At 20, his experiences reach far beyond his years

Violinist Robert Gupta is the L.A. Philharmonic's youngest member. But music isn't his only passion; he got a pre-med degree at 17.

He's how old?

Twenty, was the answer.

And he's a violinist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic?

Yes. He nailed his audition last spring at the age of 19, beating out hundreds of applicants who had far more experience.

So went my conversation with the orchestra's publicist on the subject of Robert Vijay Gupta, who has seven months to go before conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen can legally buy him a beer after a concert.

I bumped into Gupta at Walt Disney Concert Hall recently and said hello, but didn't know anything about him until that conversation with the publicist. I asked Gupta if we could get together, and he invited me to his home, just west of the 405.

Before going to see him, I looked up his biography, which made me consider throwing myself in front of a moving truck.

The New York native graduated from college with a pre-med biology degree at 17. He graduated from Yale with a master's in music at 19. In his spare time as an aspiring neuroscientist, he did laboratory research at Harvard and two other colleges, studying Parkinson's, spinal cord regeneration and the effects of pollution on the brain.

I wasn't sure whether I wanted to interview him, clone him or strangle him. But I was definitely curious to find out how he got where he is, and whether there were any universal lessons in the story of his success.

Gupta greeted me at his condo with a polite, "Welcome, Mr. Lopez." This is not a young man who's likely to cross paths with Lindsay Lohan on the club circuit. He's got poise and humility, and his eyes are dark reservoirs of maturity.

The musician poured me a cup of coffee and said his father would be with us shortly. It's a safe assumption that Gupta is the only member of the orchestra who needed a parent with him to get settled.

The elder Gupta, who has managed his New York travel agency by phone while helping his son set up a home, had to cosign on the condo loan since Robert had no credit record.

"You have to be 25 to rent a car," Robert added, so his father also had to ferry him to rehearsals and concerts until he found time to buy a car. The next youngest member of the orchestra is 28, and publicist Adam Crane said he has so far been unable to find a younger musician in a major orchestra anywhere in the country.

For dinner, if the Guptas are not scoping out a new hole-in-the-wall restaurant as they explore their adopted city, father and son try their hand at cooking Indian food. This involves the occasional frantic call to Robert's mother, Chandana, for advice. An accountant, Mrs. Gupta is busy raising Robert's younger brother, Akshar, a classical pianist and biochemistry major who, of course, will graduate from college in May at the age of 17.

So what gives with this family?

Mr. and Mrs. Gupta, both born in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, raised their boys to hit the books and work toward good-paying jobs in medicine, law or business. Music was supposed to help round them out, not get in the way of the important stuff.

"My parents tell me I liked to dance to music when I was 3 or 4," Robert said. His father, Vivek, came in from another room to clarify the matter in scientific terms.

"He was a weird child."

Mr. Gupta recalls tuning the television to "Tom and Jerry" cartoons and watching Robert flip to New York Philharmonic concerts on PBS. Piano lessons followed, then violin.


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