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- 7 min.
In June 2022 we had the pleasure of announcing the appointment of Belgian violinist and Queen Elisabeth Competition laureate, Sylvia Huang, as the concertmaster of our Symphony Orchestra. After two concerts at the beginning of the year, she is about to perform Henry VIII, her first opera in the pit of La Monnaie. The perfect time to pause and, literally, reflect.
It is 3 p.m. on Wednesday 5 April 2023. How do you feel?
I feel great. I’ve just had a nice meal in the sun. And I worked well this morning. I always try to be productive in the early part of the day, even though I’m not really an early riser. As musicians, we’re so used to being active in the evening for performances that it’s sometimes a struggle in the morning. For that matter, on days when I don’t have concerts, I also love working late in the evening. It’s a time of day when I feel more inspired. Of course, out of respect for my neighbours, I attach a mute to my instrument or I do some table work.
What does that involve?
I study the score. I like listening to different versions of the work at the same time. Or else I do some mental exercises. I play the pieces in my head, for instance. There are other ways of working than with the instrument.
It’s been a few months now since you joined La Monnaie as concertmaster. What lessons can you already draw from this experience?
So far I have only done two symphonic projects and I’m really looking forward to start working on my first opera. There’s like a very warm atmosphere, family-like. I’ve been well received and everyone is very kind. Positive energy everywhere. This comes in part from working with Alain. He always has that drive and that ability to bring musicians together. He also gives off a lot of energy during the performances.
What made you want to join the La Monnaie Orchestra?
Several things. I lived in Amsterdam for eight years. I was a tuttist in a very good orchestra, the Concertgebouworkest, but I had reached a stage in my life where I wanted to explore something else. Four years ago I took part in the Queen Elisabeth Competition and that opened quite a few of doors for me. I started doing concerts as a soloist and playing chamber music … It became difficult to combine this with the job of tuttist, where you have to be present in the orchestra all the time. I needed more freedom and I wanted to come back to Belgium. And then there was this position at La Monnaie that came up. I would never have thought of applying for it before. It involves so many responsibilities and there is so much pressure. But when I looked at it more closely, I realized that it was a mixture of many things: you’re part of the orchestra but you have to manage a group, you sometimes have solos, you have to communicate with the other section leaders, there’s also some chamber music … In a sense, it’s a fusion of different roles and so, as I wanted to do a bit of everything, I auditioned. I feel very lucky. It’s a great opportunity to be able to grow in this orchestra and to have the time to pursue my more personal projects.
And perhaps you’ll be able to vary your repertoire more easily …
Exactly. I was in an exclusively symphonic orchestra. After eight years, you realize that a lot of programmes get repeated. Also, I’m not so familiar with the world of opera, even though we used to play one a year. It’s a new repertoire, a new world for me to discover.
You will soon be entering the pit of La Monnaie for the first time, for Henry VIII. Are you impatient or rather stressed?
Not stressed yet (laughs). I can’t wait to experience the whole process from the first rehearsal to the performances, to see the whole process of harmonizing the singers, the staging and the orchestra. What’s more, I don’t know this opera. So it’s also a discovery and I’m impatient to see what the end result will be.
Have you studied the score?
I had to mark the bowing symbols so I got the opportunity to listen to the music. But I’d love to see the whole context. That’s the crazy thing about opera. There is so much going on. It really is a fusion of different arts. I have a musical overview of the work, but at the moment it’s incomplete. I want to have the whole show in my head.
When you play a stringed instrument, you pull and push the bow across the strings, producing a sound. When you play a piece, you have to decide whether to push or pull for each note or phrase (group of notes), depending on the sound you want to achieve according to different parameters (volume, colour, tempo, etc.). In the case of an orchestra, all the string sections have to play in the same way, making the same gestures, i.e. pulling or pushing the bow at the same time. This ensures a homogeneous sound while preventing visual discordance. Two symbols are used to determine the bow strokes. They are marked on the score above the notes: ∏ for down bowing and V for up bowing. As concertmaster, Sylvia Huang determines the bow strokes made by the first violin section of our Symphony Orchestra.
At only 28 years of age, you have already had a busy career, including positions in leading orchestras and prestigious awards. Are you ever surprised by the turn your career has taken?
Yes, I feel like I’m always surprised by everything that happens in my life. I never really planned my career. Sometimes I feel like I’ve done things backwards. They just came my way and opened doors for me. I’ve been very lucky and I just continue to go with the flow, so to speak.
In your opinion, what are the choices and/or strokes of luck that led you to this point?
I have always played the violin. It’s hard to imagine my life without the instrument. But I had a plan B, I would probably have been a vet. I love animals. After secondary school I didn’t enter higher education: I went straight to the Belgian National Orchestra, then the Concertgebouworkest, then I studied at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. When I took part in the Queen Elisabeth Competition, it was more a challenge to myself than anything else. I didn’t even think I would be preselected. My choices have often been spontaneous, and I make decisions according to what I want or need, not according to a set plan.
What do you gain from living your life this way?
I feel like I really enjoy the little things in life. I’m so happy with what I have. I work a lot, obviously, because I have to. But it’s a job I love. That makes life easier.
What musical works have had the greatest influence on your life?
Hard to say. There are so many that come to mind … Spontaneously I would say Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. I discovered this work in Amsterdam. I remember that when we did this series of concerts, I was completely overwhelmed. I think we played it three times. But, for some reason I can’t quite explain, after each concert I was in tears for a good hour. I found the work to be quite transcendent. It’s a symphony in six movements, and each movement represents something: Pan awakes, summer marches in, what the Flowers in the Meadow tell me, what the Animals in the Forest tell me, what Man tells me, what the Angels tell me, and what Love tells me. It had such an impact on me …
Is it unsettling to play a work like that?
Yes. On stage already I was in tears. Fortunately, I was at the back so it was alright (laughs). But yes, sometimes the music moves us. That’s the magic of music. As a channel by which to release your emotions, it can be of such power that it can sometimes be overwhelming. That’s normal. It’s beautiful and inexplicable. It makes me think of another piece, for piano and violin this time: Eugène Ysaÿe’s Poème élégiaque. It has the same effect on me. When I play it, I feel that it comes from deep inside me. It really goes beyond words or rationality or even any analysis of the score.
What words would you use to describe yourself as a musician?
Good question. Right now, I hear in my head what people say about me. But that’s not necessarily how I feel. When I play, I try to show myself as I am. I have the impression I’m honest on stage. It’s a space where I don’t put on a mask. Often in life you have to act a certain way. There are codes. Sometimes life is like a play and you have to perform a certain role. I try to behave like that less and less in my private life too. But on stage I have nothing to hide. For some music professionals, appearance is everything. But in an ideal world, we should just be authentic. Being authentic is more powerful than creating a persona.
Some would argue that performing is appearing …
That’s precisely why I’m more and more allergic to this idea of appearance. I want people to see me as I am. I don’t want there to be a disconnect between ‘Sylvia the violinist’ and ‘Sylvia the person’. I’m looking for a form of sincerity and simplicity, like a dialogue … Because of technology and social networks, our generation always seems to be either projecting an image or consuming images. I have the impression that this has contributed to this loss of authenticity.
Since you started playing, has your relationship with the violin changed?
Yes, very much so. In the beginning I was too young to even realize what it was. I’m not one of those who ‘heard the sound of the violin and fell in love with it’. I started when I was three. My father is a violinist. He taught me everything. I grew up with it. It was part of everyday life. There were times when I found it exasperating, of course. After all, the word ‘passion’ comes from the word ‘suffer’ in Latin (laughs). In the beginning it was rather automatic. Then, as I grew up, I became aware of what I was doing. Fortunately, I started to appreciate the instrument, to love music. And above all, I was quite shy, so it was like a therapeutic bubble. Afterwards, it became the most natural thing in the world. Today I love what I do. It makes me so happy to be on stage, to play, to move people … I really have got closer to my instrument.
What are you currently playing on?
At the moment I’m lucky enough to have a violin on loan from the Fondation Arthur Grumiaux. I’ve had it since July 2022. Before that I had a violin from the Concertgebouw. When I left the orchestra, I had to return it. Honestly, it was hard. It had been my travelling companion for seven years. We went through things together. The last time I played with this violin was for the audition at La Monnaie … And then I got the opportunity to meet members of the Fondation. They lent me a magnificent Vuillaume that belonged to Arthur Grumiaux. I’m a big fan of his and it’s an honour to be able to play on this violin.
Is a violin easy to tame?
I was well used to the other one. So it took a few months for the Vuillaume and me to get to know and understand each other. It’s like with a person. But now we’ve got it: we’re great mates (laughs)!
Are there any dreams that you want to fulfil?
Not necessarily. I always try not to think too far ahead. For now I want to get to know La Monnaie. I’ve got a one-year trial period. I want to give my all. It’ll be nice to meet everyone properly for my first opera production. Spending more time with my new colleagues, that’s what I want to focus on.
In the end, this is the beginning of a completely different job for you.
Yes, absolutely. I was used to the very short term. For the symphonic productions of my previous orchestra, we rehearsed on Monday and Tuesday and performed the concerts from Wednesday to Sunday. The following week, we moved onto another symphony. It’s a different rhythm. And I was just thinking to myself, I played so many things, but it went so fast that I didn’t have time to immerse myself in the works. Sometimes I hear a piece on the radio and I think, ‘I know that, I must have played it’, but I don’t even know what it is anymore. Here, I think that over the course of a month, you have time to really understand what is going on. This unhurried approach perhaps allows for more in-depth exploration. It’s quite thrilling to work your way through the symphonic repertoire, but over the course of a season it soon becomes redundant. Opera, on the other hand, is infinite …
Translated by Patrick Lennon