They Burn So Bright

Prodigies are the last acceptable freak show. We gawk at them, wondering how long their creative fires will stay alive.


There is no more precarious--or engaging--prodigy than the musician, for she puts her talent on public display. While dazzling technique may carry a youthful career, it cannot alone support an adult one. But Sarah Chang, a 12-year-old violinist from Philadelphia, already performs with an adult's emotional grasp. Dorothy DeLay, the celebrated Juilliard teacher, is well acquainted with prodigy; her pupils include Itzhak Perlman and Midori. She first heard Chang when she was 5 and took her on soon after. DeLay was amazed at her technical proficiency but truly astonished by "her attempt to make a musical phrase. I'd never seen anything like it." Chang, the daughter of Korean-born musicians, has a recording contract with EMI (her latest disc is a passionate reading of the Tchaikovsky concerto) but limits her concert dates. And even the whiz-kid fiddler doesn't really get to cut class: on the road, she faxes in her homework.


Maybe Jorge's grades at Oliver Hazar Perry Middle School in Providence, R.I., were low this past year because he read chess magazines in class. He's the best chess player in the United States under 16, and he comes by the title almost genetically. His father and brother are both masters, and by the time Jorge was 7, he was too good to play against other kids. "Chess is like falling in love for me," he says--but it's not a smooth romance. In 1990 his family moved from Honduras to the United States so he could compete at a higher level. Now they may move to New Jersey so Jorge can be closer to tournaments in New York. yet at the same time, says Jorge, "my dad gets mad and says I'm smart, I should get A;s. I think he's right. When I study for 15 minutes, the next day I do get A's." It's clear that Jorge is torn. At 14, he wants to be like everyone else, so the kids won't laugh at him--and he wants to stand out as a champion. But he sees the pressures of that life. "To be an engineer of computers or a doctor, you don't have to be the best to make a living," he says. "But to make a living playing chess, you have to be really at the top."


Imagine--and it takes some doing--Lenhard (Lenny) Ng, the older son of Cantonese immigrants who settled in Chapel Hill, N.C., where his father is a physics professor at the University of North Carolina. At 10, he scored a perfect 800 on the math SAT. He set a record by performing flawlessly, four years running, in the American High School Math Exam. Last year he won a gold medal at the math olympics in Moscow. He took honors in several violin and piano competitions and played on a championship little-league basketball team while earning all A's at UNC (he attended high school and college simultaneously). Julian Stanley, who founded the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth at Johns Hopkins University, calls him "the most brilliant math prodigy I've ever met." This fall Ng will enter Harvard, probably as a sophomore. He is 16. It's enough to make you hate him--except that he is a genuinely nice kid. "I have a lot of friends," says Ng. "I've tried to live as normal a life as possible. People say to me, "You're a math god.' And I say, 'I am?'" And this will make you feel better: on his verbal SAT last year, Ng got a mere 780.