Playing the 'Wieniawski' del Gesù and Returning to Kennedy Center

Marco Borggreve

 How does it feel to play on the 1743 Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù that was once the great violin virtuoso Henryk Wieniawski's concert instrument?

"Every day I feel like I learn something new from this violin," said violinist Paul Huang, who has been playing the instrument since it was loaned to him in 2012 by the Stradivari Society of Chicago. Huang, 27, will play the instrument on Friday in a recital at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in Washington, D.C. with pianist Orion Weiss and pianist/composer Conrad Tao.

"It's like a relationship," Huang said of his connection with the instrument. "In many ways it's much more intimate than your girlfriend or your boyfriend -- because you see the violin much more often than your partner!"

Huang's concert on Friday is a return to the same venue where he played his American recital debut in 2011. By now he has accumulated even more accolades -- he won both a 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant and the 2017 Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists. On Friday he will play a new work by Tao, commissioned especially for the recital, called "Threads of Contact," as well as works by Dvorak, Prokofiev and Brahms.

Huang was born in Taiwan, where his parents took him to his first violin lesson at age four, "and apparently I hated it!" he said, speaking with me over the phone from New York. He simply had no patience with all the awkward logistics of trying to hold the instrument under his chin.

"It was not until I was seven, when I went to a violin recital with my parents, that I realized what magic this little wooden box could produce," Huang said. "It's the closest instrument to a human voice that I can possibly think of." In fact, he liked the idea that the violin could speak for him. "As a kid I was awfully shy, and I was not good with words," Huang said. "At the same time, I craved attention from people. So playing the violin was a revelation for me: I could use the sound of the violin to communicate and express emotions without using words, and this way I could grab people's attention. I realized how powerful music could be, from very early on."

Huang now has a beautiful voice indeed in the "Wieniawski" del Gesù, but how did that ever reach his hands? "Actually, this is a miracle story," Huang said.

At age 12, Huang moved to New York, where he went to Juilliard Pre-College. (Incidentally, that's also where he met Tao, the composer of the commissioned work in this Friday's recital.) At age 16, Huang found himself about to give his European debut at the Louvre in Paris, but there was one problem. "I didn't have a good violin to play on, I just had my own little violin that my parents had bought me. My teacher insisted that it was not good enough, that I should not be making such a high-profile debut in Europe with my little crappy violin!" he laughed.

"So my teacher made a few phone calls for me," Huang said. The patron who owns the "Wieniawski" del Gesù (who wishes to remain anonymous) agreed to listen to him, so he flew to Chicago to play for her. Upon hearing him play, she agreed to loan him the violin for three weeks.

"I felt very grateful, as a 16-year-old, playing on one of the most iconic violins in the world," Huang said. "The concert went really well. I came back, said, 'Thank you,' and returned the violin. I thought that was the end of the story. As a 16-year-old I didn't know about 'keeping in touch' - I just I thought, 'I got to play on a great violin, now I'll move on with my life.'"

"Meanwhile, throughout my studies at school, I had the good fortune of having a few wonderful Strads that came my way, one from a foundation in Taiwan and then one also from another patron," Huang said. Unfortunately, right before making his debut in New York, the owner of the Strad he was using needed to sell the instrument. "I was basically left with no violin," he said. Luckily he secured the temporary loan of an Amati, to use while he looked for another violin.

And that's when the miracle happened. "I was in the middle a tour in California, when an unknown number from Chicago called," he said. "Somehow thought I should pick it up, so I did." As it turned out, "It was the woman who had loaned me the del Gesù when I was 16 years old!" She said, "I heard that you lost your Strad. What do you have now, and is there anything that I can do to help?"

He told her the story, and when he finished, she said, "Listen, I hope you remember the Wieniawski del Gesù that you played on when you were 16 years old..." Of course he remembered! Apparently, the former recipient, Japanese violinist Kyoko Takezawa, had just returned it.

"The violin is actually available right now," she said, "would you like to come to Chicago and try it again?"

Huang took a plane to Chicago the next day. "I met her again, after seven or eight years of not being in touch, and I played for her on the violin that I still remembered very vividly." The violin is not the easiest to play, and even some well-known violinists had rejected it for that reason. "But if your playing somehow matches this violin, then you will make the most incredible and most gorgeous sound that anyone could ever hear," Huang said. "In my case, I was very lucky that somehow my playing matched this violin very well." The rest his history -- he has been playing on the "Wieniawski" del Gesù ever since.

"You never know when life makes a turn for you," he said. "I feel very lucky and grateful to the Stradivari Society."

Huang's Friday recital at the Kennedy Center fulfills another long-time wish: to commission a work for violin from the composer Conrad Tao.

"I've known Conrad since high school, we went to Juilliard Pre-College together," Huang said. "Conrad is one of those geniuses that you encounter once in a lifetime: he plays the piano, he plays the violin, he composes, he builds apps -- he can create an entire application for his electronic music. He's one of the great thinkers - and he's younger than me!"

Recently Tao was composer-in-residence for both the Pittsburgh and Dallas Symphonies and "ever since I heard some of his symphonies, I've been wishing for a piece from him," Huang said. When Washington Performing Arts offered Huang a free hand to come up with works for his recital, he decided to propose that Tao write him a violin sonata. As it turned out, Washington Performing Arts was familiar with Tao's work and enthusiastic about the idea.

"I'm so glad that it worked out," Huang said. "Conrad and I've known each other for such a long time and have remained wonderful friends. It makes it even more wonderful that we will premiere his first piece for violin and piano together during my recital evening in Washington, D.C."

Did Huang have a hand in writing the piece?

"I already knew Conrad's musical language, and so I had complete trust with him," Huang said. Huang just gave Tao the basic parameters and told him to do whatever he wanted, "and the piece turned out to be absolutely fabulous." The piece is called "Threads of Contact," and it deals with the relationship between violin and piano, with each of the three movements illustrating the various ways that violin and piano can interact and connect. "It's an absolutely fascinating piece and the sound world that he's able to create out of the violin and the piano is truly truly astonishing," Huang said.

For Huang, that connection is crucially important, in any music-making. And Huang makes it a point to keep a balance of both solo and chamber performances in his busy schedule. "A good chamber musician knows how to listen and how to react to other musicians -- this is the art of playing music on stage, whether you are doing chamber recitals or playing a concerto," Huang said. "Sharing music on stage with your colleagues and with an audience is one of the most beautiful things that can happen in life. That's why live performances are so meaningful and so special. We listen to the same pieces at home, with recordings, but it's not the same. It is all in that one moment: it's not five minutes ago, it's not two minutes later, it's that one second. We're all experiencing the same thing at the same time, and once it's gone, it's gone. That's all part of the beauty of performing onstage."