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Blowout in Budapest


After all those excruciating hours preparing for the Juilliard audition, and then the food poisoning and the rejection letter, you’d think that I would have given Lulu a break. I probably should have. But that was two years ago, when I was much younger, and I didn’t. Easing up would have been selling Lulu short. It would have been the easy way out, which I saw as the Western thing to do. Instead, I jacked up the pressure even more. For the first time, I paid a real price, but nothing like the price I would eventually pay.

Two of the most important guests at Sophia’s Carnegie Hall recital were Oszkár and Krisztina Pogány, old family friends from Hungary, who happened to be visiting New York at the time. Oszkár is a prominent physicist and my father’s close friend. His wife, Krisztina, is a former concert pianist who is now very involved with the Budapest music scene. After Sophia’s performance, Krisztina rushed up to us, raved about Sophia’s playing—she’d especially liked her “Juliet as a Young Girl”—and said she had an inspiration.

Budapest, Krisztina explained, would soon be celebrating Museum Night, when museums all over the city would host lectures, performances, and concerts; for the price of a single ticket, people could “museum hop” late into the night. As part of Museum Night, the Franz Liszt Academy of Music would be presenting a number of concerts. Krisztina thought it would be a big hit to have a “Prodigy from America” concert, featuring Sophia.

It was a breathtaking invitation. Budapest is a famously musical city, the home of not only Liszt but Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. Its stunning State Opera House is said to be surpassed acoustically only by Milan’s La Scala and Paris’s Palais Garnier. The venue Krisztina proposed for the concert was the Old Music Academy, an elegant three-story neo-Renaissance building that once served as the official residence of Franz Liszt, the founder and president of the academy. The Old Academy (replaced in 1907 by the New Academy of Music, located a few streets away) was now a museum filled with Liszt’s original instruments, furniture, and handwritten musical scores. Krisztina told Sophia that she would perform on one of Liszt’s own pianos! Also, the audience would be a large one—not to mention Sophia’s first paying audience.

But I had a problem. So soon after the fanfare of Carnegie Hall, how would Lulu feel about another big event with Sophia as the center of attention? Lulu had been pleased with Miss Tanaka’s offer; somewhat to my surprise, she immediately said she wanted to do it. But that did only a little to dull the sting of the Juilliard disappointment. To make matters worse, I hadn’t thought to keep her audition a secret, and for months Lulu had to deal with people asking her, “Did you get the audition results yet? I’ m sure you got in.”

The Chinese parenting approach is weakest when it comes to failure; it just doesn’t tolerate that possibility. The Chinese model turns on achieving success. That’s how the virtuous circle of confidence, hard work, and more success is generated. I knew that I had to make sure Lulu achieved that success—at the same level as Sophia—before it was too late.

I came up with a plan and enlisted my mother as my agent. I asked her to call her old friend Krisztina and tell her all about Lulu and the violin: how she had played for Jessye Norman and then for the renowned violin instructor Mrs. Vamos, both of whom had said Lulu was terrifically talented, and finally, how Lulu had just been accepted as a private student by a world-famous teacher from the world-famous Juilliard School. I told my mother to feel out the possibility of having Lulu perform with Sophia as a duo in Budapest, even if only for one piece. Perhaps, I told my mother to suggest, that one piece could be Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances for Piano and Violin, which the girls had recently performed—and which I knew would appeal to Krisztina. Along with Liszt, Bartók is Hungary’s most famous composer, and his Folk Dances are sensational crowdpleasers.

We lucked out. Krisztina, who had met Lulu and liked her fiery personality, told my mother that she loved the idea of having Sophia play a piece with her little sister and that the Romanian Dances would be a perfect addition to the program. Krisztina said she would arrange everything and even change the billing of the event to “Two Prodigy Sisters from America.”

The girls’ concert was set for June 23, only one month away. Once again, I bore down.There was a staggering amount of work to be done. I had exaggerated when I told my mother that the girls had recently performed the Romanian Dances; by “recently” I meant a year and a half ago. To relearn the Dances and get them just right, the girls and I had to work around the clock. Meanwhile, Sophia was also frantically practicing four other pieces Wei-Yi had chosen for her: Brahms’s Rhapsody in G Minor, a piece by a Chinese woman composer, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and of course, one of Liszt’s famous Hungarian Rhapsodies.

Although Sophia had the difficult repertoire, my real concern was Lulu. I wanted with all my heart for her to be dazzling. I knew that my parents would be at the concert; by coincidence, they were going to be in Budapest for the month of June because my father was being inducted into the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. I also didn’t want to let Krisztina down. Most of all, I wanted Lulu to do well for Lulu. This is exactly what she needs, I thought to myself; it will give her so much confidence and pride if she does well. I had to deal with some resistance from Lulu: I had promised her time off after her audition no matter what, and now I was breaking that promise. But I steeled myself for battle, and when things got intolerable, I hired Kiwon and Lexie as auxiliaries.

Here’s a question I often get: “But Amy, let me ask you this. Who are you doing all this pushing for—your daughters”—and here always the cocked head, the knowing tone—“or yourself ?” I find this a very Western question to ask (because in Chinese thinking, the child is the extension of the self). But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important one.

My answer, I’m pretty sure, is that everything I do is unequivocally 100% for my daughters. My main evidence is that so much of what I do with Sophia and Lulu is miserable, exhausting, and not remotely fun for me. It’s not easy to make your kids work when they don’t want to, to put in grueling hours when your own youth is slipping away, to convince your kids they can do something when they (and maybe even you) are fearful that they can’t. “Do you know how many years you’ve taken off my life?” I’m constantly asking my girls. “You’re both lucky that I have enormous longevity as indicated by my thick good-luck earlobes.”

To be honest, I sometimes wonder if the question “Who are you really doing this for?” should be asked of Western parents too. Sometimes I wake up in the morning dreading what I have to do and thinking how easy it would be to say, “Sure Lulu, we can skip a day of violin practice.” Unlike my Western friends, I can never say, “As much as it kills me, I just have to let my kids make their choices and follow their hearts. It’s the hardest thing in the world, but I’m doing my best to hold back.” Then they get to have a glass of wine and go to a yoga class, whereas I have to stay home and scream and have my kids hate me.

A few days before we left for Budapest, I emailed Krisztina, asking her if she knew of any experienced music teachers who could run through the Romanian Dances with the girls as a kind of dress rehearsal, perhaps offering some tips about how to play a Hungarian composer properly. Krisztina wrote back with good news. A prominent Eastern European violin teacher, whom I’ll call Mrs. Kazinczy, had generously agreed to see the girls. Recently retired, Mrs. Kazinczy now taught only the most gifted violinists. She had a single slot available—on the day we arrived—and I grabbed it.

We arrived at our hotel in Budapest on the day before the concert, around ten in the morning—4:00 A.M. New Haven time. We were groggy and bleary-eyed. Jed and Lulu both had headaches. The girls just wanted to sleep, and I didn’t feel so great myself, but unfortunately it was time for the lesson with Mrs. Kazinczy. We’d already received two messages, one from my parents and one from Krisztina, about where to meet. The four of us staggered into a taxi, and a few minutes later, we were at the New Academy of Music, a magnificent Art Nouveau building with majestic columns facing Franz Liszt Square and taking up almost half a block.

Mrs. Kazinczy met us in a large room on one of the upper floors. My parents and a beaming Krisztina were already there, sitting on chairs along one of the walls. There was an old piano in the room, which Krisztina signaled Sophia to go to.

Mrs. Kazinczy, to put it mildly, was highstrung. She looked like her husband had just left her for a younger woman but not before transferring all his assets to an offshore account. She subscribed to the strict Russian school of music teaching: impatient, demanding, and intolerant of anything she perceived as error. “No!” she yelled before Lulu had played a single note. “What—why you hold bow like that?” she demanded incredulously. As the girls began playing, she stopped Lulu after every two notes, pacing back and forth, gesticulating wildly. She found the fingering Lulu had been taught monstrous and ordered her to correct it, even though it was the day before the performance. She also kept turning to the piano to snap at Sophia, although her main sights were set on Lulu.

I had a bad feeling. I could tell that Lulu found Mrs. Kazinczy’s orders unreasonable, her reprimands unjust. The madder Lulu got, the more stiffly she played, and the less she was able to concentrate. Her phrasing deteriorated, followed by her intonation. Oh no, I thought, here it comes. Sure enough, at a certain point an irritated look came over Lulu, and suddenly she was no longer trying at all, no longer even listening. Meanwhile, Mrs. Kazinczy had worked herself into a frenzy. Her temples were bulging, and her voice got shriller. She kept saying things in Hungarian to Krisztina and getting alarmingly close to Lulu, talking in her face, poking her in the shoulder. At one moment of exasperation, Mrs. Kazinczy thwacked Lulu on her playing fingers with a pencil.

I saw the fury rising in Lulu. At home, she would have exploded immediately. But here, she struggled to hold it in, to keep playing. Mrs. Kazinczy wielded her pencil again. Two minutes later, in the middle of playing a passage, Lulu said she had to go to the bathroom. I got up quickly and went out with her into the hall, where after storming around a corner she burst into tears of rage.

“I won’t go back in there,” she said ferociously. “You can’t make me. That woman is crazy—I hate her. I hate her!”

I didn’t know what to do. Mrs. Kazinczy was Krisztina’s friend. My parents were still in the room. There were thirty more minutes left to the lesson, and everyone was waiting for Lulu to return.

I tried to reason with Lulu. I reminded her that Mrs. Kazinczy had said Lulu was incredibly talented, which is why she was demanding so much of her. (“I don’t care!”) I admitted that Mrs. Kazinczy was not good at communicating, but I said I thought she meant well and begged Lulu to give her another try. (“I won’t!”) When all else failed, I scolded Lulu. I said she had an obligation to Krisztina, who had gone out of her way to arrange the session, and to my parents, who would be horrified if she didn’t go back. “You’re not the only one involved, Lulu. You have to be strong and find a way to get through this. We all take a lot of things, Lulu—you can take this.”

She refused. I was mortified. Unjustified as Mrs. Kazinczy may have been, she was still a teacher, an authority figure, and one of first things Chinese people learn is that you must respect authority. No matter what, you don’t talk back to your parents, teachers, elders. In the end, I had to go back to the room alone, apologizing profusely and explaining (falsely) that Lulu was angry with me. I then made Sophia—who wasn’t crazy about Mrs. Kazinczy either and who wasn’t even a violinist—take the rest of the lesson, ostensibly getting tips about playing as a duo.

Back at the hotel, I yelled at Lulu, and afterward Jed and I got into an argument. He said that he didn’t blame Lulu for leaving and that it was probably better that she had. He pointed out that she’d just been through the Juilliard audition, that she was exhausted with jet lag, and that she’d been whacked by a total stranger. “Isn’t it a little strange for Mrs. Kazinczy to be trying to change Lulu’s fingering the day before the concert? I thought you weren’t supposed to do that,” he said. “Maybe you should try being a little more sympathetic to Lulu. I know what you’re trying to do, Amy. But if you don’t watch out, everything might backfire.”

Part of me knew that Jed was right. But I couldn’t think about that. I had to stay focused on the concert. The next day, I was very severe with both girls, shuttling back and forth between their practice rooms at the New Academy.

Unfortunately, Lulu’s outrage at Mrs. Kazinczy had only increased overnight. I could tell that she was replaying the episode in her head, getting more and more incensed and distracted. When I’d ask her to drill a passage, she’d suddenly burst out, “She didn’t know what she was talking about—the fingering she suggested was ridiculous! Did you notice that she kept contradicting herself?” Or: “I don’t think she understood Bartók at all; her interpretation was horrendous—who does she think she is?”

When I told her that she had to stop dwelling on Mrs. Kazinczy and wasting time, Lulu said, “You never take my side. And I don’t want to perform tonight. I don’t feel like it anymore. That woman wrecked everything. Just let Sophia perform alone.” We fought all afternoon, and I was at wit’s end.

In the end, I think Krisztina saved the day. When we arrived at the Old Music Academy, Krisztina rushed up to us, smiling and ebullient. She hugged the girls excitedly, gave them each a little gift, and said, “We are so very happy to have you. You are both so very talented”—she accented the second syllable. Shaking her head, Krisztina casually mentioned that Mrs. Kazinczy shouldn’t have tried to change Lulu’s fingering and that she must have forgotten the concert was the next day. “You are so talented,” she repeated to Lulu. “It’s going to be a wonderful performance!” Then she whisked them off—away from me—to a back room, where she ran through parts of the program with them.

Up until the very last second I didn’t know how things would go—and whether I’d have one or two daughters performing that night. But somehow, miraculously, Lulu pulled it out, and the concert ended up being a spectacular success. The Hungarians, a warm and generous people, gave the girls a standing ovation and three bows, and the director of the museum invited them to come back anytime. Afterward, we took the Pogánys, my parents, and Sy and Harriet, who had flown in just in time, out to a celebration dinner.

But after that trip, something was different. For Lulu, the experience with Mrs. Kazinczy was infuriating and outrageous, violating her sense of right and wrong. It soured her on the Chinese model—if being Chinese meant having to take it from the likes of Mrs. Kazinczy, then she didn’t want any part of it. She’d also tested what would happen if she simply refused to do what her teacher and mother told her to do, and the sky hadn’t fallen in. On the contrary, she’d won. Even my parents, despite everything they’d drilled into me, sympathized with Lulu.

For my part, I felt that something had come loose, like the unmooring of an anchor. I’d lost some control over Lulu. No Chinese daughter would ever act the way Lulu did. No Chinese mother would ever have allowed it to happen.



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