The lonely life of a virtuoso soloist

There she was before me, looking both awkward and sweet, with her long, thin fingers fidgeting as if playing an invisible violin. But I know that come January 27, when Vanessa Mae returns to Greece for yet another performance at the Olympic Stadium’s basketball arena, she will have transformed into a totally different character. She agrees. «Everybody sees me moving up and down at my concerts and assumes that I’m a party animal. But, as soon as I enter a bar or some function, I shrivel up in a corner and don’t talk to anyone,» said Mae during an interview in the lobby of a London hotel. «I don’t have friends here in London. They’re all abroad. Even my partner, whom I’ve been with for six years, lives in France,» she added. Mae has brilliant long black hair and a sorrowful look in her eyes. The musician’s nasal-sounding voice and monotonous way of talking make her sound like a character from a carefree Asian cartoon, but there’s definitely something melancholy in her words. When asked about whom she goes out with at night, Mae, now 27, responded by saying that she rarely does things considered normal for a girl of her age. Born in Singapore to a Thai father and Chinese mother, Mae was raised in London, her home base, where she showed signs of musical brilliance very early. She began playing piano at the age of 3 before taking on the violin two years later. Not long after, at the age of 10, Mae performed a concert in London as a child prodigy. She began touring internationally at the age of 13 and ranks as the youngest violinist to have recorded the violin concertos of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Critics have not been totally enthusiastic about the artist’s fusion of classical and pop, a style which Mae herself describes as «techno-acoustic fusion.» But her work is selling well, as underlined by album releases that have sold over 3 million copies when top-selling classical albums rarely exceed the 20,000 mark. As we sit and talk in the hotel lobby, the establishment’s employees do not appear to have recognized Mae the superstar. Or maybe they’re pretending not to notice her. Mae readily admits that she is not the kind of pop star that ignites hysterical reactions of devotion. She attributes this to mature fans. I’d once spotted her having a meal at Kafeneio, a cafe-snack bar in the Greek capital’s fashionable central district of Kolonaki. This delightful, pint-sized young woman could have gone by unnoticed. She probably fits into child-sized jeans. I shy away from asking whether she is anorexic or simply has a super-good metabolism. In interviews Mae tells – without fail, to the frustration of overweight women – of her vice for chocolate. This frail figure tells me she adores eggplant and can’t wait to get to a taverna when in Athens, where she’ll eat them fried. When smiling for the photo shoot, charming dimples appear on her face. At the same time, her cheek bones protrude and harden the musician’s expression. For her age, Mae carries a rare maturity about her. I ask whether her childhood was sacrificed too soon by her early touring commitments, endless hours of violin practice and loneliness. Her early years were normal, Mae said, but things got tougher after the age of 8, when she started to take music seriously. She would spend half the day at school and then devote the rest of her time cultivating her musical talent in rigid fashion. By her teens, Mae’s parents had begun managing the youngster’s life. They would decide on the amount of time she needed to practice, do her homework, and play with friends. «Maybe if it was all divided up better I wouldn’t have sacrificed my playtime,» said Mae, regretfully, while quickly sparing her parents of any responsibility. «But that’s easy to say in retrospect,» she added. Though still young, Mae is already preparing for her later life. She is well aware that the fame she generated as a child prodigy may not be sustainable in the future. «I hope that in 20 years’ time I’ll have lots of children, will be picking them up from the school bus stop, and that my life will have changed,» remarked Mae. «I’ll probably still be involved with music, but as a producer,» she predicted. Mae said she would not want to live in London for the rest of her life, even though she is currently building a home behind the city’s Victoria and Albert Museum. She also noted that she’d like to raise her children in Switzerland, where she could enjoy her favorite sport, skiing. Her ultimate objective, Mae said, is to eventually settle in Thailand, where the people are peaceful, kind and religious. She said she is open to all kinds of music, even styles she does not necessarily enjoy, like full-blooded rock or hip-hop. Highlighting her wide musical taste, Mae said she was very upset after missing a show by former Smiths frontman Morrissey a few years back. In the past, Mae has played electric violin alongside famous artists such as Janet Jackson and Prince. As for the Greek scene, Mae said her familiarity was restricted to the work of Vangelis, with whom she has collaborated. With the exception of music for elevators, or muzak as it has come to be known, Mae says she’ll listen to just about anything, including certain songs by Eminem. The violinist said she would even like to work with the fiery and enraged hip-hop artist. «As long as somebody assured me that he would not verbally abuse me, I would have no objections,» she says, knowing that the chances of that would be slim. 9 p.m., January 27, Olympic Stadium’s basketball arena (OAKA), Athens. For reservations, tel 210.200.5050. (- This article was first published in Kappa, Kathimerini’s weekly color supplement, on January 15.)

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