Song of innocence and experience

Seventeen-year-old conductor Alexander Prior is a prodigy – so Britons are naturally suspicious of him

Never put off until tomorrow what you can reasonably put off until next week. For as long as I can remember that has been my motto, and it suits me well on the whole: life proceeds in a peaceful, sofa-rich manner, punctuated by happy-slaps from the real world, with its telephone-wielding deadline junkies. It keeps me on my toes too, my bumpy life's journey more funfair dodgems than congested motorway.

This approach has not, however, been the one adopted by Alexander Prior, who at 17 finds himself appointed to a junior conducting role at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. For Prior has been in classical music's fastest lane all his life: playing the piano while still in nappies and composing and conducting while still in short trousers, he was shipped off to the St Petersburg Conservatoire at 13.

Child prodigy stories are two-a-penny in the classical music world. Yo-Yo Ma and Mozart both started performing in public at the age of five. Yehudi Menuhin and Daniel Barenboim began their careers at seven, as in former ages did Chopin and Paganini. The majority, of course, are long since forgotten, childhood sparks whose flames spluttered with the advance of adulthood. So you'd think we'd be used to stories such as this. But many in the industry have greeted news of Prior's appointment with something less than warmth.

To be fair, his personal manner is rather offputting, although this is no uncommon trait among conductors, particularly from previous generations. In a recent and somewhat snotty-nosed outburst, Prior complained that English orchestras lacked sufficient imagination to hire him: "England always has so much of a bitterness about young musicians," he added.

This last remark will endear him to no one: England, or rather Britain, is neither bitter about young musicians in general, nor about young conductors in particular. In fact, with Robin Ticciati (26) now at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Edward Gardner (35) at ENO,

Vladimir Jurowski (37) at the LPO, and Vassily Petrenko (33) at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Britain's senior conductors probably have the lowest average age among their international peers.

Nor is youth a particular disadvantage to a conducting career, for which a good level of general fitness, an excellent ear and keen sense of showmanship have always been the chief prerequisites.

But could Prior be right about Britain and youthful talent more generally? We certainly tend be rather po-faced by comparison with Americans, for whom talent contests and pageants have always been popular among parents. In Britain, however, the word "precocious" has long since been employed as a term of abuse. We despair at the sinking average age of the world's tennis players, and marvel at the advancement of George Osborne to shadow chancellor at the age of 34. But William Pitt the Younger was appointed prime minister in 1783 at the age of 24 (he was also appointed chancellor, simultaneously). And while we today in Europe are accustomed to extending our studies and exercising our right to mess about "finding ourselves" well into our 20s and 30s, back in Pitt's day the realities of adulthood hit rather earlier.

The fact is that most of things we greybeards do could be done just as well by kids, and probably much faster and with greater enthusiasm. We hang on to our positions by clinging to the myth of career development, and of the acquisition of wisdom from experience. But if experience usually teaches us anything, it's that we have to do as

we're told and wait our turn. In our frustration and bitterness, we nurture illusions about talent getting younger and younger all the time, when in fact it is simply that we take longer and longer to mature than we used to. And all this in a culture seemingly obsessed with delaying the process of ageing, in both appearance and behaviour.

Never put off until tomorrow what you can defer till middle age. As I say, this principle works fine for some. But as a motto for a whole country? It could well be ours, but it certainly can't be right.

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