January 27, 2008
He's how old?
Twenty, was the answer.
And he's a violinist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic?
Yes. He nailed his audition last spring at the age of 19, beating out hundreds of applicants who had far more experience.
So went my conversation with the orchestra's publicist on the subject of Robert Vijay Gupta, who has seven months to go before conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen can legally buy him a beer after a concert.
I bumped into Gupta at Walt Disney Concert Hall recently and said hello, but didn't know anything about him until that conversation with the publicist. I asked Gupta if we could get together, and he invited me to his home, just west of the 405.
Before going to see him, I looked up his biography, which made me consider throwing myself in front of a moving truck.
The New York native graduated from college with a pre-med biology degree at 17. He graduated from Yale with a master's in music at 19. In his spare time as an aspiring neuroscientist, he did laboratory research at Harvard and two other colleges, studying Parkinson's, spinal cord regeneration and the effects of pollution on the brain.
I wasn't sure whether I wanted to interview him, clone him or strangle him. But I was definitely curious to find out how he got where he is, and whether there were any universal lessons in the story of his success.
Gupta greeted me at his condo with a polite, "Welcome, Mr. Lopez." This is not a young man who's likely to cross paths with Lindsay Lohan on the club circuit. He's got poise and humility, and his eyes are dark reservoirs of maturity.
The musician poured me a cup of coffee and said his father would be with us shortly. It's a safe assumption that Gupta is the only member of the orchestra who needed a parent with him to get settled.
The elder Gupta, who has managed his New York travel agency by phone while helping his son set up a home, had to cosign on the condo loan since Robert had no credit record.
"You have to be 25 to rent a car," Robert added, so his father also had to ferry him to rehearsals and concerts until he found time to buy a car. The next youngest member of the orchestra is 28, and publicist Adam Crane said he has so far been unable to find a younger musician in a major orchestra anywhere in the country.
For dinner, if the Guptas are not scoping out a new hole-in-the-wall restaurant as they explore their adopted city, father and son try their hand at cooking Indian food. This involves the occasional frantic call to Robert's mother, Chandana, for advice. An accountant, Mrs. Gupta is busy raising Robert's younger brother, Akshar, a classical pianist and biochemistry major who, of course, will graduate from college in May at the age of 17.
So what gives with this family?
Mr. and Mrs. Gupta, both born in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, raised their boys to hit the books and work toward good-paying jobs in medicine, law or business. Music was supposed to help round them out, not get in the way of the important stuff.
"My parents tell me I liked to dance to music when I was 3 or 4," Robert said. His father, Vivek, came in from another room to clarify the matter in scientific terms.
"He was a weird child."
Mr. Gupta recalls tuning the television to "Tom and Jerry" cartoons and watching Robert flip to New York Philharmonic concerts on PBS. Piano lessons followed, then violin.
"I was completely infatuated," Robert said.
Breezing through the Suzuki method, he completed in two years what normally takes eight or 10. At the ripe old age of 6, he stunned his parents when he aced an audition for the pre-college program at the Juilliard School in New York City, which became his music lab for the next seven years.
But Vivek Gupta doesn't want people to get the wrong idea. "I hate it when people call him a child prodigy," he said.
His son didn't play like an angel the first time he picked up the violin. It was years of devotion that got Robert where he is, thanks in large part to the sacrifices of Mrs. Gupta. She drove her son to and from schools and music lessons while he did his homework in the car.
Robert performed as a young solo phenom in Israel, India, Europe and Japan. Even Oprah Winfrey had to have him. In school, the cherubic lad skipped a grade because of how advanced he was, but got picked on and occasionally beaten up for being such a young whiz.
"People in high school were like wolves," Robert said, so he doubled up on courses with a tutor and finished his high school graduation requirements two years early. Then, simultaneously, he was a full-time student at the Manhattan School of Music in Harlem and at Mount St. Mary College before transferring to Marist College.
Yeah, I know. It begins sounding like one of those stories where children experience everything in life but childhood. Except that Robert never felt that way.
"I loved every second of it," he said.
When I asked how he could excel as both an artist and a scientist, he leaped at the question as if it were a pizza fresh out of the oven.
"I have a theory," he said, telling me he believes that music training at an early age -- when there are more neurons in the brain -- enhances the band of fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. Get to know Mozart's 4th Violin Concerto, in other words, and Einstein's quantum theory of light might make a little more sense.
You listening, parents? Get the kids some piano lessons.
Robert said that as far back as he could remember, music for him was "exhilaration, joy, complete release." But he also believed that immersing himself in science, history and philosophy would make him a better violinist.
"To be an artist, you have to know something outside your instrument," he said. "You have to be a human."
After collecting his master's from Yale in May, it was time to figure out what to do next. Rather than rush off to medical school or go for an MBA, Robert thought he'd take time to reflect while doing some freelance soloing.
Might as well have told his parents he wanted to work at a car wash.
"His mother wanted him to become a doctor and so did I," said Vivek Gupta, who had always thought music would be something Robert did on the side, to take a break from his real job. "We thought he was wasting his time."
But Robert had developed a mind of his own, and a friend told him the L.A. Phil had openings for two violinists.
Interesting, he thought. He'd counted on a career as a soloist, but believed an orchestral job would be more challenging and useful at this stage of his development. He'd have to interpret the conductor, take a cue from the section leader, work in tandem with his stand partner, and still produce an original sound.
Honestly, though, he figured he had a better chance of jumping off a chair and landing on the moon than getting hired in Los Angeles, which he believes is supplanting New York as the music center with all the buzz. But long odds could work to his advantage, he theorized. It would free him to play without pressure.
"I wanted to not think about the result."
Of the 332 musicians who applied for two violin positions, 111 were invited to audition. In the first round of trials, Gupta's strategy worked well enough to move him into Day Two. And then it worked again.
For most of the performances, musicians played behind a screen, so judges evaluated only the sound and not the person. But in his final two performances, Robert was face to face with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.
In the first of those sessions, Gupta felt like he'd faint from lack of food. But someone rescued him with a snack, and so he was in front of Salonen one last time, with the conductor asking him to play Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream.
Gupta dug down once more, trying not just to play the piece, but to feel and interpret it. If his boldness cost him the job, so be it.
By the end of the night, Salonen had made his decision. Gupta and David Chernyavsky were the winners, and Gupta would be invited back the following week for tryouts with the full orchestra.
After just three concerts, Gupta was called to the conductor's office.
"I'm very honored to offer you the position," Salonen said. "Will you accept?"
"Absolutely," Gupta said.
Here's what Salonen told me about why he hired a 19-year-old kid for his world-class orchestra.
"I was struck not only by the sheer quality of Robert's playing, but also by the boldness and confidence of it, which is kind of rare at that stage. . . . Many people who come to audition are trying to play it safe . . . and it's playing that . . . is quite often not very interesting."
I wondered, though, if Salonen might be worried that he would show up to work one night and see an empty seat in the orchestra because Gupta had gone off to run Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
"In a sense," Salonen said of Gupta's far-ranging interests, "this made me even more confident about his future in music, because very clearly Robert is not playing violin in the L.A. Philharmonic for any other reason than his love of music."
In concert at Disney Hall, Gupta appears to have settled in comfortably but lost none of the exuberance. After a recent performance of Beethoven's 4th, he stood Boy Scout proud, basking in warm waves of applause. Last week, he passed his first season of probation with unanimous support from his colleagues.
"He's really a joy to be around," whatever the topic of conversation, said principal concertmaster Martin Chalifour, who finds Gupta's music "enlightened" and "aesthetically beautiful."
Gupta said he looks forward to the occasional solo opportunity, playing chamber music, and perhaps competing one day for a higher position in the orchestra. When he's off duty, he studies literature and science on his own.
Is there still a chance he'll be a doctor one day?
"My wife and I gave up," Vivek Gupta said. "Whatever he decides will be fine. And without music, he would go crazy."
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