Paul Huang Nurtures the New Amid the Canon
Giving birth to something new is an integral part of art. But it is not always an integral part of a traditional concert musician’s life — at least not in the last half of the 20th century, when audiences and players focused increasingly on stellar performances of the sanctified repertory of masterworks. Amid the plethora of performers and ensembles today focused on contemporary music, more traditionally minded concert musicians, as well, are trying to find a better balance between old and new. One is Paul Huang, a violinist whose wide-ranging and consistently compelling recital for Washington Performing Arts at the Terrace Theater on Friday night included a world premiere by Conrad Tao.
Huang has a superb command of his instrument: warm and bright in Dvorak’s sonatina in G, lilting and mellow in Brahms’s third sonata, which concluded the program. He upends the cliche about young virtuosos who excel most at fire and flash: He certainly has both in abundance, but his signature, on this recital, was an ability to play at the edge of audibility, carrying the sound down almost to nothing. He did this to great effect in Prokofiev’s first sonata, in F minor. But in the second movement of the Brahms, as well, his pianissimi took on a spider-web quality. He had a strong and distinctive partner in the pianist Orion Weiss, who was forceful without dominating.
Tao is himself a brilliant pianist who gave a recital of his own for Washington Performing Arts earlier this month. He and Huang have been friends since they were both students in Juilliard’s pre-college division in junior high, according to remarks Huang gave the audience before his piece. Tao’s three-movement piece, called “Threads of Contact,” is about exploring the ways in which the two solo instruments relate, opening with the violinist feeling his way along a theme on the fingerboard, bending and twisting the notes, while the piano asserts, firmly, a single note, again and again. (The second movement, not surprisingly, began with the two instruments playing in unison.) Overall, though, the piece felt like a collection of thoughts, with a slightly tentative sense. It was as though it were putting out proposals and exploring them, but not quite developing them fully.
The problem with a world premiere is that it places so much expectation on a single work, which is, after all, part of a continuum. It’s even more of a problem when it’s canceled. Saturday night was to have seen the world premiere, at Vocal Arts D.C., of a new song cycle by Gregory Spears, whose opera “Fellow Travelers” had a successful opening in Cincinnati last summer. But the baritone soloist, Brian Mulligan, got sick. So the effort and expectation had to be put on hold, to be taken up again when the calendar, and health, allow.