Interview with Violinist Paul Huang: The Virtue in 'Virtuosity'

When violinist Paul Huang looks at the word "virtuoso," he sees the word "virtue."

"I think that's where the meaning of the word 'virtuosity' comes from," Paul said. "We tend to get bogged down with the idea that 'virtuosity' is all about showing off, and showmanship, but I think there is a greater meaning."

I spoke to Paul over the phone in Los Angeles, where he is playing series of chamber concerts for Camerata Pacifica. (Find more information about his concerts this week here.)

Paul, who received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2015 and Lincoln Center Award for Emerging Artists in 2017, officially lives in New York but also spends much of his time in his native Taiwan - and on the road. For 10 years he has been playing the 1742 "ex-Wieniawski" Guarneri del Gesù, on loan through the Stradivari Society of Chicago. Just this month Paul appeared on the cover for Strings Magazine, and October 6 is the release of Kaleidoscope, his first recording in a series of six recordings that he will do for the French label Naive Records.

How exactly do you create a performance that draws people in to the virtue and poetry of violin music, rather than simply showing off technique?

"It's kind of like telling a joke," he said. "If you don't think it's funny yourself, then you better not tell people that joke - because there's no chance that they will think it's funny."

"It's very similar on stage, as an artist and as a performer," he said. "I have to tell a story, and I have to tell something that is actually meaningful to myself...There is a very direct connection between how much you are invested in the craft, how much you're passionate about it," and whether or not you will truly connect to the audience.

Huang wanted to highlight that kind of virtuosity in Kaleidoscope, which he recorded with his longtime musical partner, pianist Helen Huang. The recording features Respighi's Violin Sonata in B minor, Paganini's Cantabile in D Major, Saint-Saëns' Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor and Sarasate's transcription of Chopin's Nocturne in E flat Major, Op. 9 No. 2, originally for piano.

"These are all in great pieces that highlight virtuosity in the most lyrical and poetic sense," Paul said. "They are very, very close to my heart, I just want people to fall in love with violin, just like I fell in love with violin when I first was introduced to it, simply because of the possibility of what violin can do."

"The Saint-Saëns and Respighi Violin Sonatas are both sonatas that are not recorded often," Paul said. "The two other composers, Paganini and Chopin, are consummate instrumentalists in their own instruments," he said, Paganini on the violin and Chopin on the piano. "The pieces they wrote - Paganini's 'Cantabile' and the Chopin's 'Nocturnes,' really highlight their instruments, showing 'virtuosity' in the most lyrical and poetic sense, not for the sake of showing off, but for the sake of drawing people into another world."

Paul has been working with Helen for 10 years, but he admired her musicianship well before they met.

"She became so famous when she was so young. At the ripe age of 10, 11 she was already making debuts with the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Phil, Vienna, Concertgebouw, Cleveland, Chicago, LA, Leipzig, you name it, and she was really considered one of the great piano prodigies," Paul said. "So I have admired her artistry for so long, even though we're only four or five years apart. I remember going into going to her concerts when she was on tour with the New York Philharmonic and Kurt Masur, when she was around 16 or 15 years old. I was maybe nine or 10 at the time. She's really considered a national hero back in my home country in Taiwan; she is a fellow Taiwanese as well."

By now their musical relationship has blossomed into 10 years of collaboration and friendship, along with with a long list of duo repertoire that they've developed together.

"It's really meaningful for me as musician to have a long-standing partnership - to learn repertoire together, to grow together with the same person," Paul said, "and it's actually very rare today. When I look back to some of my mentors and people that I admire, people like Kyung-Wha Chung or Anne-Sophie Mutter, they all have great duo partners where they have grown this art form together. For example, with Anne-Sophie Mutter and (pianist) Lambert Orkis - it's been about 35 years of collaboration now. I hope that audience will be able to pick that up when they come hear our concerts, this recording and many more recordings to come."

Paul's partnership with the "Wieniawski" del Gesù violin actually coincides with his partnership with Helen.

"My first time playing that violin actually was my very first concert with Helen Huang, believe it or not, 10 years ago," he said. "It was our very first duo concert together, in Boston, at Jordan Hall. That was my first time playing for the public, after the violin had been set up properly and restored."

Their new album, "Kaleidoscope," will mark the first time more 20 years that the "Wieniawski" del Gesù violin has been heard in a recording. The last time was for a 1998 book and CD project called "The Miracle Makers," which was produced by the violin shop Bein and Fushi. In it, violinist Elmar Oliveira plays on 15 violins by Antonio Stradivari, one violin by his son Omobono Stradivari, and 15 Guarneri del Gesù violins. On the "Wieniawski" del Gesù, Oliveira performed Ernest Bloch's "Nigun" and an excerpt from the first movement of Sibelius's Violin Concerto.

Before that, the last regular player of the violin was the Japanese violinist Kyoko Takezawa, who also received it through the Stradivari Society of Chicago. What a history!

This winter Paul also has another recording coming out, this one with Naxos, of Toshio Hosokawa's Violin Concerto “Genesis," performed with the Residentie Orkest of The Hague, with conductor Jun Märkl.

"Toshio Hosokawa is one of the great composers coming out of Japan, in the lineage of Toru Takemitsu," Paul said. "Toshio Hosokawa is probably the most important composer from Japan, he's a national icon, and he is really well-respected in Europe as well, but somehow not as many people know about him in America. He's a Composer-in-Residence at the Lucerne Festival, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Salzburg Festival. It's a big honor for me to be able to be his soloist for his first violin concerto 'Genesis,' which I premiered for him in Hiroshima last July."

"Hosokawa has a very ethereal, meditative and thought-provoking sound world that is only him," Paul said. Paul recommended listening to one of his most famous compositions, called Circulating Ocean, for orchestra.
"Once you get into his sound world, is it's really addictive. And if you look at his scores, they are works of art."

Beyond that, Paul has started his own chamber music series in Tapei called "Paul Huang and Friends."

"This will see the second year of my chamber music festival, in January 2024," Paul said. "It's a different side of me as an artist, not only performing but also curating programs - wearing different hats, but all serving the same art form." This edition's lineup will include violist Nobuko Imai, cellist Daniel Müller-Schott, pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung, and violinist Richard Lin. "It's interesting and invigorating for me as an artist - a constant evolution and re-examining of what it is that I love."