The NY Phil welcomes its new concertmaster, taking the reins from 30-year-veteran Glenn Dicterow
This fall, 37-year-old violinist Frank Huang left not just his position as concertmaster of the Houston Symphony when he relocated to New York City as the new concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, but also his hometown.
Huang’s time in Houston this time around was short—he played with the Houston Symphony for only four seasons—but sweet. “I was so happy to be back, with my parents and family and the orchestra that I grew up with, and where there has been so much positive momentum lately, celebrating its centennial.
“It’s been wonderful to be here,” he says, during a phone call from Houston.
On September 25, Huang debuted as the NY Phil’s concertmaster, replacing longtime concertmaster Glenn Dicterow. However, despite his strong ties to Houston, Huang is hardly a stranger to Manhattan, and has spent a decade living there. Huang first moved to New York after completing his undergraduate degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music, to study with Robert Mann at the Juilliard School. He still has many friends in the city, as well as in the philharmonic. Moving back to New York is a second homecoming for Huang.
It’s one for which Huang’s varied path as a violinist has prepared him. “I never was quite sure what I wanted to do in a way—I’ve loved all the different kinds of violin playing,” Huang says.
“Playing quartets was always kind of my dream and my primary teachers—Don Weilerstein and Robert Mann—were quartet violinists.
“In college, I spent a lot of time just reading the literature and playing lots of chamber music—and this helped me to learn to read and learn music quickly.”
In 2009, Huang was appointed the first violinist of the Ying Quartet, which he saw as “a dream job”—playing string quartets and teaching at Eastman—“even in the same studio that Don [Weilerstein] used to have,” he says.
However, as Huang occasionally began to perform as guest concertmaster with the Houston and Toronto Symphonies, he fell in love with the orchestral repertoire and realized how much amazing music he’d never get to play if he remained focused on string quartets.
“The great thing about being in an orchestra is that you can do a little bit of everything,” he says enthusiastically.
But it’s not just about the repertoire. Professional string-quartet playing prepared Huang to become the kind of concertmaster that he wants to be. “It doesn’t have to be that different,” he says, “playing in a string quartet or an orchestra—ideally you want to have the same flexibility or awareness in an orchestra that you would in a small group. The goal is to try to replicate what you have in a string quartet, but on a larger scale.”
When he’s playing in the orchestra, he is always acutely aware of everything going on around him, he says, and is actively thinking about the role of what he’s playing as well as what the other sections are doing; how each part fits together to make the whole. Still, a primary difference between orchestral and string-quartet playing is that when there’s one on a part, it’s easy to listen to, lead, and follow the others easily, he says. But for Huang, that’s the goal in any larger ensemble as well—and it’s primarily the concertmaster’s role to make that happen. During his undergraduate years, Huang was strongly influenced by the Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster and coach Bill Preucil. “I was in Cleveland for seven years and went nearly every week,” he said, “and hearing him play so often and watching him lead certainly gave me a lot of inspiration, even though I never studied with him. [Preucil] is a great chamber musician as well as orchestral player—he has a certain awareness and involvement in the music that’s really inspiring.”
Huang has not only learned from watching, but also from doing. “I’ve learned a lot about the role of concertmaster after being in Houston for four seasons,” he says. “There’s more to the job than just the musical parts, the playing and leading—although, of course, they are important, too. But the job is also about the personal interactions.” Huang remembers his two trial weeks with the New York Phil last fall as extremely comfortable, even “fun.” He not only enjoyed the repertoire and concerts, but also the people onstage—many of whom are either friends from school or festivals or musicians that he’s heard of and admired and is eager to get to know. “[As a concertmaster,] you have to know what the best way is to get a group of people on the same page with very little conflict and disagreement,” Huang says. “There are so many ways to play any phrase and piece, and all the musicians have to be committed to the same interpretation . . . . It will be a fun project to find out what works and what my colleagues will respond to.”
Huang has an easy confidence about him that’s both disarming and comforting. Taking on the New York Phil is no easy task, but it’s clear that Huang is certain he’s up for the challenge.
One major struggle with any orchestra is keeping the inspiration alive, as Huang says, “staying focused on what the music is about instead of just getting it together.” Despite the large number of concerts and new repertoire he’ll face with the New York Phil, Huang doesn’t anticipate this being much of a problem: “In New York, I got the sense that there is a lot of that inspiration and enthusiasm even though there are so many concerts,” he says, referring again to his trial with the orchestra. However, he’s coming to the philharmonic at a time of relative uncertainty and instability—the concert hall that houses the orchestra will be undergoing renovations beginning in 2017, leaving the organization essentially itinerant for at least one season, and Alan Gilbert, the music director since 2009, has announced that he will also be leaving in 2017.
Does all the possible upheaval concern Huang? Not at all. “My focus is just on making sure that I add to the positive things in the orchestra and try to make it sound as good as it can,” he says. “All of these other things are just distractions that I don’t need to think about—at least, not right now. Once I have a better idea of how these things will work, then I’ll have a better picture of the next few years. I’m just excited to make good music and play good concerts.” Over the phone line, his confident and optimistic personality overshadows any possible doubts. A final challenge for Huang will simply be filling the proverbially big shoes of those who have gone before him, especially Glenn Dicterow, who held the position of concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic longer than any other violinist. “The first time I met [Dicterow], I was a little intimidated,” Huang remembers, “but he’s a super-nice guy and was very nice, friendly, laid back, while answering my many and very specific questions.” When pressed to discuss what kinds of questions he had for Dicterow, Huang had trouble remembering much of the conversation aside from that it was “mostly talk about violins.”
He adds that it is “very easy to talk to him.” At the time, Huang was playing a 1727 Stradivari on loan to him and Dicterow had a 1727 Guarneri del Gesù, “so we had a lot of fun playing them and comparing them,” he recalls.
Huang also has talked often with the former concertmaster of the Houston Symphony, Uri Pianka, who came to hear the symphony nearly every week of the four seasons that Huang was concertmaster. “I love that he still comes and hears his old orchestra all the time, and that he still loves being a part of the family in a way,” Huang says.
Following the concerts, Pianka often would come backstage to talk about choices that Huang made—“questions about why I changed a bowing or made a musical decision.” Huang learned a lot from those informal, weekly discussions.
More recently, Huang and Dicterow, who now teaches at the USC Thornton School of Music, had dinner together in Houston when Dicterow was in town to teach a master class. Huang enjoyed chatting with his predecessor informally and hearing some of his many stories from his years with the philharmonic. Although being a concertmaster is a difficult and demanding role, both Dicterow and Pianka have shown Huang that they still have much to offer away from the stage. “[Dicterow] will be a major teacher for years to come,” Huang says. “He just has so much to give.”
And perhaps since becoming a teacher himself, Huang has started to value the art of teaching in a deeper way. Currently on the faculty at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, Huang teaches up to 12 college students each week, in addition to a few high-school students. Although he doesn’t have any definite plans to teach while in New York, he sincerely hopes that opportunities will come up. Huang says that when he was younger, he “didn’t understand why things like dynamics or slow practice were important” because he was focused more on impressing people by developing a “brilliant technical display.”
However, as he’s grown older, he has come to realize that music is more about the emotion behindthe notes on the page rather than how fast you can play those notes. Huang says that time flies by when he’s teaching and he really loves the chance to work with young, serious players. “If I can inspire one student to continue playing professionally, I would feel very fulfilled,” he says.
Although Frank Huang owns several modern instruments—including a John Young and a Sergio Peresson—he plays a Vuillaume from the late 1850s (that at one time belonged to his former violin teacher, Fredell Lack), although it “technically belongs to my sister,” he says.
Huang’s younger sister Ling Ling Huang—also a violinist—was interested in his modern instrument and so they swapped a few years ago, a unique trade that has worked out well for both of them. “She’s really happy with the modern instrument,” Huang reports, “and this particular Vuillaume is wonderful for me. It’s a very colorful instrument and it projects very well—it has quite a developed color palette and range.”
Although many modern makers are focused on producing a sound that can fill a large hall, Huang desires an instrument whose sound quality is of equal importance to its ability to project. Huang says that he loves the older instruments for the “soul in their sound, which allows them to vividly reflect the characters of the music.”
Although he’s happy with the Vuillaume, Huang also shared that “finding the perfect partner in an instrument is a lifelong process, and I’m sure I’m not done in my journey.” Huang says wistfully: “One thing I’ve been looking for my whole life is an instrument that I can call mine—and not have this fear that it could get taken away . . . it’s very painful to return an instrument that you’ve fallen in love with, and I’ve gone through some very depressing moments in my life when I’ve had to do this.”
Huang uses Thomastik Peter Infeld strings with a Pirastro Gold Label E string. Huang’s bow is also one that he purchased from Lack, a Dominique Peccatte.
The tip was broken and repaired poorly a long time ago (“I get a lot of questions about that,” Huang reports), but Huang actually feels that the added weight at the tip makes the bow more balanced—and also serves as a good conversation starter.