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Vanessa-Mae / 22 Nov 96 / Alexandria, Va.

[Note: This essay contains some unintentional innaccuracies regarding the origin of parents and, perhaps, the CD sales in certain countries. That's what happens when one repeats information obtained from fan websites without verifying their accuracy.
  A version of this essay appeared on one of the first Asian American commercial portals. It had been edited to make it sound extremely critical of VM, and thereby, attract controversy, attention, and traffic to the website. Fortunately, that site with the altered essay has long since vanished.]

Having toured Europe and Asia, the young violinist known as, Vanessa-Mae, was performing in 8 US cities. I caught her at the Birchmere, a club in my former residential city of Alexandria, known for presenting bludgrass, country-folk, and other similar types of music.  

I'd picked up her rock-classical fusion album, the Violin Player, a year ago and found it a throwback to similar fusion efforts 2 decades ago. It had a few moments that were interesting, but for the most part it was fairly forgettable. (You know, there's probably something dubious about it when it goes double platinum in Poland! Granted, the Poles know their Chopin backwards and forwards, but when it comes to popular music... I think it also went double platinum in Malaysia or Thailand. I didn't find this out until after I'd bought the CD, otherwise I may not have done so.)

Vanessa-Mae is the offspring of a Taiwanese man and a Thai woman.* They divorced, and the woman remarried to a fellow named Nicholson. So Vanessa Mae also carrries the last name of Nicholson. She's been living in London since the age of 4, and speaks with an English accent. She's only about 18 or 19 -- yet another of these young, attractive Asian female violinists. She's released a couple classical albums, including one for children, on the Angel label. I haven't heard them, so I don't know the extent of her classical talent.  

It's obvious though, that her fusion playing is constrained by her classical training. Not enough rubato or syncopation or swing. (Rythmically, she might be well suited to Hindemith, although I must confess I've not heard his violin and viola pieces.)

I struck up a conversation with a white male who was waiting to get her autograph. He said he'd seen her on the Disney channel. Another guy, a white male who'd driven up from Raleigh, NC (!) said that the 50+ minute Disney video of interview and performance was based on a longer video of her performing at the Royal Albert Hall. While we were talking, a woman named Scarlet Cheng came up and said hi. Scarlet is a freelance journalist who used to live in the DC area. she's now based in HK. Needless to say, I was a little surprised to see her. She'd just finished interviewing Vanessa Mae for a paper, called Asia Times.

Last couple notes about the performance. Vanessa Mae mostly played a white Zeta electric violin, backed up by a rock band (with a keyboardist and a wind player). In the middle of the set, she played some accessible classical stuff (Brahms, Kreisler, Pagannini) accompanied by her mom on piano. For that she played her Guadagni, one of these Italian-crafted violins from a couple hundred years ago. (Or maybe it was a less-precious make.) 

I've little to say about her dress, except to say that it was unremarkable. She wore a black halter top dress with patterns of sequins sewn on, that looked anything but flashy. It almost seemed a bit worn. Her white boots, plentifully laced and without much a heel, reminded me of boots worn by professional wrestlers.

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The audience was quite mixed in terms of age, ranging from a few young kids (10 or 11 years old?) to retirees. Mostly white, a few Asians and others. It was a full house. The reaction was mixed, although generally enthusiastic. I'm afraid I didn't clap much. Much of the stuff she played and repeated for encores was off of the Violin Player album. There was at least one piece (a Scottish song which she initially vocalizes) from her newer release.

The story doesn't end there...

A couple days later, I heard from a friend via email:  

"Vanessa Mae was on Rosie O'Donnell's show today. O'Donnell cooed over her ("you've got a Paula Abdul thing going") and was dutifully impressed that she had just turned 18... She was also voted one of People magazines 50 most beautiful this year."

As I was bumming around Berlin, one spring day in '99, I came across these posters for a Vanessa-Mae concert. She'd performed a week before I arrived.   Next time, I'll have to sync my itinerary with her concert schedule. :-)

*I've been informed, years later, that the nationalities should be somewhat switched... that her mother is Singaporean Chinese and biological father is Thai.