Child’s Play

At nine, Carrollton’s Albert Wong can barely reach the piano pedals. But his talent is nothing short of prodigious.

WHEN ALBERT WONG was one and a half years old, he sang perfectly the words to the recorded Chinese songs his mother played while rocking him to sleep. When he was three, he could read and count to one hundred and was curious about infinity and negative numbers. At three and a half Albert decided he wanted to learn how to play the piano. At five he started taking lessons from a music professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, and at six he began giving recitals at the university. When he was eight, he was featured at the opening of the Texas Steinway Society’s concert season. And on January 1, his feet barely reaching the piano’s pedals, he celebrated his ninth birthday by playing with the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth in its annual all-Mozart New Year’s program. “A remarkable talent,” raved the Fort Worth Star-Telegram . “He has already conquered the issue of volume control in Mozart—the elusive ability to project an accent or forte without destroying the delicacy of the music.”

“As far as raw talent, he could go just about as far as he wants—he could be a top professional pianist if he wants to,” says UNT’s Joseph Banowetz, who has been Albert’s private teacher since September 1995. “I’ve seen child prodigies before, but not a lot at this level.” Is Albert the next Van Cliburn? Maybe. The most charismatic four-foot-four concert pianist in the Metroplex? Definitely. At an age when most kids choke up during the school play, Albert lives to perform. “I don’t get nervous,” he says. “There is nothing to worry about.”

He certainly seemed relaxed at the Steinway Society concert last October. He and Banowetz played a duet—three of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances—sitting side by side, Banowetz on a regular piano bench, Albert on his own, taller one. As he played, his face showed the intensity of a child entranced by a video game—and the faces of women in the audience changed from the serious expressions of music lovers at a classical concert to the soft countenances of mothers and grandmothers. Albert’s tiny fingers flew, the notes, tempo, and passion belying his years. “If he plays any faster than that, I’m going to have a heart attack,” Banowetz said afterward, laughing.

Albert is a seasoned performer. A year and a half earlier, he had made his orchestra debut with the Northeast Orchestra at Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church. Before the concert, he stretched his fingers on a few pieces backstage, tapping his feet in the air to keep time because they didn’t touch the floor. After making his entrance and taking a bow, hands stiff at his sides, he played Bach’s Concerto in F Minor, a fifteen-minute piece that is often recorded by professional concert pianists and played by very talented students who are usually at least old enough to drive. Albert played it perfectly. From memory.

As usual, his mother had stayed backstage during the performance. During longer recitals, Albert likes to take a quick break after every piece or two. He walked backstage, got a hug and an encouraging word from Mom, then went back to his piano. “I need her back there so I can have a hug,” he explained later. “It keeps me from getting lonely.”

After three standing ovations, Albert gave an encore, performing “Run, Run” by Octavio Pinto, which he calls a “show-off” piece. His hands were a blur and his full cheeks vibrated as he pounded the keyboard. The music began at such a fast pace, Albert looked like a child banging randomly on the family piano. But the notes were right. “I don’t know any professional who would want to compete with that,” Banowetz said after the performance, as audience and orchestra members lined up for Albert’s autograph, which the then second grader was proud to show he could write in cursive. “It was flawless. It’s intimidating, even for me.”

Albert lives with his parents, Yen-Lih Chang and Chi-Pong Wong, in the upscale Dallas suburb of Carrollton. Yen-Lih and Chi-Pong moved to the United States from Taiwan in 1981 and to Dallas in 1990. Both are engineers with two master’s degrees apiece, but when Albert was born, Yen-Lih quit her job to stay home with him.

Nobody quotes Albert’s IQ (he’s never even been tested). Nobody wants to see him in high school by age ten. Nobody wants to push him beyond his limits—whatever they may be. “Music takes up so much time,” says Yen-Lih. “He also loves to bike, go to the playground, play in the water, play with his friends. I feel a lot of responsibility. I don’t want him to overdo it. I don’t want him to underdo it.”

Albert became fascinated with the piano after his father took him to a piano concert that he found “very interesting.” Recalls Yen-Lih, “I said, ‘How about the violin? It’s cheaper.’” Who knew they would soon be buying a $50,000 Steinway? “We told him, ‘This is like half of our house,’” she says. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion, but two years later Albert did in fact pick up the violin—and has been featured in a Christmas concert with the Dallas Chamber Orchestra. He now takes lessons from James Lerch, the retired head of the strings department at UNT. At a recent session, after demonstrating his progress on a Schubert piece, Albert showed his teacher how his tennis shoes glowed in the dark. While the piano is his primary talent, he clearly qualifies as a prodigy on the violin too, and recently graduated from a quarter-size instrument to a half-size.

Albert is a gifted child on many levels. He spent the 1996–97 school year as a second grader at Indian Creek Elementary, a few blocks from home. He started the next school year in the third grade there, but Yen-Lih now homeschools him. At Indian Creek, Albert spent his days learning about dinosaurs, coloring, and playing memory games. In most

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