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Classical Crossing

Vanessa-Mae
All Strung Out: Young violin prodigy Vanessa-Mae keeps in shape by fending off her critics.

Photo by M . W. Wallace



Vanessa-Mae is the violinist classical-music lovers love to argue about

By Todd S. Inoue

CHILD PRODIGIES aren't supposed to be human, vibrant or social. And they are definitely not supposed to be on People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" list.

Wrong. Meet violinist Vanessa-Mae.

"The People magazine thing was a total surprise, you know," says Mae, her British accent reflecting her London upbringing. "I'm normally used to compliments about my music. There's nothing that can sell music other than music. If image got in the way of talent, then all supermodels would have No. 1 hits. It doesn't work out that way, and that makes me happy."

When not showcased in the tabloids, Vanessa-Mae makes headlines as a fusionist of sorts, introducing classical music to techno, country, reggae and even Scottish folk songs. After releasing three albums of straight classical music, Mae broke through in 1994 with a pop CD titled The Violin Player. She just turned 18 and is touring to support her fifth release, The Classical Album 1, a selection of familiar, easy-sell pieces by Bach, Brahms and Beethoven.

The difference between the albums is night and day. While The Violin Player proffers carefree exploration across musical terrains, Classical Album 1 is standard coffeehouse classical, sweetly performed to good measure.

"It wasn't something that cropped up," Mae says of her return to her roots in the classical canon. "I'd done three classical recordings before the pop record. I was always allowed to have a real cosmopolitan outlook toward music. We still went to musical and pop concerts, and I bought pop CDs. It felt natural at the time. The violin is a versatile instrument to fuse all these kinds of music: classical, jazz, pop, techno, reggae, country & western."

Pleasing the classical-music traditionalists isn't high on Mae's list. Her accomplishments include pairing pseudo-techno beats and violin ("Classical Gas," "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor") and appearing onstage with the Scorpions. Her flouting of classical conventions extends all the way to her pin-up image. On stage and in promotional pictures, Mae eschews stuffy black togs for low-cut sundresses. The shots inside the Classical Album 1 CD jacket would fit well on the pages of a J Crew catalog.

This unusual mix of image and talent has been the focus of a hot debate among classical fans, a notoriously conservative clique. Some scoff at anything Mae does (the picture of her in a clinging wet dress on The Violin Player provoked particular outrage), charging that she dilutes classical music with less worthy genres. Traditionalists, especially on Internet newsgroups, fear she will do to classical music what Kenny G. did to jazz, what John Tesh does to whatever music it is that John Tesh plays.

Mae recently performed at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco and was shredded by San Francisco Chronicle classical-music reviewer Joshua Kosman, who described her performance as "equally dreary, equally maladroit, equally grueling."

Unfazed by the accusations, Mae dismisses her critics: "Only a small minority of people were shocked and bewildered that someone could have so much fun in a world of pop music. There are people who have opened their hearts to a new kind of music, and I've remained humble."

To prove her humility, Mae adds, "I can feel sorry for people also. I can even be generous to critics. Throughout my career I ask, Where did the criticism come from? Very often, it comes from people who are nothing but armchair critics who have never played music or performed on stage. Their opinions are worthless to me. I'm very generous with them--and sorry for them, as well."

Media-Savvy Prodigy

A CERTIFIED prodigy, Mae started playing the piano and violin at age 4, made her concerto debut in London at the age of 10 and began touring internationally and recording Tchaikovsky and Beethoven violin concertos when she was 12.

Despite being thrust in the spotlight at such an early age, she doesn't regret the missed prom dates. Mae operates like any other teen. She digs Jamiroquai and R.E.M. She roller blades, skis, goes to the movies, plays with her dogs. Yet, she is media-savvy beyond her years, fielding all dicey questions with an air of easy professionalism.

"If you feel ready for it, you should do it," Mae explains of her early career. "The fact I turned professional at 10 or 11 and recorded two classical albums and toured the world--it was a pace I felt comfortable with. I had the benefit of experience behind me. I had a childhood. Maybe I said goodbye a bit early, but there's no way to lose one's childhood. I'm a professional when I'm making music on stage, but outside of the work, if anything, I'm still a child."

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From the December 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro

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