"This competition means everything to me," Huang said. "I grew up watching this competition. It was like the Olympics for my family, we would all come together in the living room and listen to the livestreams - ever since I was eight years old. Then finally, being able to participate in it - I'd been looking forward to this for the longest time. I really, really wanted to be here."
So when, two days before the Preliminary Rounds began, she tested positive for COVID, her heart sank to the floor.
"I could not believe it," she said. "I'd never had COVID, during this entire pandemic, and then this was really happening, right on the day the competition began? The first thought that came into my mind was, 'Do I have to go home now?'"
As it turned out, she didn't have to go home, and she stayed until the end and won the Gold Medal. But it was an arduous path. In an interview the day after the Awards Ceremony, Huang talked to me about her earliest days playing the violin, about studying at Yale after 14 years at Juilliard, about getting through the pandemic, and about her experience at The Indianapolis.
Let's start at the beginning: born in New Jersey to university professor Wei-Kuang Huang and homemaker Yaching Huang, Sirena Huang started violin at age four, after her mother noticed her fascination with her older sister's piano lessons.
"They said that my hands were too small for piano, though, so they recommended I start with the violin," Huang said. She started with Linda Fiore at the Hartt School, and she simply loved playing and practicing. She progressed rapidly.
"My parents definitely were not planning on having me become a musician - they just wanted their kid to play an instrument, like any other parents," she said. "I just kind of fell into that life."
By the time she was eight years old, she was studying with Juilliard's Stephen Clapp, and at age nine she made her solo debut with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra. Since then she has been featured as a soloist with more than 50 orchestras in 17 countries, including the New York Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Staatskapelle Weimar in Germany, and Russian Symphony Orchestra.
BELOW: Sirena Huang plays Bartok Rhapsody No. 1:
The Indianapolis was not her first competition - Huang also won First Prize in the 2017 Elmar Oliveira International Violin Competition, 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; First Prize and the Audience Award at the 2011 Cooper International Competition; and First Prize in the 2009 International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians.
She spent quite a long time at The Juilliard School - 14 years, counting both her time in Pre-College and as an undergraduate earning her Bachelor of Music. Besides Clapp, she also studied with Sylvia Rosenberg and Itzhak Perlman.
"I am eternally grateful for Juilliard, because that was where my musical development happened—from taking my first theory class, to learning how to practice and improve my technique, to experiencing how emotional and powerful art can be,” Huang said. “Being in an environment that was so fervently dedicated to the arts affected me deeply and shaped me into who I am today. In many ways, it is my home.”
But after so much time in one place, going to Yale University in 2016 was a complete revelation for Huang. Though she was there to study violin with Hyo Kang and earn her Artist Diploma, she also had the opportunity to branch out.
"When I went to Yale, it was a change of scene," Huang said. "I found myself at this incredible university, where I had the opportunity to take some non-music-related classes and get out of the music world for a little bit."
"There is so much more to life than just music, and looking back now, I can see that exploring those other things actually impacted me as a musician,” Huang said.
"I was curious, and I tried a lot of different classes," Huang said. "I took film studies, several psychology courses, language classes, audited philosophy classes, and attended lectures and speeches. It helped me become very curious about everything around me, and gave me perspective towards music’s role in society,” Huang said. "When you are practicing in a room for so many hours, you get so focused on the technical aspect of music, or how to fix your flaws. But it’s easy to forget that in the grand scheme of things, music is a powerful tool that can serve our communities.”
“It was a humbling learning experience and it helped me play through a different lens as well,” she said.
“The School of Music is amazing. It is so beautiful and is always surrounded by inspiring musicians,” she said. "I loved it there. I learned so much, and I grew a lot from being in that environment."
She graduated from Yale with her Artist Diploma in 2019 - just in time for a pandemic.
BELOW: Violinist Sirena Huang plays Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor
"Oh, the pandemic was tough," Huang said. Although she performed virtual concerts and taught virtual master classes, she profoundly missed the feeling of a live audience.
"I know some friends who were able to enjoy doing virtual concerts, but for me, I felt so disconnected from people," Huang said. "Of course, I am grateful that technology exists, and that it allowed me to continue to play for people. But I just felt like I was playing for a screen, and there were just heads floating around on the screen!" she laughed. "Then when the concert was over, you just close your computer - I guess the concert happened, maybe? It felt so abstract."
"For many musicians, being on stage is our home," she said. "Having that taken away for more than a year was really tough. I'm not going to lie, there were times when I had to re-think, what is the purpose of music, if we are missing that connection? When there is a screen that is between us?"
"The first in-person, more normal concert that I had was such an emotional experience for me," she said. "I hadn't performed in-person for people in almost a year."
For that concert she played the Bruch Violin Concerto with the Brevard Symphony in Florida. And of course, things still were not 100 percent back-to-normal at the time.
"Everyone was masked, everyone was very far apart; and the orchestra was far apart from me," Huang said. "But, having people there to share that moment - to share music with them, to have them all just sitting there, listening to music with me, in person....even just thinking about it now, I still get goosebumps. When I was on stage for that concert, I felt like I was on the verge of tears. I had missed this so, so much. I'd never had that kind of emotional experience before - suddenly I felt a newfound appreciation for these people who were here to listen, for the fact that we were all here together."
After all the delayed engagements and lost concerts of the pandemic, the Indianapolis competition was a bright spot on the horizon - something to inspire her to learn some new repertoire, practice like crazy, get ready to really perform for people.
She arrived in Indianapolis on a Tuesday night, and on Wednesday she went out with her host for some Thai food.
On Thursday, she started feeling a scratchy throat, but she thought maybe it was that spicy Thai food. "At the airport I'd been so careful, and I had been following all the protocol," she said. That day, all the contestants drew lots, and she picked No. 4 out of 39 people - close to the front of the order.
"Then that night, I slept, and I got a fever. That's when I realized this was not just a scratchy throat, but something was off," she said. She was supposed to have a rehearsal at 10:30 a.m. the next day - but she thought she'd better take a COVID test, just in case. "And the positive line - it was just there."
With a very heavy heart, she immediately called IVCI Executive Director Glen Kwok to explain the situation and talk it through.
She would need to be quarantined for five days - but it was still possible for her to do the proper quarantine, and to play at the very end of the Preliminary Round.
"You just made it," Kwok said. "We will put you last, on Wednesday," the final day of the Preliminary round. Incidentally, one other contestant, I-hao Cheng, had also tested positive and was in the same boat. Fortunately, no one else at the competition came down with COVID, for the entire three weeks, and all the contestants had the opportunity to play.
"I was so relieved, I was practically crying tears of joy," Huang said. "I wasn't even thinking at all about any other rounds at that point. I just thought, at least I will get to play something here in Indianapolis. I just felt glad I could play something for the judges and for the audience here. The thought that maybe I didn't even have a chance to do that was so sad to me, and the fact that they were able to work it out - I'm so, so grateful for that."
That said, she did get sick.
"I just had to sleep," she said. "On Friday I didn't play all day. Saturday I did one hour, tops. For a competition, I'd normally practice five hours. On Sunday, I started getting really stressed and I was crying a little bit. It's not something you can control, how quickly you recover. I felt like, I'm playing in three days, I still feel awful. I can barely stand up, am I really going to be okay? It was such an emotional roller coaster. But then Monday I started feeling better, Tuesday even better."
But then on Tuesday night, the night before she was supposed to play, "my ear started getting weird," she said. "I'd been coughing a lot, sniffing a lot. Then on Wednesday, I couldn't hear out of my right ear. It was completely clogged and muffled."
"As a musician, if your ears aren't working right - that is a problem!" she said.
During the dress rehearsal on the stage, she normally would be listening for acoustics and getting used to the sound of the hall. But that day, it was not possible.
"Usually I rely on my right ear to hear the echo, the balance, I listen to the surroundings - and I had none of that," Huang said. "I turned to Melivia (Raharjo), my pianist, and I asked, 'Is it just me, or is this hall super-dry?' She said, 'I mean, it's okay....' But because of my ear, I just couldn't hear the resonance in the hall!"
"So I performed my first round with lopsided hearing, and a mask," Huang said. "I think my excitement and determination got me through it. I was still able to be in the moment and to play - not perfectly - but as much the way I wanted as I could. I enjoyed it a lot. Somehow I was able to put aside the fact that I just wasn't able to hear normally that day. It is what it is."
She's being modest. Her performance in the preliminaries was remarkable - it was a challenging program, extremely well-played.
Huang's first-round repertoire not only included two Paganini Caprices (No. 13 and 24), but also the Adagio and Fuga from Bach's Sonata No. 3 in C major, as well as Mozart's Sonata in G major and Tchaikovsky's "Mélodie." The Bach Fuga is the longest fugue that the composer ever wrote - a bear to memorize, a finger-twister to play, "but it's also one of my favorite pieces in the entire world," Huang said, admitting, "it was just crazy I was able to pull that off."
When they announced that she would advance to the next round, she didn't shake anybody's hand or hug anyone, it was just back to her host family.
By the time she played for the Semi-Final Round, she was feeling much better. This is when I arrived at the competition, just in time to hear her performance of Beethoven's Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30; John Harbison's "Incontro," the special piece commissioned just for the competition. She also played Brahms' Sonata No. 2 and Bartok's Rhapsody No. 1.
BELOW: Violinist Sirena Huang plays Brahms Sonata No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100:
Her performances just kept getting better - Mozart Concerto No. 3 in the Classical Final Round, with cadenzas she wrote herself - and the Dvorak Violin Concerto for her Concerto Final, performed with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
"That was the second time in my life that I've ever played that piece with orchestra. It's deceivingly hard," Huang said. "When people think about the toughest concertos out there, they think Beethoven Concerto, Brahms, Sibelius... But I think that Dvorak is really up there. Technically, it's very awkward."
"But I love the piece so much, and I wanted to play something, or at least prepare and practice something - that I haven't played overly much," Huang said. "I wanted something fresh, and I wanted to give myself a challenge, too. I specifically chose several pieces in here that were brand-new to me because I felt like the freshness of the piece does make this whole process so exciting."
For this competition, and for the last few years, Huang has been playing a 1620 Brothers Amati violin, courtesy of Guarneri Hall NFP and Darnton and Hersh Fine Violins. The violin is owned by Frank Almond, the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony.
“I am deeply grateful for their incredible generosity in loaning me this gorgeous instrument. I feel like I learned so much and grew a lot from playing it,” Huang said.
As part of her First Prize package, she will receive the four-year loan of a fine violin - choosing from IVCI's Violin Collection that includes the 1683 "ex-Gingold" Stradivari and a number of modern violins, including a violin by Sam Zygmuntowicz.
Of course, for Huang, the Indianapolis competition had the happiest ending - she won First Prize, and her top-notch performances also won her a good portion of the Special Prizes, including Best Performance of a Bach Work; Best Performance of a Mozart Sonata; Best Performance of an Encore Piece; Best Performance of a Beethoven Sonata; Best Performance of "Incontro" by John Harbison; Best Performance of a Violin-Piano Sonata (other than Beethoven); Best Performance of a Kreisler Encore and Best Performance of a Concerto in the Finals.
"This is such a humbling experience, I think everyone deserves to win, and I am very lucky. I am grateful that the judges enjoyed my playing as much as I enjoyed playing for them,” Huang said. "Everyone played so incredibly well, so mature and beautiful, and I learned a lot from so many of the players.
"Winning this competition - of course it's such a huge, significant moment in my life," Huang said. "But I don't feel like I've reached a 'goal' exactly - it feels like a start. Given this recognition, I feel like I now have a responsibility to use this platform, and the resources that have come with it, in a way that will help our society. Playing in glamorous, elite concert halls is, of course, amazing, but I've always thought that it's really important for us, as musicians, to get out of this music bubble and do what music should be used for, which is to connect with and interact with people from all walks of life."
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