Classical Notes: Powerful pair to play Chatham
Violinist Paul Huang and pianist Helen Huang are highly lauded soloists who happen to share a last name that’s common in their native Taiwan. But they aren’t brother and sister, nor are they married. A few times a year they come together as a powerhouse duo and their next appearance, only the second since the pandemic began, is taking place on Saturday evening, Sept. 18, for Tannery Pond Concerts at St. James Church in Chatham. They’ll perform a 90-minute program of sonatas by Mendelssohn, Corigliano and Franck.
Paul Huang’s history with Tannery Pond dates back to 2010 when he competed and won management with Young Concert Artists. It was a tradition until recently that all new YCA winners had their photos taken by Christian Steiner, the illustrious photographer of classical stars who is also the founder and artistic director of Tannery Pond. Steiner recalls that he always attended the YCA finals so that he could hear his next batch of photography subjects as they plied their trade. Those he took a shine to usually got a booking for his little summer series upstate.
“Paul showed astounding playing and has a memory that’s absolutely fantastic,” says Steiner. “I’m now retired but I enjoyed meeting all those young musicians. Paul has a unique perspective and we’ve engaged him more than anyone else.”
The warm feelings are mutual. “This will be my fourth or fifth time at Tannery and it’s always held a special place in my heart,” says Paul, 30. “It was my first professional booking. I actually got paid, and that’s a fond memory.”
Helen, 38, got an earlier start. A prodigy at the keyboard, she made her debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 8. A couple years later she came to the attention of conductor Kurt Masur, who soon had her performing and touring with the New York Philharmonic. It was during this period, after Helen and her family moved to New York, that she sat for a Steiner portrait.
“It was my first publicity shots when I was 10 or 11. I remember walking into his apartment and being a little intimidated. We didn’t know the classical music world but had heard he was the best photographer,” recalls Helen. “Now we’ve come full circle. He's so nice to host us.”
As for how the two Huangs got acquainted, Paul remembers watching Helen’s rise with awe, saying, “She was a household figure since her debut and touring with the Philharmonic. I thought, ‘How can someone at age 12 play like that?’ It left a lasting impression on me.”
Though they both attended the Juilliard School, their years at the conservatory didn’t overlap. The first time they performed together was as members of Sejung Soloists, a string ensemble that’s performed a number of times in the Union College Concert Series in Schenectady.
“I came to know him as that young virtuoso,” says Helen. “When he reached out it was for a duo concert in Boston. I was pregnant with my first daughter and knew that I’d be a mother by then. I wondered, would it be too soon to start performing again? Maybe it will get me back in shape.”
At that first concert, they discovered a unique chemistry that has only continued. “It’s not hard to find a great pianist,” says Paul. “It’s hard to find a symbiotic flow and to share the same sound world. That’s rare, and we’re very lucky.”
Violinists can sometimes hog the spotlight, leaving pianists sidelined as “accompanists.” But Helen knows it’s a partnership and says, “Our relationship is at a point we can meet each other with a level of trust and great respect.”
After eight years of working together, they’ve developed some routines. About once a year they look at repertoire and come up with a program that they’ll perform for the next season. The Tannery concert will be their second outing with the program of three sonatas. Balancing the mighty and familiar Franck Sonata, they open with some lesser-known Mendelssohn, the Sonata in F Major, followed by Corigliano’s Sonata, a modern classic.
Because Mendelssohn left the manuscript incomplete when he died in 1847, his Sonata remained largely unknown until 1953 when violinist Yehudi Menuhin prepared a finished version based on surviving sketches. “We think of Mendelssohn as elfin and bubbly like his ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” says Paul. “But there’s a quiet, spiritual side in the slow movement. It’s like he’s looking for something outside this world.”
Corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, dating from 1963, was one of his earliest mature works. The composer’s father, John Corigliano Sr., was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic from 1943 to 1966 and though he didn’t support his son’s compositional talents, he did make the premiere recording of the Sonata. “There’s something deeply American about it,” observes Helen. “It sounds harder than it is,” says Paul.
The Huang duo first performed this lineup of works in early March at the Blossom Music Festival in Ohio. That was Helen’s first time onstage since the pandemic and Tannery Pond is only her second appearance.
“A live audience has taken on new meaning,” she says. “It’s something we feel — in the air there’s an appreciation.”
Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.