Music in His Soul

New York Philharmonic concertmaster Frank Huang on the art of sharing music and connecting with audiences

Volume 118, No. 6June, 2018

Interview by Bob Pawlo

Photo: Jennifer Taylor

New York Philharmonic concertmaster Frank Huang, a member of Local 802 since 2015, has enjoyed a rich musical life. Born in Beijing, Huang moved to Houston at the age of seven, where he began violin lessons with his mother. Four short years later, at the age of 11, he performed with the Houston Symphony in a nationally broadcast concert. By 15, he started racking up prizes, which eventually included first place in the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation’s Violin Competition. After studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Juilliard (where he now teaches) and the Music Academy of the West, he soon established a major career as a violin virtuoso. He won a spot in the Grammy-winning Ying Quartet before being recuited as concertmaster of the Houston Symphony and earning faculty positions at the University of Houston and Rice University. After performing all over the world and teaching at many top institutions (including Eastman), Huang made his New York Philharmonic solo debut in 2016, when he led Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” and Grieg’s “The Last Spring.” He is also a founding member of the New York Philharmonic String Quartet. Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently caught up with Frank Huang to hear about his unique musical path.

Bob Pawlo: Your incredible career began with your mother, who was your first violin teacher. What was it like being taught by a parent?

Frank Huang: First, let me say that my parents are both musical; my mom is a violin teacher, and my father was a conductor in China. They both moved to the United States for more opportunity when I was only one year old – but they had to leave me behind in China with my grandparents while they were getting established. They worked all kinds of odd jobs in this country and eventually moved to Houston, because it was a lot cheaper there to survive. You know, my daughter is almost two, and I couldn’t imagine leaving her behind in a different country, but that’s the sacrifice my parents made for me. Finally when I was seven, my parents were able to send for me, and I started violin lessons with my mom immediately. (I had also taken some piano lessons in China.) People say it’s really hard to teach your own kid, and in my case, it was certainly made worse by the fact that I had been away from my mom for the first several years of my life. I had no concept of, “Hey, this is my mom. I should listen to what she’s saying!” I was pretty stubborn, and I loved to play basketball and be outdoors. So being inside a practice room for hours at a time was not thrilling for me. But I eventually became grateful that my mom was tough on me. She insisted that I practice every day. It didn’t have to be too much, but the consistency was important. So even though I started late at the age of 7, when I went to college and really fell in love with music, I wasn’t behind technically, compared to the other violin students.

Bob Pawlo: What were some of the early concepts and skills that you acquired that led to your success?

Frank Huang: I had perfect pitch and good ears. When you play violin, you have to be pretty picky with your intonation, obviously. And my mom is a great teacher – she created her own system of finger and bow exercises. By starting as an older kid, I was able to intellectually understand what my mom was telling me, like how to hold the instrument and the bow. I had good fingers for violin, but the truth is that I really didn’t enjoy it, so really the hardest part was to try to motivate myself to practice even though I wanted to be outside. When you’re younger, you don’t realize how amazing music can be or how it can affect you, so I was very fortunate that I always had good teachers, starting with my mom.

Bob Pawlo: What were some of your early ensemble experiences?

Frank Huang: Even though I hated practicing, I loved being a part of the Houston Youth Symphony. I made great friends who I would see once a week there. We would get together and rehearse a symphony or some orchestral piece, and it was really fun just to get to hang out with all these other kids who played instruments. I didn’t feel like such a weird person. We had little chamber groups that would split off. I had a really good group of friends who formed a sextet, and we used to play Brahms and Tchaikovsky – on a very kid-like level, I’m sure!

Bob Pawlo: So did you feel like you committed yourself to music at that point?

Frank Huang: Well, besides my mom, I had a great teacher named Fredell Lack. She was one of the reasons that I didn’t give up on violin. She enforced my practice routine and really helped me to enjoy music a little more. Little by little, I became more inspired, until finally I decided to leave home when I was still a teenager to attend the Cleveland Institute of Music. It was a program where kids attended high school classes in the morning and college-level music classes in the afternoon. My teacher there, Don Weilerstein, became my biggest musical influence. I spent seven years studying with Don, and that’s when I really fell in love with music. Don prioritized the meaning and the emotional content of the music – how people relate to it. Like if you’re feeling down or if you’re feeling sad and you listen to something very beautiful and moving, it can affect you in a very personal way. And being in Cleveland, I also got to hear one of the greatest orchestras in one of the greatest halls.

Photo: John-Ryan Lockman

Bob Pawlo: How did you end up in New York City?

Frank Huang: I wanted to follow Don, who was leaving Cleveland, but he was wise enough to encourage me to go somewhere else, which I hadn’t really considered, so I chose to study with Robert Mann at Juilliard, and he was another very big musical influence for me, because he had lived through it all. He knew so much about the history of the music we were working on. He knew so much about harmony, interpretation and technique. So that was a very fascinating year for me. By then I had already committed myself to music. I knew that’s what I loved and that’s what I wanted to do. I started winning international competitions that created a lot of performance opportunities, and I thought I was on my way to something of a career, maybe as a soloist. I got to play with the L.A. Phil, and I played some children’s concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra, but I found out that I loved the intimacy and freedom of small chamber music playing. I stopped pursuing the solo path. To be honest, I think that I was doing those competitions just to motivate myself to practice, just to give myself goals to reach. But at those competitions, I always loved listening to other people, because you hear different styles. I loved meeting all those great violinists. I still run into a lot of people now who I met at a competition. A lot of them are playing as soloists or concertmasters of other orchestras. It’s a very small world.

Bob Pawlo: So from NYC, you moved back to Houston. How did that happen?

Frank Huang: In New York, I had been freelancing and playing with the Sejong chamber ensemble. I had the opportunity to join the Ying Quartet, which included a residency and teaching position at the Eastman School of Music. Everything was great, but then I was recruited to become the concertmaster of the Houston Symphony. I turned them down! I thought I already had the greatest job in the world, because quartet playing was my dream. But the symphony was very insistent. Houston Symphony music director Hans Graf offered me the job twice, and with my parents still living in Houston and me feeling like I wanted to be closer to them, that was ultimately the reason I went back. It was so hard having to tell Phil Ying (the violist in the Ying Quartet) that I was taking that offer. It was one of the most painful conversations, especially since the quartet was still kind of new. It seemed like a big loss at the time. But now, years later, the New York Philharmonic has its own quartet, which I’m a part of. So I couldn’t have dreamed of anything being more perfect, because now I get to do all these different forms of music that I love. I don’t have to miss out on the quartet repertoire.

Bob Pawlo: Let me zoom way in and ask you how you would describe the role of the concertmaster.

Frank Huang: It’s a very interesting job. You’re responsible for a lot of the technical things, getting all the bowings sorted, making sure the orchestra is on the same page as the conductor. I always think of it as a translator between the orchestra and the conductor. You’re translating the conductor’s movement into how you think the orchestra should play something. When you have a great orchestra, such as Houston or New York, you don’t have to work too hard, because everybody is so aware and so attentive to all the little subtleties and details. But I think the challenge is to translate the conductor’s movements into something that the whole orchestra can understand very easily. If we get a guest conductor who none of us has ever seen before, we may not understand his or her motions, but since the orchestra already knows me and the way I move and react to the music, I become the bridge or translator.

Bob Pawlo: How do you prioritize your time, and how do you tailor your practice routine?

Frank Huang: I’ve always been a big believer in practicing smart, not necessarily practicing all day. As someone who didn’t like to practice when I was little, I think I always prioritized being productive when I was practicing. So, if I only wanted to practice an hour, I would make sure that I was super-efficient and worked on things that I really needed to work on. And now that I’m teaching more and more, that’s something that I really like to focus on, because students will ask how long they should practice. The answer is always: as much time as it takes to feel like you got good practice in. If you can do seven hours of great practice, go for it. That’s amazing. But most people can’t handle that kind of focus, so if you can do a couple hours of super-focused practicing versus seven hours of mindless repetition, I would rather practice less and make sure you’re being efficient. For me, practicing these days is about finding every spare minute available. With a baby at home, there is no guarantee that my day will go as planned. Anything can happen at any time. Before my Saint-Saens concerto earlier this year, the day before the first rehearsal, I was going to run through it with a pianist friend of mine, because I hadn’t played it since I was a kid, and on my way to the car, my daughter Amelia sprained her elbow – it actually popped out of her joint – and instead of going to rehearsal, I had to take her to the doctor’s office. Things like that are inevitable and luckily I’m experienced enough that it doesn’t matter too much, but the planning certainly is trickier. Having a child means that I have more important priorities to attend to.

Bob Pawlo: What would you say to young musicians starting in music now?

Frank Huang: I would say to explore music in a way that’s meaningful to you. Practice when you want to practice, and make sure you’re accomplishing something when you’re with your instrument. Make sure you’re spending your time wisely without too much mindless repetition. Of course, you have to practice technical things until they feel very natural, but the reason we play music is not to master these technical things. The reason we play music is to share a beautiful language and an art form with an audience, so make sure your priority in music is always about what you’re trying to say and how you’re going to move the audience. Instead of trying to impress the audience with how good of a violinist you are, try to impress them with how great a piece the Tchaikovsky violin concerto is – or whatever piece you’re performing. There’s a reason this music is so great, and I think if you practice it the right way and have the right priority, it can be a very moving experience for you and the audience as well. Of course, there are times when you’re really tired because your baby has been crying all night, but making music in a great orchestra with a great conductor and great colleagues – you can’t ask for anything more enjoyable, at least for me.

Bob Pawlo: Can you say a word about your Chinese heritage and what it means to you musically?

Frank Huang: Let me speak about Chinese New Year. My family celebrates it every year, and I was very happy to find out that the New York Philharmonic produces a huge gala concert every year on Chinese New Year. It’s such an exciting event because it brings a lot of cultural closeness for me. It’s a way to connect with the Chinese community – and larger Asian community – in New York, which is pretty substantial the more I experience it. I think it’s a great way to broaden the cultural reach of the orchestra, so I hope it continues to be a successful part of every season.

Bob Pawlo: Lastly, what would you like to say in closing to your fellow members of Local 802 and to union members around the world?

Frank Huang: Well, let me end with this thought. Everyone knows that playing an instrument when you’re a kid helps your brain develop, and so does the discipline of practicing. And learning an instrument when you’re a kid makes music even more meaningful throughout your whole life. Everyone knows this, but it seems like music and arts education are often the first thing to be cut from schools. Local 802 is a strong community. Even though I’m relatively new to it, I hope that we continue fighting for the arts, fighting for ways to make the arts accessible to all people and making sure that the arts are a part of the future for the next generation.