Not every piano virtuoso crawls out of the cradle and starts banging out Mozart. South Africa's Anton Nel, for instance, spent most of his early life riding bikes, playing games and showing no more musical genius than the kid down the block. But when Nel began piano lessons at 10, a precocious career was born. At 12, he gave his first concert, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. "By the time I was 13," he says, "I knew I wanted to make music my life."

These days Nel, 25, ranks as one of the fastest-rising stars on the international concert circuit. With a conservative classical repertoire heavy on Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann, he beat out dozens of competitors to win the prestigious Naumburg Prize last year. When Nel performed with the Chicago Symphony last summer, Tribune critic Howard Reich praised his "remarkable maturity" and "beautifully weighted tone." This year he will record his first LP, for Musical Heritage Records, and perform in such venues as New York's Lincoln Center and London's Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Nel, who grew up in a suburb of Johannesburg, began to win competitions while a student at Witwatersrand University. Frustrated by his country's limited concert circuit, he entered a graduate program at the University of Cincinnati in 1983. "I chose the U.S. because I think it's a country for young people," he says. Totally absorbed in his music, he has been sheltered from his country's problems. He returns to South Africa regularly to perform, and says, somewhat disingenuously, "Apartheid is fundamentally wrong. But I can't do anything about it, so I prefer to stay away from the issue."

Though he will perform about 70 concerts this year (at up to $3,000 an appearance), Nel cherishes the security he enjoys teaching music at the University of Texas in Austin. "Being a performer is too precarious," he says. "I don't want to wind up eating porridge." In fact his talent ensures he'll be eating more cake than gruel. "I love being onstage," he says. "It's wonderful, you know, to be absolutely certain of how you want to spend your life."