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Driven to music: A prodigy at age 15

  • Story Highlights
  • 15-year-old Jay Greenberg premieres his violin concerto at Carnegie Hall
  • The child prodigy has composed more than 100 works
  • Greenberg started playing a child's cello at age 2
  • "I really don't spend much time interacting with other people," he says
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By Porter Anderson
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- As the interview is ending, Jay Greenberg sneaks in one of his goals for next year. "I have to learn to drive, as well."


Composer Jay Greenberg, at 15, has written more than 100 classical works, and hopes to learn to drive next year.

From most 15-year-olds, this would hardly be an exceptional comment.

But Greenberg is about to be given a thunderous standing ovation by a capacity concert crowd at New York's Carnegie Hall, one of the world's toughest proving grounds in classical music.

It's the premiere of his 25-minute tour-de-force violin concerto. This is a huge, difficult work, played in one long movement so sophisticated that the estimable Orchestra of St. Luke's has had to add an extra rehearsal to pull it together.

Under the direction of conductor Roberto Abbado, the piece on the last Sunday of October enters the American contemporary-classical canon with an acclaimed virtuoso at its helm: That's Joshua Bell, easily the most famous violinist of two generations, hair flying, Strad-straining, bravura-bowing those final stabbing, triumphant chords of the piece into massive, slamming sculptures of sound. Video Jay Greenberg talks about his work at the premiere of his new violin concerto »

And then Bell is gesturing to someone in the audience, pointing to the stage-right steps.

Navy blazer, smart ecru trousers, a neat half-Windsor knot in his necktie, a scholar's wire-rims -- when Greenberg accepts Bell's handshake, everyone in the great room knows that the guys joining hands here are essentially brothers in a strange, sterling, rare bond: The mystery of musical prodigy.

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Greenberg, who has composed more than 100 works, started playing a child's cello at age 2 and finished high school at age 14, the same year Sony released a CD of the London Symphony Orchestra playing his Fifth Symphony.

Understand that to compose for a full orchestra, one must not only imagine the music but also know each instrument's capabilities, range, contributing voice to the whole -- and be able to capture and write that sea of sonics into submission. Greenberg composes on computer. Photo See a gallery of photos from Jay Greenberg's work and life »

Bell was handed a violin at age 4 and now has more than 30 CDs out, four Grammy nominations, two Grammy wins, and the coveted Fisher Prize. He is one of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders and plays more than 200 international bookings per year. Inspiring and bringing forward the work of composers is a major interest for him, as proved by the release in September of his recording of John Corigliano's Red Violin Concerto. Read an interview with Corigliano about his concerto and Bell's recording

In December, Greenberg will turn 16, Bell will turn 40.

When asked what his buddies think of having a friend who has written five symphonies, more than 12 piano sonatas, three piano concertos, plus string quartets and more, Greenberg's answer is as rich as his art: "I really don't spend much time interacting with other people."

"If anything," Greenberg says, "I'd rather the publicity had been postponed for about 10 years from when they began" to interview him on National Public Radio and on CBS News' "60 Minutes."

That way, "I'd have to start out getting pieces played at schools and universities and benefits and the like -- like normal composers. And then eventually when my talents are better formed have all the commissions and interviewers coming in."

But some might ask why he would want the press delayed. The New York Times' Steve Smith hears the violin concerto and writes of "gleefully jigging motifs and bawdy brass outbursts." The Associated Press' Martin Steinberg describes "a violent arpeggio" for Bell "that gets the music off and running."

The bottom line, as Steinberg puts it, is that "the 15-year-old composer is for real."

And yet, even as such accolades fly by, Greenberg concedes, "I actually find it irritating that people are constantly going on" about his age.

  • Whose music does he like to hear? "In chronological order, Bach; Mozart; Beethoven; a little bit of Brahms, some of his later pieces, maybe; Prokofiev; Stravinsky; Bartok; some Copland; Ives. You can look at my iPod, there's a lot of stuff in there."
  • How much time does it take to write full-length works for large orchestra? "It doesn't really take all that much time. I might spend one day a week [writing music] and then spend 12 hours of that day composing a piece."
  • What else does he do with his time? "I like reading books. I'm actually fond of hiking and doing stuff outdoors. I think first I have to adopt a stricter exercise regimen. ... Lately, I've been going to many more contemporary music concerts and listening to the stuff that other people write these days."
  • Greenberg is the son of Robert Greenberg, who teaches linguistics at Yale, and Orna Weinroth, a painter. He says his 11-year-old brother, Michael, might be a dancer-in-the-making, and also plays flute.

    Greenberg says he does not quite hear entire works in his head at once, as journalists once understood him to be saying. "At the age of 12," he says with a quick smile, "I was not exactly the most articulate of individuals around."

    Instead, he says, he tends to "hear" his music in sections. "I might have 87 bars on January 1, then nothing until January 26. At that point, there would be another 52 bars. And so on, and so forth. I write down the first theme. And then six months later, I have another idea" for a piece. "I go back to that first theme and think, 'They would work pretty well together.' So I put them together in a piece. Then a week later, maybe another idea, and say, 'That would be a good ending to the piece.' "

    That pattern of working in intermittent, intense periods is a pattern translated to his school life, he says. Teachers used to wonder why his homework was late, only to be amazed when he'd suddenly hand them "all the assignments for the rest of the month."

    "Jay finished public high school in New Haven last year," his mother says. "He took Latin, philosophy and music composition classes at Yale, and this semester he is applying for colleges with the hope of getting a scholarship.

    "We suggested," she adds, "that he wait and go kayaking and rock climbing until he is 16 before going off elsewhere."

    But the guy is really focused on his music. Somehow he doesn't seem the bum-around-for-a-year type. Even during rehearsals at Carnegie for this new Violin Concerto, he dashes out and buys some staff paper. He has an idea.

    And a backstage conversation reveals that as intriguing as this kind of extraordinary capability can be to us, it can be just as tantalizing to the composer in question, who may very well wonder what he's writing next.

    "So what's the new piece?" asks his manager, Charles Letourneau of IMG Artists.

    "Well, it's a sketch at the moment," Greenberg says.


    "And what's it going to be?"

    "I haven't the faintest idea." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

    All About Classical MusicJoshua BellSony BMG Music Entertainment

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