Virtuosity, flair, musicality, and collegiality" : with these words Music Director Alan Gilbert describes Frank Huang, the violinist who becomes the New York Philharmonic's Concertmaster this month. But Gilbert also praises Huang's "softness of touch in the way he gets his strong point of view across." This juxtaposition evokes Teddy Roosevelt's 115-year-old comment, "Speak softly and carry a big stick : you will go far." Concertmasters may not occupy a bully pulpit (that belongs to the music di- rector), but they do wield sticks : violin bows : albeit ones that are distinctly more slender, tapered, and fragile than the big stick TR had in mind.
The New York Philharmonic's first Asian American Concertmaster is extending the Orchestra's long tradition of welcoming musical talent from around the world as he steps into a particularly vital role. Describing the requirements, Gilbert remarks: "A concertmaster must be a great instru- mentalist : a soloist, a technical wizard : while also being a strong leader and a strong follower, a strong consensus builder, and, at times, a forceful presence. There is a subtlety to the art of being a great concertmaster. Happily, Frank Huang fits the description."
The position has evolved substantially since Bach's day, when, gesturing with the bow, the best violinist in the orchestra would essentially conduct the performance. This changed in the mid-19th century, when orchestras added more players and new instruments to perform more complex music, requiring the introduction of specialist conductors as overseers and interpreters.
Now, the concertmaster is the musical liaison between orchestra and conductor so, as Gilbert says, filling this position is "the most crucial personnel decision for any music director." Sitting immediately to the conductor's left, the concertmaster models playing standards and behavior : sometimes demonstrating how to play a passage or an ornament : and coordinates with the other string principals, plays violin solos within orchestral pieces, often appears as concerto soloist, and occasion- ally acts as peacemaker among personnel. Concertmasters also determine the best bowings in the violin parts to reflect the intent of both the composer and the con- ductor. The goal is to achieve a unified approach from some 60 string players.
In an orchestra of outstanding string players, authority is earned through extraor- dinary ability : the technical wizardry that Alan Gilbert refers to : and Huang has won numerous solo competitions. To this, Huang adds a true respect for his colleagues. "There isn't necessarily one correct way of doing things, whether in interpreting a piece of music or knowing how to fix a per- formance problem," he explains, but adds: "Being authoritative and tough and being encouraging and inspirational; these two styles are equally effective. It's important to have the flexibility to go in and out of those two approaches."
Huang wants to ensure that the New York Philharmonic musicians convey their en- joyment of the "amazing field we're privi- leged to be part of." He adds: "Watching musicians at a concert who are in love with what they're doing, playing with commitment and character, is always more enjoyable." Huang recently married Sarah Ludwig, a violinist with the Houston Grand Opera and a teacher for the Houston Youth Or- chestra's Melody Program, whom he describes as "quite a Southern girl"; the two met while he was serving as the Houston Symphony's concertmaster. The Beijing- born son of an orchestral conductor father and an orchestral violinist mother, who were sent to do hard manual labor during the Cultural Revolution, Frank remained with his paternal grandparents when his parents were able to move to New York. Once here, they learned English and worked and saved toward making a home in Houston for the three of them. As a prominent heart surgeon, his grandfather was allowed to travel and give lectures, and so was able to bring seven-year-old Frank to Houston to join his parents.
In Beijing Huang had been an enthusi- astic, if free-spirited, piano student. How- ever, in Houston his father needed the family's piano for teaching "so my mom, one of those typical 'tiger moms,' began to teach me violin. She was tough on me right away." At age ten Huang began studying with University of Houston violin professor Fredell Lack, a generous woman who, he says, "loved teaching and passing along her art." When he was almost sixteen, she encouraged him to study with Donald Weil- erstein at the Cleveland Institute of Music's Young Artist program. Weilerstein became a powerful musical influence. "Studying with Don, I developed such a love of music that I couldn't imagine doing anything else." Seven years later, Weilerstein insisted that Huang study with Robert Mann at The Juilliard School. "Bobby was another big influence on me," Huang notes, although as he won competitions and began to travel for performances, his studies with Mann were curtailed.
Huang spent a decade in New York play- ing in chamber music and orchestral ensembles. His work as leader of the Sejong Soloists was especially helpful preparation for his future career as a concertmaster. That chamber orchestra had no conductor, so Huang ran the rehearsals and conducted from the violin: "That's where I learned how to cue and lead a larger ensemble."
That experience, coupled with invitations to be guest concertmaster with the India- napolis and Toronto Symphony Orchestras, led Huang to realize that he wanted to be a concertmaster. "It was really fun, and I loved being part of a much larger ensemble." After serving as first violinist in the Ying Quartet, in residence at the Eastman School of Music from 2008 to 2010, he became the Houston Symphony's concertmaster.
"What I love about the quartet is the spontaneity, the freedom to always be flexible and always do things differently," Huang says in comparing chamber music with orchestral work. "Playing with the same people day in, day out, and knowing each other, you can try new things without having to rehearse them. The challenge in an orchestra is finding the best way to have everyone in a section feel with the agility and awareness of a quartet. It's really amazing when a fine large orchestra achieves that spontaneity. Of course, the conductor dictates the timing and leads the freedom, but the way you respond, how quickly and the degree to which everyone is on the same page, can be challenging."
Huang voices his excitement at playing Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben in his first official week with Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic: "Heldenleben is one of those works with lots of room for the con- certmaster to interpret and give each violin solo its own personality. There is so much variety in these solos : quirkiness, beautiful moments, and dramatic qualities. It's really fun to put personality into them.
"I have strong convictions about how music should sound and what our job is as musicians, but how do we get there? I think there are multiple paths to achieve the best possible goal," says Huang. And, with that mind-set, he is very much in sync with Alan Gilbert, who notes: "There is a paradigm shift in the way that musical groups work. The conductor no longer is the omnipo- tent, autocratic presence of the past. Or- chestras are strengthened by an approach that reflects qualities of egalitarianism and inclusiveness."
Anne Mischakoff Heiles is the author of dozens of ar- ticles and three books, including Mischa Mischakoff: Journeys of a Concertmaster and America's Concert- masters. She was a violist in the detroit Symphony orchestra, and was a regular substitute in the Chicago Symphony orchestra while teaching at Northwestern university.