For pianist, 18, intensity simmers onstage, blazes off it

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For pianist, 18, intensity simmers onstage, blazes off it

TONGYEONG, North Gyeongsang province - It's been a tough week for the young pianist Lim Dong-hyek. He's been dwelling on the moments during last week's performance with the Radio France Philharmonic - part of the Tongyeong International Music Festivval - that were out of sync. A pianist who attended the show said, "The orchestra should've slowed down more for the soloist."

The morning after the concert, Lim showed up with his mother for an interview at a restaurant near his hotel. His presence was as rigid as the night before, his eyes swollen from lack of sleep and accumulated fatigue. As he sat, he complained to his mother that the hotel's video game room didn't stay open all night.

"If the audience last night had even the slightest knowledge of music, they could tell how off the concert was," Lim said. He spoke with an edge along with a few sardonic laughs, which seemed rather incompatible for an 18-year old. "I don't know. I got a sense that the musicians there just wanted to get the show overwith and go home. What kind of professionalism is that?"

Lim does not tolerate incompetence. Whether it's him making the mistake or somebody else, he packs a visceral disgust for people who do things clumsily. That nervy perfectionism may explain his unusual thinness ?assuming many perfectionists often forget to eat.

At 174 centimeters and 46 kilograms, he manages to get through the six-hour rehearsal with only a few bites of chocolate. The media describe him as "the miracle of 46 kilograms," as well as straight tributes like "the emerging prodigy." Local reporters like to sensationalize his gift, and use his name to promote national pride. They're quick to point out that, at 14, he became the youngest person ever to enter the Moscow Conservatory. Lim's popularity soared after he won first prize in December at Paris' Long-Thibaud International Competition.

Like many other great musicians, Lim devotes enormous concentration to his practice, which makes him prone to an overwhelming fear of making mistakes on stage. "It's something every pianist has to endure," he acknowledged. But for Lim, that intensity is getting a little out of control: He sometimes takes anti-anxiety pills before a performance. The pressure exacts a toll on his body as well. After a recent performance at Tokyo's Santori Hall, one of Lim's favorite concert halls, he came down with bronchitis.

The public got a look at Lim's edginess when he gave a television interview the day before the Tongyeong performance. He snapped at a polite reporter who had asked him to say a nice word to music fans. Looking uninspired, Lim said, "Don't expect too many things from me." His face, small but tough, looked overly serious for a teenager. The reporter laughed in an attempt to ease the awkwardness, but Lim looked away, indifferent.

The next day before his concert, he was seen entering the elevator of his hotel where most of the performers stayed carrying a box of chocolate pie. A preshow binge? Soon after that he was on stage. Clad in a white tuxedo, he sat in silence in front of the piano with his back hunched before striking the first key. "The ensemble came out too late from the very beginning," he said sharply of the start.

"His nerves turn into a tip of the needle before shows," his mother explained. "He doesn't want to meet anyone because he gets too sensitive when people start telling him things like 'oh, I came here to see you play,' or 'I heard how well you play.'"

For a mother, Lim hasn't been an easy child to raise. "I feel like I've led him in a direction that's just too much for someone his age to handle," she said. "But I didn't really lead him." Unlike some mothers who send their children to music schools at a young age, Lim's mother didn't force her son to be a pianist; it happened naturally. Lim's older brother Dong-min started taking piano lessons. Dong-hyek got jealous and asked if he could start too.

"Sure there are plenty of things I like doing," he said. "I like reading comic books and playing video dance games. In the future, I want to learn the violin and eventually conduct. But for now, I need to concentrate on piano, because even if I did, I don't if I will be able to make it."

by Park Soo-mee

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