Posted on Apr 13, 2001

Anastasie Prokhorova recalls a bitter winter night in 1986 when her father dragged her past a crowd and through the heavy doors of Leningrad's Philharmonic Hall.

Inside, the concert already under way, people were standing on tiptoes, craning their necks to see a pianist working his way through Tchaikovsky's monumental Piano Concerto No. 1.

“When at last he brings the piece to a conclusion, the crowd explodes in a frenzy of applause and shouts of `bravo!'” Prokhorova recalls. “It is a memorable concert, but not because a master has conquered … one of the most technically challenging and emotionally complex compositions in the world. No, the conqueror is the 15-year-old wunderkind Evgeny Kissin, and his performance is an historical meeting between great composition and great talent.”

So began Prokhorova's fascination with child musical prodigies, or as Clara Schumann once called them “(youngsters) sent to this world already made.”

Prokhorova, who graduates in June with a major in French and a minor in history, will use a Watson Fellowship to study “Cultural Phenomenon of the Wunderkind” in Germany, Italy, France, Austria, England and Japan. The one-year travel scholarship carries a stipend of $22,000.

The nurturing of wunderkind _ particularly in classical music — is a longstanding and pervasive European tradition, Prokhorova says. So, her Watson will focus on European countries and then compare them with the non-western traditions of Japan. She plans to visit music festivals, competitions and music schools, interviewing students, parents and teachers of prodigies.

“From Mozart to Jacqueline du Pre and beyond, the child prodigy has been the subject of intense curiosity and scrutiny for the vast majority of us who do not possess their gifts,” she says. “How can a 5-year-old compose a symphony or play the repertoire of an adult musician?”

Our cultural construct _ perpetuated by books and movies like Amadeus and Shine — would have us believe that while wunderkind may be irresistible, effervescent, inspiring and soulful, they are also maladjusted individuals. “When a child's capacities are discovered, the term wunderkind is thrust upon the child and it is perceived that he or she is leaving behind a life,” Prokhorova says. “Some people say that the child has no childhood, that the parents or teachers were abusive.”

“That's what I'm trying to discover, the relationship between this mythology and the actual individuals living the experience,” she says. And finding how societies treat their prodigies could provide a cultural barometer of what people think about human intelligence and talent, she adds.

Prokhorova, an accomplished pianist who began her musical studies at age 10 at a school in her native St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), recalls the wunderkind who attended her school in isolation from the “regular” students. “They were five or six years younger, but were capable of playing a repertoire usually reserved for adults,” she says. “We used to see them on stage at concerts, but I don't remember communicating with them very much.”

She immigrated to Brooklyn with her physician parents when she was 16. (She was naturalized as a U.S. citizen last month, the same week she learned she had won a Watson.) “The piano gave me great comfort (during adjusting to life in the U.S.) and it was a strong spiritual bond with the country we left behind,” she says.

She enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music, and won a New York Piano Teachers Congress Competition. But without the kind of supportive musical environment she had had in Russia, her musical education slowed down.

At Union, she plunged into her studies in French and history, putting aside piano study. It wasn't until the spring of 1999, when she began to prepare for a performance of Schumann's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the College orchestra, that she realized that “music will always be an essential part of my life.

“This is what I like by about my Watson,” she says. “It marries my love of study with my love of music, much as I have tried to do in my life at Union.”