Move over, Mozart!
Is the twelve-year-old Alex Prior the new Mozart? “I wrote a Requiem in five days,” he states matter-of-factly. Five days?! “Yes, I know,” he replies, “it’s a long time.” His list of compositions stretches on and on: three horn concertos, three symphonies, one symphonic poem dedicated to Richard Wagner, another remembering the Battle of Trafalgar. Now he’s writing an opera based on Pushkin’s narrative poem The Mistress and the Maid.
By Brian Droitcour
And Mozart didn’t even sing! In an appearance that has already become a legendary anecdote, Alex serenaded Meryl Streep as she received a lifetime achievement award for dedication to the Stanislavsky acting method, and the actress fell to her knees when she heard his voice. Alex says he was a little alarmed when he saw Streep dropping to the ground, but he kept on singing.
That reference to Stanislavsky is significant; Alex’s emigree mother is the granddaughter of the great theatre director Konstantin Stanislavky. Elena Prior was born in Russia, and first went to England to write her thesis for GITIS (Russia’s top theatre institute); she eventually settled in the UK. She has taken on the position of Alex’s manager, but this isn’t because she wants to promote or to push him; Mrs. Prior simply gives her son room to do what he wants – make music – by solving the problems of where and when. Managing her son’s career, however, makes Mrs. Prior tired; backstage, before Alex’s last appearance at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, she more than once exclaimed, “I can’t keep up with him!” and plopped into a seat.
Musical wunderkinds are often regarded with a reverence mixed with pity. Everyone marvels at the spectacle of an adult talent - ordinarily gained after years of study and practice - displayed by a child. Simultaneously, thoughts arise along the lines of, “the poor thing! Touring must exhaust a child.” They’re mourning for a childhood they think is devoid of play.
People might be tempted to feel this way about Alex. He has been described as the ‘little Pavarotti’ for the precocious power and beauty of his voice. Since his solo debut in December 2002, he has been recognised internationally as a phenomenal young musician, and has been invited to belt out songs in the world’s most prestigious venues, from Carnegie Hall to the Moscow Kremlin.
Alex’s touring schedule keeps him on the road almost every weekend, and after school during the week he has a full schedule of music lessons: voice, piano, composition, French horn. When Alex isn’t learning, he’s busy with his composing. He sits down with reams of music paper when he wakes up at 7 a.m., and again before going to bed, until well after midnight. Does that leave time to play video games and eat candy? No, but he wouldn’t have you feel sorry for him; the young prodigy is so wrapped up in the world of music that everything is play to him. “I only do what I want to do,” he states. “I love doing it so I do it.”
Although Alex’s career needs managing, fortunately for his mother he himself needs little supervision. Since his favorite pastime is writing music there’s little chance of him getting into trouble. Plus, Alex has some other skills – he cooks dinner almost every night. Cooking is yet another channel of self-expression; for him, creating a recipe is no different than composing a sonata, or writing words to a song of his own creation, or improvising a French horn solo. “I love doing anything creative,” Alex explains.
The Priors live on an idyllic family farm outside of London, with cows, chickens, ducks, and Dusya, a cocker spaniel that Alex received for Christmas 2003. Residence in England makes it common for him to appear in London’s concert halls or on BBC broadcasts, but it doesn’t keep him from making frequent appearances in Russia. He came to Moscow last summer for the International Film Festival. On 29 March he will appear at the Rossiya in the concert Songs of the Second World War and make another appearance at the same venue on 7 May as part of the Marathon of Victory concert series, this time with the Virtuosi of Moscow conducted by Vladimir Spivakov.
Highlights from recent Russian engagements include a concert for members of the Russian government, including President Vladimir Putin, and a charity gala for the children of Beslan in Sochi, when Alex sang with the Cuban Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the great Russian conductors Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Ponkin.
A year ago in February, Alex came to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow to receive the Silver Cross of Patron of the Arts from Mikhail Shvydkoi, Minister of Culture and Cinematography. The order, which has also been awarded to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, is given for outstanding achievements in the arts and charity work. One thing he did to earn this honour was to visit an orphanage in Serpukhov, 100 kilometres south of Moscow, and then use some of the fees from his concerts to fly children from there to visit him in England. Among other charitable activities, Alex sang with the Virtuosi of Moscow in a benefit concert for haemophiliac children.
Although Alex’s voice (he describes it as a “dramatic tenor”) has brought him fame so far, his next wave of fame is likely to come as a composer. If you visit www.alexprior.co.uk, the heading at the top of the page –“Child singer and composer”— emphasizes the writing side of his musical talent. And deservedly so. Recently, Alex won the under-18 division of Composition Challenge in Britain. On his last trip to Russia, he met with conductor Vakhtang Makhavadzhiani, who commissioned a chamber orchestra piece from him, to be performed this summer at the International Music Festival in Borjomi, Georgia.
Alex knows that he has to look after his voice, not to sing too much, and most of his free time is spent writing music. His productivity is astounding, although not all of it is remarkable – for instance, the heavy tempos and crashing minor chords of his Requiem sound a little like cliches of the genre, rather than a deeply-felt expression of grief – but then not everything by Mozart is a masterpiece.
Maturity would help his stage craft as well. Watching Alex perform after a series of older more experienced performers, audiences marvel that his voice has all the power of his fellow artists, but they note that his manner is not as practiced; his movements are somewhat jerky, as if he is unsure of how to fill the cavernous space around him; being at home on the stage will come with practice and time.
But performance is not even what interests Alex the most; in the best Hollywood tradition Alex insists, “what I really want to do is direct.” He admires the severity of the old mid-century stagings at the Bolshoi Theatre, and would like to someday direct similarly pared-down, realistic operas: “Three hours of dying is too much,” he jokes, like a dorky pre-teen. The theatre is in his blood - he can sing along with all the parts in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but can’t quite remember the names. But blood will out; one can say that Alex Prior was born to the stage, now he looks set to conquer it.