Whiz Kids 

Famed violist Benjamin Simon celebrates the adolescent accomplishments of Mozart and Mendelssohn.

After starting to play the piano at age six, Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn gave his first concert at age nine. By age fourteen, he had composed at least a dozen string symphonies. He was also an accomplished painter and cartoonist and spoke four languages. He's one of two prodigies that San Francisco Chamber Orchestra music director Benjamin Simon will discuss at the Hillside Club (2286 Cedar St., Berkeley) on December 20 in a lecture titled "Behind the Notes."

The other prodigy is oh so obvious. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began playing the clavier at age four, then composing at age five. Even so, Mendelssohn "found his musical voice at a much earlier age than did Mozart," muses Simon, a world-renowned violist who has performed with the New York and Los Angeles philharmonic orchestras. "The fact that his style never developed much past this point takes nothing away from his singular and incandescent genius."

Simon's talk sets the tune for the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra's upcoming concert set, "Prodigies," which includes Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 2 in E-flat Major and Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in E-flat Major, along with Mendelssohn's String Symphony No. 9 in C Major — the ninth of those works he composed before turning fourteen — to be performed on December 31 at Berkeley's First Congregational Church. Mendelssohn "was the Leonard Bernstein of his day, an enormously popular personality and musical superstar," Simon writes. "At its best, his music is irresistibly charming and irrepressibly happy ... and why not? He was born into a wealthy family and given all the advantages — the best tutors, a fine orchestra at his disposal during weekly salons, the encouragement of influential people. But this doesn't explain, of course, his enormous gifts." A native San Franciscan, Simon succeeded Anne Crowden in 2000 to become the director of Berkeley's Crowden School, a middle school that combines strong academics with a distinguished chamber-music program in hopes of creating — well, prodigies. 7:30 p.m., $10. HillsideClub.org


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