Musical Feat

Step inside Frank Huang's practice room: Taking Tchaikovsky's masterpiece in two days' notice

Step inside Frank Huang's practice room: Taking Tchaikovsky's masterpiece in two days' notice

Frank Huang, Houston Symphony
Houston Symphony concertmaster Frank Huang is stepping in and performing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major with only two days' notice. Photo by © Bruce Bennett
Houston Symphony presents "Tchaikovsky's 5th"
Violinist Augustin Hadelich's travel plans to Houston were canceled because of Hurricane Sandy.
Alexander Shelley
Guest conductor Alexander Shelley leads the concert.
Frank Huang, Houston Symphony
Houston Symphony presents "Tchaikovsky's 5th"
Alexander Shelley

Two days' notice …

As Houston Symphony concertmaster Frank Huang followed the development of superstorm Sandy, he casually proposed that in the unfortunate case that violinist Augustin Hadelich's travel plans to Houston were canceled, he could step in and offer an alternative to Béla Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2.

Huang didn't think it would come to that. He was, as Huang always is, being accommodating and helpful — a team player.

Though what musician wouldn't want the opportunity to solo with this city's orchestra.

Call it Murphy's law, but it did come to that. Roughly 48 hours before the first scheduled performance of this weekend's concert run, the Houston Symphony called in the favor, and Huang wasn't bluffing. Though it's customary for featured artists to receive a couple of weeks' notice, he isn't backing away from reaching beyond his role as one of the principal leaders of the ensemble.

But Huang didn't count on fighting a fever and a nasty virus that had overstayed its welcome. 

Standing in a small, windowless Jones Hall practice room with enough space for an upright piano, Huang studies the partiture of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major

He's a little disoriented. His usual dressing room is across the hall, occupied by his friend, associate concertmaster Eric Halen. Huang, in jeans and a black T-shirt, sipping a freshly brewed cup of tea, notices that certain musical passages are much more difficult than he originally remembered. Yes, there are lots of notes.

I sit on the floor.

 The 45-minute concerto demands ceaseless energy, virile loud playing, broad bow strokes, physical prowess. As such, he has to pace himself for rehearsal.

"It's the flu," he says calmly, hoping it would run its course by the run of shows.

"It's been five or six years since I performed the Tchaik," Huang recalls. "Some of the sections I used to think were incredibly tough are coming through with ease right now — perhaps that's because I spent a lot of time refining them."

Muscle memory is playing its role. A handful of his students are currently studying the piece, so the oeuvre is fresh in his conscience. Reshena Liao had performed it as part of Houston Symphony's Spec's Charitable Foundation's Salute to Educators concert in January. Prior to that Leonidas Kavakos played it in 2009 (he returns with Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 in March).

"At the same time, some technical challenges I am facing for the first time."

He thinks that's because of his weak endurance at the present moment. The 45-minute concerto demands ceaseless energy, virile loud playing, broad bow strokes, physical prowess. As such, he has to pace himself for rehearsal.

Huang's strategy is to play through large sections and not stop to polish minute details. Those should fix themselves, he thinks. Instead, he focuses on metal practice, conceptualizing the overarching framework of the first movement, from the opening unaccompanied flourish, the lyrical sylvan melody of the exposition, the thrilling swift rising scales, double stops, arpeggiated waves, large interval leaps, the multi-voice cadenza and the victorious and satisfying coda.

"The opening movement is quite long, often audiences clap at the end as it mirrors the length of other concertos," he smiles. "Either they can't help themselves because it's really that exciting or those not familiar with the piece may think its the end of the work."

A knock on the door.

Guest maestro Alexander Shelley — young, slim, tall, strikingly handsome — interjects into this music chat. He has a brief respite to talk shop. He appears not to be the least bit shaken by the last-minute change. On the contrary, he's fired up. Shelley has a fondness for this Tchaikovsky concerto. The Bartok is a great piece, he says, though the irony is that concertgoers almost always prefer listening to former.

 "Anything could happen at this point. It will be exciting for me and for the orchestra, for sure."

Perhaps this is a fortunate turn of events? 

Shelley, chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, stands at the doorway without looking at the written page.

"I start the Andante with a moving tempo," Shelley explains about his approach for the second movement. "When you come in, take over, pace it however you like. I'll follow your line."

"I can't think of anything too complicated here," Frank responds about his interpretation. "I take time at the end of the trills, some of them might be quite slow — slower than most play them."

"OK. What about the eight measures of the stringendo?"

Good question, I thought. This third movement solo passage transitions between an expressive, nostalgic quasi andante back to the allegro vivacissimo and thrusts to the finale with a repeating three note arpeggio with a chromatic leading note. Part of the accelerando is implied in the rhythm of the music, though some artists prefer to add their own signature by frolicking with octave transpositions and inversions that broaden the register.

"You'll hear a clear signal on the way up before the return," Huang answers.

"Great," Shelly takes a mental note. "I'll wait for it, beat unnoticeably through the measures and bring the orchestra back in."

And with that quick amicable exchange, Shelly exits and turns his attention to the tutti sections, which hold some of the most exciting ensemble writing in a concerto, crazy running passages in the strings, syncopated bits, intensifying harmonic sequences and fun interludes in the winds.

"Anything could happen at this point," Huang quips. "It will be exciting for me and for the orchestra, for sure."

And for the listeners, I add.

Indeed, that anything can happen at any time on stage is why a recording will never measure up to a musician making art in the moment, in live performance.

Could it be a disaster? Sure. But the chances of that happening are slim. Considering the adrenaline rush of those responsible for putting together this concert, I am betting on brilliant.


Houston Symphony presents "Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5" on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased online or by calling 713-224-7575.