December 9, 1977, was a Friday. In Halifax it was warm and raining. In Shanghai the air was clear and dry with a slight breeze. The day had been warm, but come evening the temperature was just above freezing. The moon was a tiny sliver of a waning crescent. At the Shanghai Theatre the Shanghai Symphony was performing a program including Beethoven's "Violin Concerto in D Major." Alec Hou, one of China's best violinists, was the soloist. He played the monster 23-minute first movement and started into the 10-minute second movement. Later he said he felt something miraculous during that second movement. He was right.
Yi-Jia Susanne Hou was born in Shanghai, on December 9, 1977, while her father was playing that second movement. Tonight (Thursday, February 12) at the Rebecca Cohn, she'll play that very same music with Symphony Nova Scotia---that monster first movement and then that miraculous second movement. Another miracle: She's here to play two concerts (the second is in Lunenburg on Friday, February 13) because the scheduled soloist, tenor Terence Mierau, has had to cancel an appearance.
The Beethoven is a big, solid war-horse. It's not heard so often anymore because it's very difficult, raining physical demands onto the soloist. Susanne Hou will have no trouble. On the phone from her home base of New York City, she says, "It's very special to me. I was born to play this. I didn't publicly perform it until quite recently in my musical career---a couple of years ago. Not because of the level of difficulty, but I think because it's a very musically mature piece."
Her father has remained important in Hou's career. He made her first violin---a tiny bijou a little smaller than one-sixteenth the regular size. (In a documentary called Shanghai Sensation available at cbc.ca, he plays "Jimmy Crack Corn" on it.) Alec Hou brought his wife Emily and Susanne to live in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and then Mississauga. When Susanne was 12, she became a student of the amazing New York teacher Dorothy DeLay. The family didn't move there. Alec Hou drove eight hours for his daughter to have a two-hour lesson, then eight hours back: twice a month for four years. He also made the bow she uses now.
In Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, he writes about a study which shows that it takes 10,000 hours of focused practice by the age of 20 to become a world-class musician. Hou says she got 10,000 hours in during her first 10 years of study. She started at age four. Hou doesn't believe in a formula to determine skill, but she does believe in early learning. "I was so young I don't remember learning a lot of difficult things and I didn't read music until after I learned many very difficult things. A lot of it went very deep into my muscle memory."
The first time Hou got a first-rate violin was her second year at Juilliard: After she won an international competition, the school loaned her its Avery Fisher Stradivarius.
Now she plays the ex Heath 1729 Guarneri del Gesu. She loves it deeply, but it's not hers. "Violins are very personal," she says, "like people. I turned down three Stradiveri violins when I won the Canada Council competition. Twice! I can't explain it other than it's like falling in love: you know that you know." Hou's voice drops and slows down. "Very sadly, Halifax is one of the last concerts I'll be playing on this violin. In August I have to give it back because it's the end of my second term---I can have it for only two terms." Hou isn't sure what she'll do for an instrument. "I first have to decide if I will compete for the other Canada Council violins---if I were fortunate enough to win would I want a Strad?---or if I'll pursue other venues. I have to make that decision. It's a very painful one that I don't even want to think about even though I have to.
"I see the Guarneri every day. It has a direct connection with my innermost journey. It's my voice. It's like the Little Mermaid being stripped of her voice."
Susanne Hou and Symphony Nova Scotia, Thursday, Feb. 12 at the Rebecca Cohn, 6101 University, 7:30pm, $32-$47.50, 494-3820, symphonynovascotia.ca. Friday, Feb. 13, St. John's Anglican Church, Lunenburg, 7:30pm, $25, (902) 634-4994.