Sirena Huang at the Juilliard School in New York. She will play with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra from Dec. 12 to 15.
By PHILLIP LUTZ Published: November 27, 2013
The seeds of Sirena Huang’s professional relationship with Carolyn Kuan, music director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, were planted at the 2007 Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C. Ms. Huang, then a 12-year-old violinist in the Juilliard School’s pre-college division, was the soloist with a student orchestra conducted by Ms. Kuan, who was then assistant director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
“I got to know her and thought she was incredibly talented,” Ms. Kuan said, “but didn’t really think much about it.”
After Ms. Kuan took her current job and moved to Connecticut in 2011, their paths crossed again. Ms. Kuan was seeking candidates to be the Hartford Symphony’s artist-in-residence and, to her delight, Ms. Huang surfaced as the leading choice. A lifelong resident of South Windsor, Conn., Ms. Huang, at age 16, already had a record of impressive concert performances and high-profile competition victories.
“She was the perfect match,” Ms. Kuan said.
Since then, Ms. Huang, 19, has shone on the Hartford stage, as soloist on the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons.”
Offstage, she has mingled with donors at orchestra events and tutored students at two Hartford schools, tasks at which she was “a natural,” Ms. Kuan said.
Though her contract as artist-in-residence ended in June 2012, “in most ways she has continued” in a similar role, according to Katie Bonner Russo, director of marketing and public relations for the orchestra. “She’s more of an ambassador than just a straight guest artist for us.”
Ms. Huang, relaxing recently in a practice room at Juilliard, where she is now a sophomore, said she was looking forward to making more school visits in the run-up to her next series of concerts on Dec. 12 to 15.
Those concerts will mark her first performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto and her ninth set of dates with the Hartford Symphony since her debut with the orchestra, in April 2007. That is more appearances than any other guest soloist in recent years, Ms. Russo said. In fact, a Hartford Symphony performance in 2000 was the first classical concert Ms. Huang attended, at the age of 6.
“I was very young,” she said, “but I remember wishing that maybe one day if I was lucky enough I could maybe play with them or play in the orchestra or just interact with them in some way. It’s almost a dream come true.”
Ms. Huang had already begun chasing her dreams, beginning her studies at age 4 with teachers from the Hartt School in Hartford. By age 8, she was taking lessons with Stephen Clapp, then the Juilliard dean. Barely a year later, she made her solo orchestra debut with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra. Since then, she has played with some 40 orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra, and before heads of state, royalty and Nobel laureates.
Her transition from prodigy to adult performer was accomplished at an improbably young age. While studies suggest that the change usually happens at 15 or 16, according to Joel Smirnoff, who will be the conductor at the December concerts, Ms. Huang said she felt it occurred for her between 12 and 14. During that period, she performed less, practiced more and spent time focusing on her teachers’ admonition to reflect on her larger role.
“They made me think about what I want” as a musician, she said, “more than just, ‘Oh, I’m pleasing the audience and just playing for the sake of it.’ ”
She emerged from the transition period with a sustained burst of energy, winning the Aspen Music Festival violin competition in 2008, the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in 2009 and, in 2011, both the Hahnloser Prize for Violin at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland and the Cooper International Competition in Cleveland.
Paradoxically, Ms. Huang attributed her success in contests to de-emphasizing the competitive side and concentrating on the preparation — to the extent that when playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto during the Cooper competition, she mistakenly thought she was participating in an uncontested part of the proceedings.
“I just thought it was an amazing opportunity,” she said, “and to enjoy every minute of it.”
Having performed the Mendelssohn some 20 times — she played it in that first performance with Ms. Kuan in North Carolina — she obviously enjoys the piece. But she said her tastes also run to free improvisation and the odd pairing, like the one with the beatboxer Shodekeh in which she offered a hip-hop-inflected, filigreed account of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The Hartford Symphony recorded the duo.
Ms. Huang’s usually modulated tones became animated as she discussed the Sibelius concerto and the composer’s strategies for eliciting qualities that advanced the piece’s dark theme, like placing high-pitched notes on the low-pitched G string.
“It has a certain kind of sound that is powerful,” she said, “yet there’s a certain sort of struggle to the tone.”
That kind of creative analysis reflects the “musical imagination” Mr. Clapp said Ms. Huang has revealed throughout the 11 years in which he has taught her, and which should serve her well in the December performance.
Ms. Kuan said that wherever Ms. Huang’s career takes her — she signed with Columbia Artists Management in late October — she will be welcome to return and renew her ties with the Hartford Symphony.
“One can hope,” Ms. Kuan said.
Sirena Huang, soloist, with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Dec. 12 to 15 at Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford. Tickets: $35.50 to $70.50. Information: hartfordsymphony.org or (860) 244-2999.