Top violinist reflects on music and mentoring
Dashing to London’s Heathrow airport via a last-minute appointment at the BBC, Susanne Hou clutches a suitably anonymous and well-worn canvas violin case containing a 1735 instrument by the Italian master Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù. “I always like to have it where I can see it,” said Hou.
Only a concert hall superstar gets to play on such a treasure and Shanghai-born Yi-Jia Susanne Hou is such a star.
Raised in Canada by her Chinese parents, Hou has been performing in public for 33 of her 38 years. Her prodigious talent took her to the Julliard School in New York.
The subsequent award of three prestigious violin competitions in France, Italy and Spain launched her career on the world concert circuit as she embarked on a hectic schedule that would take her to more than 50 countries. She has been to China six or seven times but knows Europe and North America better.
She has performed with the world’s greatest orchestras and received accolades from some of its most legendary figures. The late violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin said of her: “Playing such as this, flawless, filled with light and meaning, makes you feel shy, as if you Susanne Hou, were witnessing a miracle.”
Hou was in London for the performance of a work that for her is deeply personal. At Cadogan Hall at the weekend, she was soloist alongside the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of The Butterfly Lovers violin concerto. The work by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao premiered in 1959 in Shanghai where Hou’s musician parents attended the same Shanghai Conservatory as the composers.
“I grew up with the melodies of the Butterfly as my parents were always singing them around the house,” Hou recalled.
The work, which adapts Chinese melodies for a Western orchestra, draws on a 4th century love story that is as familiar to the Chinese as Romeo and Juliet is to the English.
“On Sunday, there was an extraordinary vibrance in the hall,” said Hou. “Many in the audience were young students from the Chinese community.”
She left Shanghai at the age of three and has only a single flashback of her birthplace. “It was a terrifying bike ride in the basket of my father’s bike!”
Among her favorites now are Brahms, Shostakovich, Schubert. “Sometimes I get lost in Dvorak. And Mozart. If I leave him too long it weighs on my soul.”
Hou used to perform about 100 times a year. But now she wants to use her skills for a wider purpose. “I don’t want to call it a mission. But Butterfly, for example, is a way to connect with the world and our countries through music.”
She also sets great store by the next generation of artists who, after spending thousands of hours studying, do not always know what to do next. “They need guidance and mentoring and not just from within the musical world.”
One of Hou’s other passions is food — any kind as long as it reflects the culture of the countries she visits. “Patisserie is my forte and I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I did a course in Paris to learn to make macaroons.”
She’s wondering if she’ll have a chance at Heathrow to catch her English favourite. “I just love fish and chips!”
I don’t want to call it a mission. But for example, is a way to connect with the world and our countries through music.” violinist. Shanghai-born
Susanne Hou rehearses with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London.