sony Classical has just released a CD of Greenberg's Symphony No. 5, written between 2003 and 2005, and his String Quintet, written in 2004. The performers are distinguished -- the London Symphony led by Jose Serebrier and the Juilliard String Quartet joined by cellist Darrett Adkins.

The disc is selling briskly. Greenberg has been profiled by "60 Minutes" and featured in the Sunday New York Times. Composition teachers at Duke and the Juilliard School are saying adoring things about him.

There seems little question that this youth has demonstrated a remarkable facility for writing accomplished music -- if music undoubtedly gone over, note by note, with his teachers. He is trying out styles to see what feels right, which is how a composer must start in an era when one size no longer fits all. Still, he hasn't gotten very far yet; he seems to be up to the early 20th century. His work is a joy only because it shows a teenager in thrall to music.

But although no one can prophesize what kind of composer Greenberg will turn out to be, he will not be the next Mozart. No one can be that, no one should be that. If we come away with nothing else from the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, which is being celebrated this year, it should be that times have changed and that it isn't nice to exploit kids.

That Mozart wrote credible music in his early teens was an obvious sign of his immense talent, but it was only that. Music 235 years ago, when Mozart was Greenberg's age, was so highly formulaic that computers nowadays can compose credibly, if emptily, in Classical period style. Even Mozart didn't begin to show genuine musical originality until he was around 19 and had written some 300 works.

Moreover, Mozart's life was surely affected by his child prodigy years of being dragged around the courts of Europe as a trained-dog act by his ambitious father. No one can prove that this led to his death at age 35. But isn't it at least possible that being forced into premature musical maturity both weakened him physically and prevented him from properly developing maturity in other areas of his life?

The lives of child composers are seldom easy. Schubert and Mendelssohn also died young, and Mendelssohn peaked early as well. Saint-Saens' talent never developed beyond the lightweight stage. In our own time, look at Oliver Knussen, who wrote striking symphonies in his teens. He has gone on to be an outstanding composer, but one whose early successes seem to have left him with an ongoing struggle with composer's block.

Of all the great prodigies in music history, only Schubert wrote music of consequence at Greenberg's age. Most started to demonstrate a voice in their late teens. And any youth's intellectual and emotional growth between 13, when Greenberg began his Fifth Symphony, and 19 is, of course, enormous.

Several new recordings vividly illustrate this. Robert Levin has begun what promises to be a pulsating series of the Mozart piano sonatas for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi with what are generally acknowledged as Mozart's first substantial scores, the sonatas he wrote at 19. In an accompanying DVD, the pianist describes that it was in the slow movements that the 19-year-old demonstrated that he was no longer slave to prescribed methods, that he understood at last there could be no formula for a slow movement any more than there is for human beings.

Shostakovich developed similarly. His first lasting work, the First Symphony, was also the product of a 19-year-old, and in a highly nuanced new Angel release of it by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, we immediately recognize the personality of this neurotic composer.

Two years earlier, though, the volatile Shostakovich, recovering from a nervous breakdown, wrote a piano trio dedicated to an early love. He never published the 12-minute work, but the Beaux Arts Trio includes it on a Philips disc along with the Russian composer's mature, deeply felt Second Trio.

The first trio is deeply felt too, but it obsesses over a cornball melody, which is what lovesick teenagers do. Shostakovich never wanted the trio published for the same reason you or I don't want our high school love letters published.

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