An Interview with Susanne Hou

On 25 September the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by John Nelson, begins an exciting tour of the Far East with a concert in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. It continues with concerts in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing before culminating with a final concert in Beijing, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts.  

Throughout the orchestra’s incredible journey it’ll be joined by the acclaimed violinist Susanne Hou, for whom the tour represents a life and career brought full circle (London audiences can experience their wonderful collaboration on 27 February 2018, at Cadogan Hall, when Susanne will perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto).

“As a young child growing up in Toronto, I would hear my father playing a Chinese folksong on his violin.

“Recently, when I was preparing my forthcoming recording with the RPO – it includes the Butterfly Lovers concerto, which we’ll be performing on our tour of China – I asked my father what the folksong was. He told me its composer met the concerto’s composers – He Zhanhao and Chen Gang – just before he wrote it. For me, this simple folksong represented a connection not only with my past and present but with China’s, too.”

Susanne explains that long before the Butterfly concerto was composed in Shanghai, just before the cultural revolution of 1966, music in China had been written for traditional instruments. However, in the early part of the 20th century, a group of Chinese composers were sent to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, the great teacher. They returned, their music infused with a French sensitivity and transparency.

Accordingly, her recording, which will be released shortly, is a mix of French and Chinese music that includes the Butterfly Lovers concerto and Chinese folksongs, Saint-Saëns Introduction and Rondo Capriciosso, and Fritz Kreisler’s Tambourin Chinois, inspired by a Chinese opera the legendary violinist heard performed in San Francisco.

“As a result, this recording and this tour, bringing one of the world’s top orchestras to China to perform the Butterfly concerto, makes me feel as if I’m going back to my roots.”

The concerto itself is a remarkable piece of music and, says Susanne, a perfect showcase for the orchestra’s musicians and its conductor. It is based on an ancient story from China’s Jin Dynasty (265-420). Like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, written many centuries later, it concerns two star-crossed lovers, who, prevented from marrying by the girl’s father, commit suicide, to be reincarnated as butterflies.

“The music is written like a Chinese opera in that each phrase and each note has a text behind it,” she explains. “I think it’s the only violin concerto in which every note is associated with a word, and I have memorised every single one.

“So the way each note must convey what is happening emotionally, is very like opera. You can be dangling off one note because of the heightened emotion of that scene.”

Susanne has nothing but praise for the way the RPO and conductor John Nelson have approached the music.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of musicians to convey the story of the Butterfly concerto. They embraced the music with love and with open hearts. Together we discovered things in the music, and now we’re embarking on a journey to China.”

It follows another great journey she made many years before. By the early 1980s, her father, Alec Hou, had established a career as one of China’s foremost violinists. However, in 1981, he took his wife and Susanne, then aged three, to Toronto in Canada, to start a new life.

“It was very hard for them,” she says. “Starting a life in music in a new country has its challenges. In the early years, my parents weren’t involved with music and that was tremendously difficult but there wasn’t a day in my life when music wasn’t floating around the house.”

Susanne’s talent for the violin was obvious from an early age, a talent her parents were happy to encourage. For example, she remembers her father – by this time, he was a professor at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto – driving her from Toronto to New York for lessons at the Juilliard School, a distance of 500 miles each way.

Fortunately, it was worth it because from 1997 to 1999 she won a string of world-class competitions (the Long-Thibaud, Lipizer and Sarasate) that sent her career into the stratosphere. Looking back, how does she view those early victories?

“As a platform and a challenge, competitions are remarkable,” she says. “There’s nothing like putting yourself through that fire and seeing what comes out, but if you’re not careful, the experience can destroy those qualities of an artist that are most vulnerable. The real challenge is to retain your passion and love for what you're doing.”

Fortunately, as those lucky enough to hear Susanne will discover when she performs with the RPO during their Far East tour and, later next year, when she performs the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at Cadogan Hall, that passion is as strong as ever. 


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