Alma Deutscher wants what most of us want at 13 years old: to be treated like a grown-up. Deutscher is already 11 years into her musical life; she started playing the piano at the age of two – a miniature piano, with a one-finger technique, of course – and her violin playing dates to her third birthday, when she received a violin as a gift. “Everyone thought it was a toy, and I would throw it away after a few days,” she recalls. “I kept on trying to play [the violin], and we decided to get a teacher.”
Deutscher, who lives in the English county of Surrey, is also a composer. Distinctly young and increasingly famous, she has written concertos for piano and violin, as well as works for symphony orchestra and two operas. Looking very much her age, Deutscher is aware of the first impression she makes. “Most people, when they see me, think, ‘She doesn’t look like a composer,’” she says. After all, she is a far cry from the old, bearded men of the stereotypical Brahms-and-Beethoven type.
Remarkably, 2015 – the year she turned 10 – saw the premieres of her Violin Concerto, her symphonic work Dance of the Solent Mermaids and her opera Cinderella; in her first handful of years as a professional composer, Deutscher has already seen how her music speaks for itself, even overshadowing the surprising first impressions she gives as a young musician. She is no stranger to coverage in major press outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian, and her YouTube channel has over 56,000 subscribers (and more than six million views). She has appeared on 60 Minutes, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and in a BBC documentary about her opera, Finding Cinderella. “It’s wonderful, because people are beginning to take me seriously now,” she says.
Deutscher is making her Canadian debut on April 13 at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, in celebration of the 12th Glenn Gould Prize Jury. She will perform both her Piano Sonata and her Violin Sonata along with pianist Angela Park, and excerpts of her Cinderella will be sung by tenor Andrew Haji and soprano Adanya Dunn.
“It’s quite different from the Cinderella that everybody knows,” Deutscher says of her opera, which has been sung in three languages for its performances in Israel (Hebrew), Vienna (German) and San Jose, Calif. (English). In her opera, Cinderella is a composer (“a bit like me,” she adds) and the Prince is a poet. The action unfolds at an opera company, run by the Evil Stepmother, and populated by the two Stepsisters, both would-be prima donnas. “The Prince doesn’t find [Cinderella] with a shoe at the end; he finds her with a melody.”
The daughter of amateur musicians, Deutscher’s appetite for writing music began at just four years old, when “I started to have melodies in my head.” She played the melodies on the piano, and when she learned to write musical notation – at 5 – she took them down in a notebook.
Her ability to imagine melodies is innate, and connected to her impressive skills in improvisation. “You can’t really teach it, to be honest,” she says, yet she can practise it. She often has sessions via Skype with an improvisation teacher in Switzerland. “I improvise a little bit, and he improvises a little bit. We call it questions-and-answers. It’s very fun.”
Now, she is a mindful writer of music, with lofty influences like Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven and Dvořák. “I love composers who wrote beautiful melodies,” she says. It makes sense that a young melodist would turn so quickly to writing for singers; still, like any composer who has attempted opera knows, there are learning curves.
With the musician’s gift/curse of perfect pitch – the ability to identify a specific pitch without a point of reference – Deutscher notices more than most the unique affects of each musical key. When she was younger, she was dismayed when a singer would tell her that her aria was in a key too high or too low for their voice. “This would make me so unhappy, because I really did not want to change the key, because I loved it in that key, and thought it wouldn’t be nearly as beautiful in another key.”
Today, she says, she is “more flexible,” and she has learned not just the limitations of various voice types, but the options they present. “I know that a tenor can sing really high, so I can write a high, ecstatic episode for him.”
Deutscher’s early interest in playing instruments, her sensitivity to pitch and key, and her abilities in improvisation all signal a profound natural affinity for music. Hers are skills that can be honed, yet not often taught.
Her daily life looks quite different from those of many 13-year-olds, forgoing a traditional school schedule in lieu of composing, practising, travelling and supplementing her general education with lots of reading. She clearly has a strong sense of self-discipline, focusing her daily schedule on the piano, the violin or composition, according to what’s coming up in her busy calendar. She is currently learning German, and studying history and math on her own and with the help of her parents.
The young bibliophile is ready for her Canadian debut, too. “I read all of the books by L.M. Montgomery,” she says of her favourite author. “I know all about Prince Edward Island, and I know one of [Montgomery’s books] is set in Toronto, so I’m really excited to go there and see what it’s actually like.”
In conversation, Deutscher reveals in herself a rare mix of intelligence and openness. She has a sense of wonder and curiosity about music that suits her age, but she is mature in her focus on her craft. Her industriousness comes out of a simple love for the work, and she even seems capable of enjoying her unique life.
“I’ve been having a wonderful childhood so far,” she says, eerily self-aware. “It’s wonderful to be surrounded by music when you’re young.”
“There’s not so much time in a day,” Deutscher admits, anticipating that she will eventually have to choose between the violin and the piano. “The pianists say I should choose the piano, and the violinists say I should choose the violin.”
She is decisive, though, in her resolve to continue to write music. “I’ll definitely always be a composer.”
The 12th Glenn Gould Prize Jury Celebration Concert featuring Alma Deutscher is at 8 p.m. on April 13 at Koerner Hall in Toronto (glenngould.ca).