From the New York Times:

July 9, 2004
Playing Piano Recitals and Skipping Fifth Grade

Talent is the norm at the Manhattan School of Music, where teachers like Miyoko Lotto coax excellence from the hands of young pianists. So when she was asked to hear a 6-year-old who was billed as a prodigy, Ms. Lotto was blasé. "I thought, here goes another one," she said. "Then this absolutely dazzling child walked in with his mother."

The child was Drew Petersen, whose mother, Sue, a nurse with little musical background, needed guidance for her precocious son. He had picked out tunes on the piano as a toddler, taught himself to read music by age 5 and sped through his first lesson book. Upon arriving in Ms. Lotto's Manhattan apartment, he went straight to her nine-foot Steinway and began playing Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. "It was so shocking," Ms. Lotto said. "He could barely reach the pedals, but he played with every adult nuance you'd ever want. I thought, Oh my God, this really is a genius."

She took the boy under her wing, meeting with him every few months while he studied weekly with one of her associates. Drew is now a freckle-faced 10-year-old who still impresses adults with his intelligence, maturity and depth. His latest conquests are Eleanor Sage Leonard, president and founder of the Music Festival of the Hamptons, which begins its ninth season at 7:45 tonight in Bridgehampton, N.Y., and Lukas Foss, the 81-year-old composer and pianist who is the festival's music director.

After Drew played a piece at a fund-raiser for the festival in April, a performance that Ms. Leonard said "captured the whole audience," she and Mr. Foss decided to make a place for him on the summer program. He will play works by Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Copland at 11 a.m. Sunday in the festival's Moiseiwitsch Piano Recital Series, named for the pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch, Ms. Leonard's great-uncle.

Mr. Foss says Drew is the real thing, not a one-summer wonder. "I think he's going to make it," he said. "He's very musical and needs very little coaching. He's also very confident — he doesn't get scared."

The Petersen family, which also includes Drew's father, Joe, an automotive technician, and 6-year-old brother, Erik, live in Oradell, N.J. Drew, an engaging youngster with a wide smile and dimpled chin, said he did not get nervous because he loved performing. "I feel like I'm sharing something with all these people, but I'm not aware of the audience when I play," he said with grown-up clarity. "Musicians, especially advanced ones, go into their own world when they perform. Sometimes when it's over, I say, did I play that?"

He has won several New Jersey piano competitions as well as the 2001 solo recital competition of the Piano Teachers Society of America, which earned him a recital in Weill Recital Hall. He has also played at the Musica e Arte Festival in Tolentino, Italy, and was invited to perform in a solo recital last year in Steinway Hall.

Neither of his parents plays an instrument, although Drew plunked his first tunes on Ms. Petersen's childhood piano, an old upright of unknown origin ("Grand" is all that is written on it, which makes the family laugh). The piano now is in the Petersen's summer home in the Springs section of East Hampton, and Drew says practicing on it is "pretty terrible."

He declared at age 7 that he did not like its action — "it didn't have much dynamic contrast," he says — so his parents bought him a new seven-foot Steinway grand and let him stay home from school when it was delivered. "It cost more money than we've ever paid for anything except a down payment on a house," Ms. Petersen said.

He practices one to two hours a day, and studies a few times a week with Ms. Lotto. Besides helping Drew prepare for Sunday's recital, his teacher is also guiding him toward another of his immediate goals: learning the full Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, so he can play with an orchestra for the first time.

She says he is a child with a delightful sense of humor and an "amazing energy level for learning." He is extraordinary, as opposed to being merely advanced, she said, because "he's not mimicking and not being spoon-fed." His musicality, she said, "comes from within."

At the Manhattan School next fall he will study conducting — among the youngest children ever to do so at the school — as well as chamber music, theory and composition. If he puts all his energy into piano playing, Ms. Lotto said, "he'll burn out by the time he's 20."

Kathi Kearney, founder of the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children in South Casco, Me., said there were no statistics on the number of prodigies who succeeded in the long run. "Prodigies have been seldom studied in the academic community," she said. "The state of gifted education is so abysmal in the United States that prodigies and other types of gifted children aren't likely even to be identified."

Burnout, she added, may be a misnomer. "Often, prodigies are also talented in other areas and decide to follow those interests instead as a career," she said.

Besides the piano, Drew is interested in playing the organ, which he has studied; having his own harpsichord, composing and conducting. He reads history textbooks for fun, plays with his friends and swims. He will skip fifth grade and enter sixth grade this fall at Dwight-Englewood, a private school in Englewood, N.J.

His mother, meanwhile, says she is reading all she can about exceptional children in order to guide him properly. "As the parent of a child like this, I have a lot to learn," she said. Among the prized souvenirs in one of four thick scrapbooks devoted to Drew is a telephone message that Ms. Petersen took for her son: "Lukas Foss called today."

The three-week Hamptons festival features a combination of chamber music, piano recitals and master classes, with family concerts, jazz and bagpipe music rounding out the schedule. The music is heavy on the familiar — Mozart, Bach, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Beethoven — but contemporary music, including works by David Amram, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Mr. Foss, will also be played. Among the scheduled performers are the Atlantic Chamber Orchestra, the flutist Carol Wincenc and the composer William Bolcom and his wife, the singer Joan Morris. Mr. Foss will play the piano and conduct at several of the concerts.

The festival will also present the world premiere of this year's winner of the annual contest for a new composition for orchestra and Long Island Rail Road locomotive, tomorrow at 8 p.m. The contest bows to the inevitability of the 20-second roar of the westbound 8:12 p.m. train out of Bridgehampton as it passes by the Festival Tent.