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How to Get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice—and Have a Big-Name Mentor

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From time immemorial, performing artists have been passing on their techniques and secrets to protégés whose youthful talents catch their imagination. In the highly competitive world of concerts and record-making, such close relationships, which mentors often find “an inspiration,” can be vital in launching a young virtuoso’s career. Correspondent Barbara Rowes surveyed five such musical heavyweights and their fast-rising protégés:

A French smoothie and a Little Rascal

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, 22, and Philippe Entremont, 49, used to be the Odd Couple of classical music. She was an American tomboy violinist, most comfortable in secondhand jeans and T-shirts; he was a debonair French pianist, at ease in the tails he wore to perform his renowned programs of Ravel and Mozart. Entremont decided to take Nadja on as his protégée after her sensational audition for him as a 12-year-old at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. That they played different instruments made no difference. After all, Entremont says, “Music is music.”

For her 22nd birthday, Entremont invited Nadja to solo with the New Orleans Philharmonic, which he conducts. But in the years before, he worked to smooth her rough edges, musically and socially. As he diplomatically puts it, “She had the power of a bionic woman when she played, but she needed to get in touch with her own fragile sensitivity.” Salerno-Sonnenberg jokingly adds, “It was sort of like Cary Grant overseeing the social development of a Little Rascal.”

Von Karajan and the gypsy’s forecast

The inside of Anne-Sophie Mutter’s canvas-and-leather violin case, which protects her $300,000 Stradivarius, is plastered with photographs of Herbert von Karajan. “My idol,” says Mutter, 20, of the 75-year-old conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. He has been her mentor for the past seven years, while she has toured as a soloist in his concerts and played on six of his recordings. Mutter, who gave 60 concerts in 1983, began studying the violin as a 6-year-old, the same year a fortune-teller in her native German village told her mother that Mutter would someday play for Von Karajan. The prediction came true when he heard her, as a 13-year-old, perform the notoriously difficult Bach Chaconne. “We shall do a lot together,” he pronounced, and decided to oversee her solo career.

Virtuoso Serkin and the pulse of music

“Before my concerts,” says Cecile Licad, 22, “he comes backstage, spits on his finger and touches me for good luck.” The practitioner of this ancient custom is Rudolf Serkin, at 80 one of the world’s master pianists. For 10 years he has acted as teacher, promoter and surrogate father to the shy Filipino piano student who also won the support in her homeland of First Lady Imelda Marcos.

When Serkin first heard Licad, then an 11-year-old at the Curtis Institute of Music, he rushed up and kissed the girl. “He used to say I had the pulse of music inside me,” says Licad, whose years of study with Serkin paid off when she won the prestigious 1981 Leventritt award.

Licad’s 55 appearances as a soloist with leading orchestras worldwide earn her more than $100,000 annually, but she still counts on Serkin for guidance. “He calls,” she says, “to listen to my problems and give me advice.”

The maestro and the young man with a horn

“If you really want to go for it, I think you can become the No. 1 American trumpeter,” Gerard Schwarz, 36, told protégé Stephen Burns, the gifted Wellesley, Mass. native, now 24, whom he taught almost daily for nearly three years at Manhattan’s Juilliard School. “He was so demanding, so insistent on perfection,” says Burns of Schwarz, one of the nation’s leading trumpet players until he gave it up for conducting in 1976. “It was like being coached every day in tennis by John McEnroe.”

The hard work paid off when Burns’s 1982 Manhattan debut recital was acclaimed for his “virtuoso control of breath, tone and fingering.” Such reviews, plus guest appearances with the various orchestras that Schwarz conducts, have speeded Burns’s acutely vertical career as a soloist.

Dueling flutes: Paris vs. Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Ransom Wilson of Tuscaloosa, now 32, felt a “long way from Bear Bryant country” when he went to France in 1970 to study with Jean-Pierre Rampal, the world’s leading flutist. The Alabaman’s beginner French and Rampal’s shaky English set up a language barrier. Once that was cleared, there were still problems. “I would critique him very hard,” admits Rampal. “At first Ransom did not like that so much, but he knew that it was for his own good.” Ransom spent two intensive summer sessions with Rampal and then a full year in Paris as a Fulbright Scholar.

Soon the two were recording and concertizing together. In 1979, however, Rampal decided Wilson’s career was successfully launched (Ransom is the only American flutist who can boast of an exclusive recording contract with a major classical label) and ended their close professional ties. “You give the hand the first time and that’s enough,” says Rampal firmly. “After that, one must make it on his own.”