Kao Tzu (高慈) gives off a distinct childlike aura — from her elfin build to the way she easily forgets her indoor voice, like when conversation turns to her instrument.
“I really think that the flute is gorgeous,” she said to the Taipei Times. “When I was nine years old, I walked into a classroom full of instruments and it was the only one I saw.”
Kao performs Saturday at the National Recital Hall as a winner in the 2013 Young Star Series (樂壇新秀), a competition for musicians 30 and younger. She’s been in the national music competition circuit for a while and consistently excels. Overseas she has won the Jo Weinberg Flute Award, the J&J Flute Brough Prize and the Young Artist Show, and is a kind of ambassador for what the Ministry of Education’s music-training program can do.
In this controversial program, public school children — usually incoming third graders — vie for limited seats in a homeroom designated for music training. If admitted, they are taught a primary instrument, a secondary instrument and sometimes a third, classical Chinese instrument, receiving up to 10 hours of music instruction a week along with general subjects such as math and history. Since 1973, critics have said the program doesn’t do well by its trainees, burning them out because there aren’t enough school hours in a day.
It didn’t happen to Kao, but she said the program is demanding. She regularly traded playtime with flute and piano practice, and eventually quit ballet. “I really didn’t have that much time to do other things. Also, my parents didn’t demand that I be great at every school subject,” she said.
“But they always backed me up in whatever I wanted to do. When I was little, my mother would sit next to me when I played piano. She couldn’t play herself, but she had learned to read music and could help me and spend time with me,” she said.
In Kao, a lucky alignment of parental priorities, middle class background, talent and her own temperament created what is — by all appearances — a well-adjusted performance artist. After high school, she went on to National Taiwan Normal University and then to Britain’s Royal Academy of Music, where she studied with William Bennett. Today she teaches children in the same national training program, and exudes a confidence in her music and upcoming recital.
Saturday’s program begins with a ballet score, Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella, that she adapted herself. She’s also playing some Baroque and the playful Grand Fantaise sur Mignon by Paul Taffanel. A favorite, Spiral Lament (2003) by Ian Clarke, is a piece that applies special effects like alternate fingerings to tweak timbre and micro-tone grace notes to make alien spaceship noises.
“I met Ian in England — he wrote the song because his friend owned an ugly African snail and wanted him to write a song about the snail,” said Kao.
Feeling uninspired, Clarke postponed the task. “Then one day he visited this friend’s house and finally saw the snail itself. He didn’t want to get too close, but his daughter went up and touched it. So he went closer too, and then he decided to write the song,” she said.
In the end, what Clarke remembered best was not his viewing of the snail but of what preceded it. “He said that when people grow up, they become cautious, but when they are young, they have curiosity and optimism,” she said.
These traits are in the piece, and she seems to embody them, too. On Facebook, you can find photos of a beaming Kao at recital after recital in different parts of the world, staring out as if on the brink of something new.