There's nothing like having friends in high places.

In 1976, Anne-Sophie Mutter, then a promising, pudgy-faced 13-year-old violinist from Rheinfelden, West Germany, found herself in the presence of a legend, Herbert von Karajan.

"I wasn't nervous at all," Mutter recalls of that fateful meeting with the maestro. "He asked me to play for him, and I did. I suppose if that happened (for the first time) now, I'd be so afraid. But then, nothing bothered me. I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, what if I don't do well. . . ?' "

She did well. Karajan liked what he heard and promptly invited the young musician to appear with him at the Salzburg Easter Festival.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Now 23, Mutter is a seasoned professional who has more than justified Karajan's vote of confidence. Tonight, two years after a triumphant debut here, she makes a return visit to the Music Center, playing the Mendelssohn E-minor Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Simon Rattle.

Within a decade, she has jumped from being a small-town phenomenon to an in-demand international figure. As she calmly ticks off upcoming appearances, Mutter mentions some very big-name conductors: Rostropovich (with whom she also performs chamber music), Abbado and, of course, Karajan.

What would life be like without Karajan? More to the point, what would life have been like over the last 10 years without the irreplaceable boost she received from the revered German conductor?

As she sits in her Beverly Hills hotel room, Mutter answers simply and without hesitation: "Karajan saved me time. When you have played for him, you don't have to play for everyone else.

"You know, he still takes time to listen (to untried musicians). He's always made a point of it. All the big singers were discovered by him--(Mirella) Freni and so many others. And Barenboim and Abbado. The list is a long one."

Karajan not only listened to Mutter, he offered advice, encouragement and a dream-come-true opportunity for an unknown musician: the chance to record standard repertory with the Berlin Philharmonic.

"He gives you hundreds of possibilities, galaxies of ideas," she says. "In early meetings with him, he expressed concern for my phrasing. He helped me gain a large palette of colors. I also started not to think as a violinist. I had been too close to the instrument. I began to gain a sense of perspective, to see my solo part and the orchestral part together."

Perspective has been a key element in her success, not only in guiding her playing, but in guiding her career. At age 5, she had decided she wanted to play music--when she first picked up a violin, it was love at first sight. Her technique developed rapidly. "Passion never shows any logic," she says with a grin.

The easy course for her family would have been to parade young Anne-Sophie before the public. Her parents chose to act with more prudence.

"For a prodigy, the family atmosphere is very important," she says. "I thank God no one played music in my house. They never put pressure on me. In fact, they never allowed me to play in public till I was 13."

Mutter pauses to reflect on that, and quietly adds, "They showed amazing intelligence."

Life is more than merely playing the violin, she says: "I love to swim, to read, to lie in the sun. To get away from the music is important, too. So, for me, every day is fresh. Playing night after night, the mood is always different."

Part of the freshness, she adds, is due to a rigidly regulated calendar that allows 80 to 90 performing dates a year. Period.

Mutter can expect to spend several decades with that handful of concerto standards by Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, etc. (though next season she makes her first U.S. recital tour). The prospects of a long life with the warhorses doesn't bother her in the slightest.

"I love pasta," she says. "I could eat it every day." Her face lights up. "And the Beethoven Concerto is an even greater experience than pasta!"

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