Interview with Sirena Huang, First Prize Winner in the 2017 Oliveira Competition

February 28, 2017, 12:17 PM · Now that's some bold playing, and a bold choice.

Those were my thoughts, the last time I saw violinist Sirena Huang perform. It was at the 2016 Shanghai competition, where her choice to play Bartok's Concerto No. 2 in the finals stood out for its daring and originality (see that performance in the video below). She did not take the gold that day, but her persistence won out. Earlier this month she took First Prize in the first-ever Elmar Oliveira International Violin Competition, which was held in Boca Raton, Fl.

Huang, 22, spoke to me recently about the merits of competitions, the TED talk she gave at age 11, being part of Itzhak Perlman's studio at Juilliard and how she has found joy in playing the violin ever since she first tried it as a preschooler.

Sirena Huang
Sirena Huang.

A little background: Huang was born in New Jersey and made her solo debut with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra at age nine. She since has been featured as a soloist with more than 40 orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Staatskapelle Weimar in Germany, and Russian Symphony Orchestra.

A veteran of the competition circuit, Huang won Third Prize at the 2016 Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition; Third Prize at the 2015 Singapore International Violin Competition; the Hannloser Prize for Violin at the 2013 Verbier Music Festival; and First Prize and the Audience Award at the 2011 Cooper International Competition; and First Prize in the 2009 International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians.

Sirena: I started violin when I was four, when I first moved to Connecticut, at the University of Hartford. My older sister plays the piano, so I would go to her piano lessons. My mom saw that I looked bored and thought I should be taking piano lessons too. They said that my hands were too small, though, so they recommended I start with the violin. I started with a 1/16-size, which is basically like a toy! I remember when I first started -- obviously, I didn't sound good! But it was something I loved to do.

When I came home from school, I would throw my backpack away, run upstairs, get out my violin and start playing. I used to love watching Peter and the Wolf. I think my first inspiration was that part where Peter plays the violin. I wanted to be like him!

Laurie: What did you like about Peter?

Sirena: He looked like he was having so much fun. I thought, "Hey this guy looks like he's having a lot of fun, too. But he sounds way better than me." So I want to sound like him!

Laurie: I saw your TED talk from when you were 11 -- it had some pretty deep ideas in it, along with some really impressive playing. Those talks are about technology, and it was a really neat idea to talk about the enduring "technology" and design of the violin. How did that all come about?

Sirena: At the time, I didn't really know what TED talks were. So I went online and I looked up some other speakers. I was just thinking, "How is my performance supposed to relate to the TED Talks?" Then I realized what "TED" stood for; it's an abbreviation for "Technology Education Design." And of course, I did some brainstorming with my parents. I knew what I was going to talk about, but I also was kind of winging it onstage. (She laughs) I was nervous, but it didn't really register that I was talking to so many people.

Laurie: You couldn't have imagined how many people you were actually talking to -- if you add up all the Youtube views, throughout the years...

Sirena: I had no idea it was going to be online! I seriously thought it was just a performance, and I was going to talk a little bit about how my music relates to TED. I remember, probably a month or two afterwards, I realized it was online, and I realized there were so many views. I wasn't expecting that at all.

Laurie: You definitely had that stage presence back then. I found there to be a deep point about technology, how we humans make it what it is, whether it is the technology of a violin or of a computer.

Sirena: It was a first exercise for me, to be able to relate classical music to media now, technology now, everything that is changing. That's what got me started thinking about that whole idea: How do I relate music with technology? Because we're surrounded by so much media at a young age, we have to always see how we relate to the growing media.

Laurie: You probably will have to continue to make that relation, as you launch your career.

Sirena: Absolutely. More now than ever.

Laurie: What kind of violin are you playing these days?

Sirena: Right now I'm playing on a Peter Guarneri, generously loaned by the Sejong Soloists Foundation. I just started playing on this violin, about a month or two ago, so this violin is quite new to me. Prior to this, when I was at Juilliard, the Juilliard Collection generously loaned me a del Gesù for a couple years.

Laurie: How long were you at Juilliard?

Sirena: I was at Juilliard for a total of 13 years. I went to the Juilliard Pre-College division for nine years and then I went to The Juilliard School for college for four years. So I was there my entire life, pretty much! Now I'm starting my first-year masters at Yale, studying with Professor Hyo Kang. When I was at Juilliard I studied with Sylvia Rosenberg and Itzhak Perlman.

Laurie: What is it like, to be a student of Itzhak Perlman's?

Sirena: Just getting to know him as a person was so inspiring. He's so down-to-earth and so humble. We would have these studio parties - studio classes, probably once every month. We would go to his apartment in New York for studio class, but it felt more like we were playing concerts for each other. It was just such a friendly vibe, and not much pressure, but it was really encouraging. He and his wife would be there with his two dogs. He's so chill, but what an incredible musician he is.

Laurie: What are the kinds of things you feel like you learned from him?

Sirena: He has so much experience on stage, he taught me so much about performing, as a musician. I would ask him, 'What happens when I'm on stage and I'm nervous?' And he would give me advice like, 'Let music be your distraction for being nervous.' Things like that, I'll remember forever. It's wonderful advice for any performer. He would also give me examples of being spontaneous with the music; he's very aware that every time you perform, something new happens. That's the way he teaches -- not really so much academic, but it's more for the way you perform when you're on stage. That was really, really helpful.

Laurie: How about Sylvia Rosenberg?

Sirena: She also changed who I am as a musician, for the better. She taught me to ask myself, why did the composer write it this certain way? As performers, (we have to be fully) convinced of what we're performing. Through her teaching I was able to more fully understand the works that I'm playing and fall in love the works. I know that I'll carry that lesson throughout the years: to own whatever piece I'm playing by understanding the composer first.

Laurie: Have you played many competitions?

Sirena: Competitions can be very tiring, so even through I've done only eight or 10 of them, it feels like I've done about 80! (she laughs) I have friends who have done twice as many as me. In the last two years I've done more; I've bunched them all together in the last two years.

Laurie: What is it giving you, how do you feel competitions are beneficial?

Sirena: There is a stressful aspect to a competition, but it's stressful in a positive way. It pushes you to a whole new level. The end result of a competition is not really that important, because even if I do win a competition, three years later when the competition happens again, there's another winner. These things are always changing. But what stays with you is the progress that you make when you perform. It's a great way to help musicians grow, and improve. Of course, it's important to have the right mindset for a competition. Music is very subjective. With a different group of jurors, the results are different; you can't take it that personally. But at the same time, it's a great opportunity to push yourself.

Laurie: How did the Oliveira competition compare to others? Was there anything that made it unique?

Sirena: What stood out to me was a sense of family, between the other contestants and the people working there, like we were all just sharing music together. I didn't feel this sense of competition, like we were trying to one-up one another. One of the main messages I got at the Oliveira Competition was that we're playing music so that we can share the power of music. The repertoire was rather simple; it wasn't an enormous amount of repertoire that we had to prepare. It was standard, and it was just about bringing out the best in you.

Laurie: The Oliveira competition emphasized that it would help the winner with career development; as the winner, what are you most looking forward to having help with?

Sirena: It's very exciting for me to know that Rachael Alexander will help me with PR. It's really hard to get your website started, or your social media really active, without a public relations person helping you out. To really get out there, you need to do more than play well, although of course that's important. But you need to be able to interact with your audience. So having a PR agent is really important. And also I'm looking forward to working with Jill Arbetter, who is going to be helping me find concerts for three years, and then to find managers, after these three years are over.

Laurie: What's next for you? Do you have any other career goals?

Sirena: Being soloist is what I've always wanted to do, and I hope it does work out. I can't predict exactly what's going to happen in the next five or 10 years, but I know I will do everything I can to continue playing music and sharing music with more audiences of different backgrounds and different cultures. Music is my passion; it's what I love to do. As long as I'm playing music, I'll be very happy.

BELOW: Sirena Huang plays Concerto No. 2 by Bela Bartok, at the 2016 Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition, with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

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