As the pianist and writer about music Charles Rosen put it, "it's like tightrope walkers. Unless you start when you're four you tend to fall off." While it is true that almost all professional musicians exhibit some degree of exceptional talent as children, musical history is also littered with stories of child prodigies who did not go on to fulfil their promise. The margins between success and failure can sometimes be remarkably thin.
In 1999, aged just 13, the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang was engaged to play with Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. She had already been playing professionally for several years, but this was a significant step up. "I was told that I was free to play whatever I wanted, and as I was just beginning to discover opera at the time I chose Sarasate's Carmen Fantasia. When I met Jansons he wondered why I hadn't chosen Mozart or Mendelssohn, both of which would have been excellent to play. But he said yes to the Carmen and I will always be grateful for how much flexibility he showed in letting me make that choice. Even though it wasn't an obvious thing to do, it was perfect for me at that time and he appreciated that. It might seem like a small decision, but these things can be very important."
The concert was a huge success and Frang was launched on an international career. "She was a wonderful young musician and it was a memorable performance," recalls Jansons. "But for all that you can never be completely sure how things will turn out." He discovered how things turned out a few weeks ago at the Lucerne festival where Frang, now 26, played Bartók's first violin concerto with him and his world famous Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
In the years in between Jansons concerts Frang had studied in Oslo and then Hamburg, been taken under the wing of German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, worked with some of the best orchestras and conductors in the world and released an award-winning debut recording of violin concertos by Sibelius and Prokofiev. She returns to Lucerne in September as recipient of the prestigious Credit Suisse young artist award, which not only gives 75,000 Swiss francs to the winner, but also an engagement with Bernard Haitink and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. But before then she plays the Bruch violin concerto in London next week with Jansons's protégé Andris Nelsons and the Philharmonia Orchestra.
"I have so much respect for British orchestras and the way that they work," she says. "I recently toured with the Philharmonia and was astonished at the intensity and discipline with which they play. They are super professional and super flexible. That was how I was brought up and I still love that attitude."
Frang was born in Oslo in 1986 into a musical family in which both her father and sister were double bass players. "I assumed I would be the next in line but my father used the argument that as our car was rather small we could never again go on holiday if I took it up, and so he made me my first violin, which was tiny and I hated. Even at that age I had in my head an idea as to how I wanted things to sound and this thing hardly made any sound at all."
As a child everything she did was "somehow accompanied by music. It was sort of blended into my life. It was always under my skin." She says there was never a specific moment when she realised she was going to be professionally good. "No one ever said 'ah-ha'. Every step has felt very normal and the obvious thing to do." Even that first Jansons concert felt like a natural progression. "He had been chief conductor in Oslo for many years, and my parents took me to concerts. I'd heard his great Bruckner and Mahler symphonies and he didn't feel like a famous maestro from another planet. He was as familiar, as the king's head on the coins were familiar."
Although she says she "belongs" to Scandinavia, "that's where I have my roots, where I was shaped as a musician and a personality," as a professional musician Frang now feels more comfortable in Germany. "It's as if I can breathe more easily in Germany. You need to be near colleagues and have people around you who you can really connect with. Scandinavia can be a little like Switzerland. It is very clean and safe and the people are a little bit spoiled and they don't have much to worry about. I need things to worry about. I need some resistance and struggle. That's part of my music-making." As her schedule becomes busier Frang says she is having to make a conscious effort to find time for life away from the stage. "I've never really separated my life inside and outside of music, but if you only see the hotel and the concert hall, then you have nothing of life to enrich your music. So I'm looking forward to coming back to London and also to giving people another look at Bruch."
Considering her recording and concert repertoire, the Bruch appears a conservative choice. "In a way it has become a tourist trap in the violin repertory. It is something that students are given when they reach a certain level, and an 'audience friendly' piece to play alongside, say, the Lutoslawski partita on tour. A piece suffers by being treated like that and so for many years I was completely against it. But when I eventually started to engage with it I was astonished at just how much you could express through it. It feels like I am singing it, not playing it, and while such a great piece of music doesn't need too much help from me, I do hope that I can help rescue it from being just a victim of its reputation as music only for student classes and old ladies."
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