By David Templeton | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Violinist Paul Huang wants the world to love the violin as much as he does. Born in Taiwan and raised by parents he describes as “not musical,” Huang was unconditionally supported early in his fascination with the violin, an instrument he first encountered at the age of seven when attending a music recital in his hometown. “I was completely captivated by this little wooden box that created such beautiful sounds,” he says. “The idea of being onstage, playing such an instrument, was something I became instantly fascinated with. I told my parents that was what I wanted to do with my life, they said yes, and I have never thought of doing anything else since. I am still madly in love with the violin and with sharing the gift of this beautiful music.”
Recipient of the 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant and the 2017 Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists, Huang has been internationally praised for his artistry and effortless presence onstage. He is a regular guest at such notable festivals as Music@Menlo, Orford Musique, and the PyeongChang Music Festival in South Korea, and he has performed with the Chamber Orchestra Vienna-Berlin, the Rotterdam Philharmonic, the Detroit Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony, and the Seoul Philharmonic, with recitals at Lincoln Center in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, Seoul Arts Center in South Korea, and Aspen Music Festival. Huang is also the first classical violinist to have performed his own arrangement of the US National Anthem at an NFL opening game, bringing an audience of 75,000 in 2021 to cheers in Charlotte, North Carolina. Huang recently signed with France’s Naïve label, and his professional recording debut—Kaleidoscope, with longtime performing partner pianist Helen Huang (no family relation)—is set at press time for release in October.
A remarkably busy musician, Huang just recently returned to New York City—“New York is my chosen home, the place I do laundry in between projects,” he says with a laugh—from Singapore, where he performed with Helen Huang at Victoria Concert Hall. His relationships with New York and Taiwan are lovingly explored in a two-part 2021 documentary filmed by the PBS station in Taiwan. “Taiwan will always be my home,” he says in the film, “but New York is something that is so magical, I would use the word ‘irresistible.’”
It was his first violin teacher, Li-Wen Wang, who arranged for 13-year-old Huang to study with Hyo Kang at New York’s Juilliard School. Enrolled in Juilliard’s pre-college program, Huang was accompanied by his mother, who stayed with her son in the US until he was 18 and about to enter college. “She went back to Taiwan then,” he says. “I think it must have been a huge sacrifice for my parents, to split in half so I could study the violin. It is something that I am still grateful for, and always will be.”
Huang’s professional debut—performing at the Kennedy Center—came in the wake of winning the 2011 Young Concert Artists International Auditions. “It was a big milestone in my career,” he says, “having actual agents discover me, helping me to book concerts and to perform professionally.”
Among the pieces Huang performed in that debut was Saint-Saëns’ violin sonata, a work he’s remained close to ever since, and which he recorded for his new album. “Since this is my debut album, I felt like I’d better choose pieces that are especially true to my heart,” he says. “I wanted to pick a repertoire that has been meaningful to me and Helen over the last ten years of our collaboration. Those included the Saint-Saëns sonata and the Respighi sonata, which make a fantastic pairing—two pieces that are not often recorded. Two pieces that represent a wide spectrum of what the violin can do.”
As Huang describes them, the Saint-Saëns and the Respighi highlight the virtuosity of the violin in an especially poetic way. “Not for the sake of showing off,” he says, “but for the sake of creating more possibilities and more colors. That’s why these two pieces go together so well, in my opinion. They have very distinct characters. They are musically symbiotic. That’s why these two pieces are at the center of the recording.”
The album was recorded over two and a half days in New York at the Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Hall. Though some artists regard recording in a studio as somewhat nerve racking, Huang looks back on it as a liberating experience. “We love these pieces and know these pieces so well,” he says. “It was actually a little bit sad for us, knowing we would end up with just one interpretation of these pieces, an interpretation of us, as performers, in that one given moment, even more than an interpretation of the piece. It’s not the way we played it two years ago or the way we will play it three years from now. It’s that one moment. And now it’s locked in, and that’s the interpretation people will hear. We felt a little bad for all those other versions that only a few people got to hear or will get to hear in the future. Other than that, it was a very happy experience, taking that little snapshot of our musical journey together.”
Asked what he would like listeners to take from the album, he says that first of all, he hopes they will find it refreshing—and perhaps even a bit surprising. “It’s not something that you hear every day, these pieces,” he says. “Second of all, I just want people to enjoy it and maybe discover something new, something that is as meaningful to them as it is to us. I want them to appreciate, once again, how wonderful violin and piano can be and the kind of infinite possibilities of the colors and singing qualities that the piano and violin are able to convey. That’s what we hope for and what we live for. We will always be advocates for our art form, our repertoire, and our instruments.”
As it so happens, there is another extraordinary detail about the new album that will make it unique and special for listeners: it represents the first time in over 20 years that Huang’s violin—the legendary 1742 “ex-Wieniawski” Guarneri del Gesù—has been recorded. “It’s probably even been longer than that,” he says.
In talking about the violin, on loan through the Stradivari Society of Chicago and an anonymous donor who owns the instrument, Huang is as enthusiastic as he is when describing the music he loves to play. “It’s super unique and super special,” he says of the violin. “The name should reveal itself. This violin was Henryk Wieniawski’s violin for much of his career. He preferred this instrument over his other violins. It’s amazing to think that the two great Wieniawski concertos—plus all of the short pieces and wonderful concert pieces that he composed—were created with the sound of this violin in mind.”
Huang has had the violin for about ten years now. “I would say this violin is kind of a miracle,” he adds. “It is a miracle to me, anyway.”
The story began when he was 16 years old, when Huang was offered the use of the instrument—for three weeks only—as he was making his European recital debut at the Louvre in Paris. “My teacher thought I needed a better instrument than the little crappy violin that I had at the time,” he recalls. “So he made a few phone calls, and it turned out the owner of this instrument was willing to loan it to me for three weeks, but no more than that, because the owner did not feel very comfortable having a 16-year-old carrying around this very expensive violin. So I played my debut in Paris, and it went very well, and I came back to the US, and I returned the violin. At the time, I thought I would never see it again or the owner. So, I moved on with my little life, carrying on my studies and performing, and I had a few other instruments come my way over the next few years.”
For a while he played a Stradivari through a different foundation, but in 2011, when the foundation suddenly needed it back, Huang was left with no violin. “I’d just signed with Young Concert Artists, so I had all the concerts lined up in the States, but I had no violin,” he says. “Someone in New York was kind enough to loan me an Amati violin until I found a more permanent one, and the Amati was a wonderful violin for me.”
One day, out of the blue, Huang received a phone call from a number he did not recognize.
“It was the owner of the Wieniawski del Gesù,” he says. “She asked me if I remembered her from back when I was 16, that she’d been following my career and heard I’d lost my Strad, and would I be interested in coming to try the violin again because it had become available.” Huang went and played the Wieniawski and remembered fondly how good a violin it was. “Even more so because now I was older and could achieve more on such an incredible instrument,” he says. “So the rest is history for me. I’ve been using it ever since.”
Expounding a bit more on its qualities, Huang once again speaks in affectionately poetic terms. “The reason this instrument is so special to me is that it has the possibility of both a Strad-like sweetness and the glassy sound associated with most Stradivari violins on the upper register,” he says, “and at the same time it has the depth usually associated with del Gesùs—an almost infinite depth that lets you scoop deeper and deeper. That’s a depth I don’t normally associate with Stradivari, not to say that Strads don’t have depth, but this is the kind of depth I am longing for when I play. This violin has an incredible range of dynamics, an incredible range of color palettes, that allow me to be even more creative. Every day I am still learning new things from this violin. The possibilities it can offer an artist are endlessly inspiring.”
Having played so many quality instruments over his career so far, one wonders if he’s noticed that certain instruments are better suited to certain compositions. “Probably,” he muses, adding with a laugh, “but who could ever afford to have a different violin for different pieces? Fundamentally, though, I would say that it’s the artist’s imagination of what they want a piece to sound like that matters. Sometimes, when I hear an artist who has played different instruments over the years, it still sounds like them. I can immediately identify who is playing when I hear certain things, even though they might be playing a completely different instrument from the last time I heard them playing at Carnegie Hall or wherever. At the end of the day, it still sounds like them. A beautiful instrument is a beautiful instrument, and beautiful music is beautiful music, but it’s the artist’s imagination and inspiration that ultimately come through in performances.”