String sections

The celebrated violinist Isabelle van Keulen will present a Valentine's Day gala concert at the Emirates Palace on Sunday.

Isabelle van Keulen glances at her watch as her plane touches down at London's Heathrow airport, applause still ringing in her ears from last night's concert. It's a familiar pattern. She'll just have enough time to nip home and change into warm winter woollies and Wellington boots before driving to the school to pick up her children. Last week it was Hamburg, this week it's Abu Dhabi, but wherever in the world she performs she always tries to book her flights to fit in with the school timetable. For the rest of the day she will no longer be the celebrated violin soloist, darling of the concert halls of the world. She'll be just another mother, wrapped up against the cold, waiting at the school gates for her 11-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter to emerge.

"I try to plan my flights so that I can be home in time. It's a mad schedule but it works and it's great to have these children," she laughs in the unaffected and down-to-earth way that has endeared her to audiences everywhere. On Sunday evening she will perform in a special Valentine's Gala at the Emirates Palace Auditorium, Abu Dhabi, playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons, without a conductor and directing the Prague Chamber Orchestra herself.

"It will be my first time in Abu Dhabi and I'm very much looking forward to it," she says. "I have browsed it on the internet and it looks wonderful. The auditorium looks amazing. I have an invitation from the Dutch ambassador, so they are looking after me very well." Tempting as it might be to bring her children for a few days in the sunshine during the cold European winter, Van Keulen is adamant that work and children simply do not mix. "When they were two or three I would bring them, but now it's too difficult. They're just not old enough to stay in a strange hotel room by themselves, so maybe when they are older."

In fact, she tries very hard to keep them out of the limelight and seldom talks about her private life. At 43 she is divorced and remarried and says she lives "very quietly" in the English county of Surrey when she is not travelling the world. "That's the way I like it. I like to keep myself to myself. When the concerts are over the door closes. I love gardening very much and doing bits about the house and I like to decorate. I play the piano a bit and enjoy it very much and I like to accompany the children. I once did a concert at their school with them but I was very nervous because my piano playing is so crippled compared with playing the violin.

"At the school gates I tend to wear glasses and wellies and I'm just one of the mothers. There was one occasion when the head introduced me with a great fanfare and I really don't like that," she says. Her passion for the violin began when she was a child of three growing up in the countryside near the pretty market town of Aalsmeer, between Amsterdam and Utrecht, in the Netherlands. Neither of her parents was a musician although her mother played the piano.

"They both loved music and my mother, who is now 82, has the biggest musical knowledge of anyone I know. If I ever need to know something musical I just ask her." She concedes that she was an unusual three-year-old and really can't explain her precocious desire to play the violin. "I think it was the shininess of it, the radiance of it and I was transfixed by the sound but whatever it was I always knew I wanted to play it. My father was a painter and although he thought it was quite funny he was sceptical and insisted that I play a recorder first. My sister played the flute.

"But I nagged and nagged my father to buy me a violin and eventually he bought me one when I was six. I told my mother that she should keep it a secret but I was going to be a violinist. She was amused too but she did keep my secret. She is very good at that and doesn't like being drawn attention to. She has a music club on the internet but if people ask her if she is related to me she always says no."

Van Keulen started music lessons at the age of six. She would ride everywhere on her bicycle with the sort of freedom children had in those days in rural Holland. "It was a very protected childhood, there weren't many friends around and we lived a very quiet life by the river. I used to be so shy and the only thing that would bring me out was playing the violin. "What I had as a child was quite unusual. I had lessons with a wonderful teacher who was a great character and used to smoke big cigars and let the ash fall all over the place. He was a violinist in a little dance band. Actually, his method wasn't that good and when I went to the Conservatoire at the age of 11, I discovered that my posture was all wrong," she says.

One thing that she took away from her first teacher, however, was his advice to "enjoy it" always, something she believes in to this day. A studious child, she learnt Latin, Greek, English, German and French and later taught herself Russian when she began to read the major Russian authors. There was a brief flirtation with the idea of becoming an archaeologist but it was never serious. By the time she was 11 it was clear that she was a prodigious musical talent and had quickly outstripped her local teacher. She was sent to study under the celebrated Dutch violin teacher Davina van Wely at the Sweelinck Conservatoire in Amsterdam, where she also began playing the viola.

She was still only 17 when she won two major music competitions that changed her life: the Menuhin Competition, held in Folkestone, England, and the 1984 Eurovision Young Musician of the Year Competition, held that year in Geneva. Suddenly her professional life was launched, almost before she was ready for it, in a whirlwind of invitations from concert halls and record companies which established her as one of the most sought-after talents in Europe. "One minute I was the best in the class and then suddenly I was exposed to the whole world. More than 20 million people watched the Young Musician of the Year."

Looking back she concedes that it was probably too much too soon, but at the time she plunged into this heady new world with vigour and excitement. "I was itching to start my own life after winning this big competition. It gave me the impetus and the phone never stopped ringing with invitations to play and make records. It was a hard time and looking back I don't know how I handled it. I played 50 different violin concertos in a season. Nobody ever offered to help with the bookings or the travel. I did it all myself and it was a hard lesson for me, although it always seemed to go well.

"I found all the organisation quite easy, but finding my way professionally was a long road. I didn't do that very well. I was leaving it till the last minute to learn the pieces and then not doing them well enough." At first she rented a little suite of rooms in a family home where she would cook "chilli con carne and anything that would fit in one pan on a single electric ring", but very soon her new fame swelled her bank account and she was able to move into a small flat of her own.

Thoroughly independent, she loved to decorate and even risked damaging her hands by making her own parquet floors. "It wasn't very good for my hands really, and I remember noticing some calluses when I was playing. I still love to decorate but I don't do the parquet any more," she laughs. She was working on a floor when she slipped a disc, which resulted in an enforced slackening of her breakneck pace. "It brought me down to earth and slowed me down," she says.

Van Keulen is not someone to dwell on past errors, but her early experiences have given her a very definite perspective about the way young musical prodigies are treated. She says she is conscious of a younger generation breathing down her neck, "more sensational and better looking", but has a word of caution for them. "I have learnt a lesson myself by making all these mistakes. It's all too tempting and too wonderful and too much. At 17 I had five violin concertos, including Mendelssohn, Bruch and Mozart, but there are hundreds of concertos and you have to play them all well. That is what I now see with young talent. They are thrown into the deep end with hardly any time to reflect.

"Today the commercial world has gone crazy. I'm too old for that sort of thing now, luckily. I just enjoy being taken seriously by the conductors and the orchestras and not just treated like a 20-year-old blonde. I feel sorry for the young people coming after me. The talent is one thing but at 17 you don't have the repertoire to last 40 years. "I've always been very down to earth and never been blinded by fame or hyped into outer space, although I did once do a CD cover in a leather jacket with my hair in waves. Today I would flatly refuse to do that," she says, adding that being a mother has kept her grounded.

"My children have really helped me to find my feet and find my personality. I have seen too many people being pushed. Today I enjoy so much playing music. Now I work very hard and it is so rewarding." She practises for between two and four hours every day and warms up very much like an athlete. "I prepare carefully and see it as a top sport. The muscles in both hands have to be exercised slowly and it is very important to warm them up first of all, especially now that I am getting older. I spend at least half an hour stretching my hands and loosening up the muscles. It's nice and comfortable if you do it like that.

"When you don't play one day you will notice it. The second day your friends will notice and the third day the audience will notice." Today she plays a priceless 1734 Guarneri del Gesu violin that is lent to her. "I could never afford to buy it, these things are unaffordable but it has a beautiful sound and I have the pleasure of playing it." She owns a more modern violin by Peter Greiner. It is clear that she has lost none of the passion and energy that propelled her on to the world stage at such an early age. Her schedule for the coming year is dizzyingly full. After Abu Dhabi she will be working with the Leopold String Trio which she joined four years ago.

"I was the last member to join. We have three or four projects a year and meet up two days beforehand. The repertoire is not very big for a trio but it is exciting to play with the other two." She is also the artistic director of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and will spend a week with them in Oslo and another in the Far East visiting Japan and Korea. Several recitals are planned later with the pianist Ronald Brautigam, one of Holland's leading musicians, with whom she has played for 20 years. Then there is a Beethoven recital in Stockholm, followed by a concert in Cincinnati in April.

In June she is off to South America with the Netherlands Philharmonic. In July it's Schleswig Holstein, directing the orchestra for a week, and on to the Proms in London in August with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, Over the years, Van Keulen has appeared as a violinist with most of the world's major orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Radio Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the Hallé along with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Cincinnati and Toronto Symphony Orchestras, but she also performs regularly as a violist and says she is "intrigued by the lower voice" of the instrument.

Along with a successful recording career, she devotes time to teaching and serves on the faculty of the City of Basel Music Academy and the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. Critics write of her "taut musical intelligence", describing her as a violinist of the highest calibre. Her repertoire today embraces the both the classic standards by Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, and Vieuxtemps, chamber music and the works of contemporary composers such as Erkki-Sven Tüür whose 2006 concerto for violin and clarinet, Noesis, was written for her.

She believes it is important to work with modern composers so that she can actually speak to them about how their music should be played and says composers like Tüür are often inspired by the playing of a particular soloist. "My sound was appealing to him and fits his particular music. They really need to latch on to what appeals to them. I think it's important to work with people like that - modern composers. You don't have to guess how they want you to play something. I would have given my right arm to have been able to speak to Beethoven. "

She pauses and laughs. "Well maybe not my right arm but you know what I mean. It's important to be open and curious about what is round the corner." Isabelle van Keulen, the guitarist José María Gallardo del Rey and the Prague Chamber Orchestra will present a Valentine's Gala concert at the Emirates Palace on Sunday night. See for tickets.