By Greg Stepanich
When the going gets tough, the tough get chill.
At least, that’s how Sirena Huang handles things before she has to go out with her violin and face the public.
“Right before I go on stage, whether it’s a competition or a concert, I meditate in my dressing room. It helps me focus, to stay in the present moment, and just do my best,” said Huang, whose pre-performance quiet time lasts about 10 minutes. “It calms me down … with a competition, you have to know how to pace yourself, because it’s a long journey.”
Earlier this month, Huang took first prize in the first Elmar Oliveira International Violin Competition, which took place at Lynn University in Boca Raton. The morning after her Feb. 5 win — which included prizes of $30,000, a new violin, bow, and case, management help and performance dates — Huang was still a little overwhelmed at finishing on top.
“To be completely honest, it feels a little unreal, and it might take a couple days for it to sink in,” she said by phone from her hotel. “But I feel really humbled to be awarded first place. Everyone played so well, and I respect each and every one of them so much as musicians and persons … I feel motivated to do even better, to keep going and do what I do.”
Huang, 22, who grew up in South Windsor, Conn., studied for 13 years in the Juilliard pre-college division and earned her bachelor’s from the New York school. She’s currently a master’s student at Yale, studying with Hyo Kang.
Although her parents are not musicians, her siblings are: Her younger brother plays cello and her older sister plays piano, and Huang began her life as a violinist at age 4 in a Suzuki program at the University of Hartford. She remembers her initial contact with the instrument, and says she was inspired to play by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
“I wanted to be like (Peter). I thought he was really cool,” Huang said. “Of course, I remember when I started, I sounded terrible, like a chicken scratching on something. But it was something that really amused me when I first started.
“Actually, I really loved to practice. It sounds really nerdy, but when I came home from school, I would just go to my violin and start playing,” she said.
And she has had a remarkable career already. At age 8, she began studies with the Stephen Clapp, then the dean of the Juilliard School, and the following year, she made her orchestral debut at 9 with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra. She won the Aspen Music Festival violin competition in 2008, the Tchaikovsky International Competition for Young Musicians in 2009, and two years later, nabbed the Hahnloser Prize at Switzerland’s Verbier Festival as well as first place in the Cooper International Competition in Cleveland.
That same year, she became the first artist-in-residence at the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, and has soloed with about 50 orchestras across the country and globe, including the New York, Cleveland and Baltimore orchestras.
These days, she enjoys a wide range of music, and has played recently with an electric guitarist and a beatboxer. But one of her favorite composers is Beethoven, which came in handy for one of the required pieces for contestants at the Oliveira Competition, the Sonata No. 10 (in G, Op. 96).
“Beethoven has always been a composer whose music has such meaning for me. Any time I get to play Beethoven, I’m very happy,” Huang said. “Composers like Bartók and Ysaÿe, who are a little more contemporary, I also enjoy playing their music … I’ve also done some not-mainstream classical repertoire, and I enjoy that, too. It’s nice to broaden your perspectives.”
Huang said she knew some of her fellow contestants from before, especially Hannah Tarley, whom she has known since she was 8. Tarley, of San Francisco, won third place, bringing home a prize of $10,000.
Huang gives the Oliveira Competition high marks for its integrity; founder Elmar Oliveira insisted that jury members who had students in the competition leave the hall when they played, and they were not allowed to vote for that student.
“One thing that stood out for me was its great sense of fairness. I know that Mr. Oliveira really wanted to make sure this competition was as fair as possible,” she said. “I know that with the rules in this competition, it felt that everything was fair … Another thing that stood out for me in this competition was that there was a vibe created by everyone that ran the organization: It felt like we were a big family, and that the competition was held to celebrate music, and that we were sharing music together more than just, we’re in a competition and we’re competing against each other.
“It was a really good atmosphere, and inspirational for all of us,” Huang said.
Next month, Huang appears at Carnegie Hall with the Chamber Orchestra of New York as soloist in the Vivaldi Four Seasons, and as part of her Oliveira Competition win, she’ll be performing in the near future with the Fort Pierce-based Atlantic Classical Orchestra. But even with her impressive list of accomplishments to date, she’s aware that she’s part of a musical universe filled with talented young musicians, all competing for the public’s attention.
“Nowadays, so many of my colleagues play so well, and I admire everything they do. I think it’s really important now to find your own voice as a musician. For me, what’s important is to always remind myself why I play music, because that initial goal is my drive to perform,” she said. “It’s a little different for everybody, but for me, if I have that very clear drive for why I play music, my music itself will sound different in its own way and I will be able to find my own voice.
“I try to trust my own instincts. Everyone’s instincts are different. I’ve realized over the years to not purposely try to be different, but just honestly be yourself,” she said.
With this big win behind her, and master’s study underway, Huang knows that over the long term, music will continue to play a central role in her life.
“What I know for sure is that I will definitely be playing music, and sharing music with as many people across the world as I can, in whatever shape or form, whether it’s soloing or teaching,” she said. “Being a solo performer is my dream as a musician, but what’s more important to me is to continue sharing music.”
By Dennis D. Rooney
Violinist Elmar Oliveira could be seen everywhere in and around the Wold Performing Arts Center on the campus of Lynn University in Boca Raton during the semi-final and final rounds of this premiere event, held from Jan. 22 to Feb. 5.
The only place he was not seen was with the seven members of the jury of distinguished violinists and teachers who tracked the progress of the contestants. Oliveira, an artist-in-residence at the Lynn University Conservatory of Music, has had a celebrated solo career since he became the first American winner of the Gold Medal at the Tchaikovsky International Violin Competition in Moscow in 1978, a feat not repeated by any of his countrymen.
His longstanding ambition had been to organize a competition that would provide talented violinists who are at the start of their careers, with networking, management, public relations, and concert opportunities in addition to a monetary prize, to be adjudicated in such a way as to ensure a completely impartial result, the absence of which has given notorious reputations to some other competitions.
Circumstances enabled him to do so last year with the collaboration of the Lynn University Conservatory of Music.
The competition is open to young violinists from 16 to 32. More than 80 applicants from 16 countries were auditioned via YouTube videos, then winnowed to the semi-finalists, ranging in age from 19 to 31, who were heard on Jan. 24-26, playing on the stage of the Wold Performing Arts Center. They came from eight countries — Norway, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, United States, Kazakhstan, Taiwan and Japan. Each contestant played for one hour and fifteen minutes. Their repertoire had been chosen in advance.
Three works were played by all: the first and last movements of Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 96, Ravel’s Tzigane, and a new work for solo violin, Dialogues, composed especially for the contestants by Thomas McKinley of the Lynn Conservatory faculty. For the rest of their program each contestant chose a movement from one of the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas of J. S. Bach, and either the second and third movements of the Sonata in A (Op. 100) or the first two movements of the Sonata in D minor (Op. 108) by Johannes Brahms. The partnering pianists were Jun Cho, Sheng-Yuan Kuan, Robert Koenig, Laura Garritson-Parker, Dan Sato, and Peter Wittenberg.
On Jan. 26, eight contestants advanced to the second semi-final round held on Jan. 30-31. Each performed two concerto movements: The Allegro aperto of Mozart’s Concerto No. 5 in A (K. 219, “Turkish”) and either the Allegro moderato of the Sibelius Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 or the similarly marked opening of the Tchaikovsky Concerto in D, Op. 35. Notably, Sirena Huang, a 22-year old Taiwanese-American, who went on to win the first prize, was the only semi-finalist to select Tchaikovsky instead of Sibelius. In the Mozart, six of the eight contestants chose the familiar cadenza by Joseph Joachim.
On Tuesday, Jan. 31, the jury chose four finalists: Alina Ming Kobialka, 19; Huang; and Hannah Tarley, 25, all from the U.S., and Quanshuai Li, 25, from China. Each played a complete concerto in the final round, accompanied by the Lynn Philharmonia conducted by Guillermo Figueroa. They were streamed live on the EOIVC YouTube channel as well as on Facebook. As mentioned above, Huang played the Tchaikovsky; the other finalists were heard in the Sibelius.
The performances took place on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, Feb. 4 and 5, respectively, at the Wold Performing Arts Center. Tarley and Li played on the former, Huang and Kobialka on the latter. Three of them disclosed their instrument: Huang played on a violin by Peter Guarneri and a bow by the Scottish maker, Howard Green; Kobialka played a violin by Michele Angelo Bergonzi and a bow by Eugène Sartory; and Tarley played a Parisian instrument by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume and a Tourte bow.
At the conclusion of the final round, the jury retired to determine the winners and their respective prizes. Under the chairmanship of Daniel Heifetz, they comprised Andrés Cárdenes, Charles Castleman, Alexander Gilman, Guđny Guđmundsdottir, Ilya Kaler and Vera Tsu Wei-ling, from China, Germany, Iceland, Russia, and the United States. After a short wait of about 20 minutes, the audience returned to the hall for the awards ceremony.
Jill Arbetter, the competition’s executive director, introduced Oliveira and Lynn Conservatory Dean Jon Robertson as the judges and contestants filed onstage. After some prefatory remarks, the four prizes were awarded in reverse order. Quanshuai Li received an Honorable Mention and a cash award of $1,000. Hannah Tarley was third prize winner. She received a cash prize of $10,000. Alina Ming Kobialka was second prize winner. She received a cash prize of $15,000.
As first-prize winner, Sirena Huang received a cash award of $30,000, as well as a new violin, crafted by celebrated violin makers Feng Jiang, Jeffrey Phillips, Andrew Ryan and John Young; a silver-mounted bow from Eric Lane; a Musafia Case donated by Reuning and Son Violins Inc.; a signed copy of “The American Violin” provided by Tucker Densley, Christopher Germain, Philip J. Kass, Darcy Kuronen, John Montgomery and P. Dameron Midgett IV; and a $250 gift certificate given by International Violin Company.
Additionally, Huang will receive public relations and artist management support, and future performances with the following orchestras and festivals: Atlantic Classical Orchestra, Fort Pierce; Bach, Beethoven and Brahms Society, Brookline, Mass.; Brevard Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne; Music in the Mountains, Durango, Colo.; and Newport Music Festival, Newport, R.I., among others.
Following the awards, supper was served for the winners, jury, and invited guests. The violin presented to Huang was displayed, and suitably ooh-ed and ahh-ed over, but the winner was a little shy about playing her new fiddle so soon after receiving it, so Oliveira and Ilya Kaler collaborated in launching it.
According to the rules of the competition, the jury members were not permitted to confer on the contestants but instead awarded a numerical score to each of them. During the rounds, they were isolated in the hall from members of the audience. Any juror who had a current or former student competing was required not only to abstain from voting for that individual but also had to leave the hall while they participated. Thus, Kaler abstained from voting for second prize winner Kobialka, as she is his current student at DePaul University in Chicago, and Tsu was not permitted to vote for Li as he had studied with her during his formative years at the Central Conservatory of Music in China.
On Feb. 7, the EOIVC’s web site published the scores for all the rounds. Jurors Gilman and Heifetz awarded Huang, a Juilliard School graduate and current Yale University master’s student, a perfect score of 100 out of 100 – for her final round performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. She was also ranked in first overall position after the semi-final Round 2 stage of the competition. A perusal of the scores (also available on thestrad.com) reveals that the four finalists were ranked very closely and evenly matched.
As an observer of violin competitions for more than 30 years, I will observe that while I might have assigned a different order to the prizewinners than did the jury, no finalist or semifinalist, and I heard them all, failed to advance otherwise than as his or her performances suggested. Indeed, in contrast to similar events, the selection process seemed to have worked very well. There was a complete absence of either conflict or intrigue.
In my conversation with the jury, they were effusive in their praise of the EOIVC and its founder for the care taken in meeting the needs of the contestants as well as themselves. The competition attracted more than 1 million viewers online, ensuring the event as a major cultural event in South Florida. We await its next installment in 2020.