BRUNSWICK — These are the quiet weeks before the chaos.

Frank Huang begins his duties as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic in mid-September. Many observers consider it the most prestigious and influential performance job in classical music in the United States, one that comes with a lot of attention and pressure, under the glare of the international music community.

For now, though, the 36-year-old, Chinese-born violinist is making music in Maine while he helps young musicians achieve their potential. As he has done for the past seven summers, Huang is in Brunswick as an instructor and performer at the Bowdoin International Music Festival. When he finishes in Brunswick this week, he’ll perform two concerts, on Aug. 13 and Aug. 15, with the Portland Chamber Music Festival, as he’s done for the last several years.

Huang appreciates the opportunity to teach and perform in the low-key environment of Maine.

He also really likes the food.

A self-described “super foodie,” Huang has fallen in love with Portland. New York has a lot to offer, including the allure of Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center, where the New York Philharmonic performs. But it doesn’t have Duck Fat fries. Nor does it have Eventide, Miyake or the same opportunities to play with friends that a summer in Maine offers.

The brothers David and Phillip Ying, who are the festival’s artistic co-directors, brought Huang to Bowdoin as a member of their quartet, beginning in 2009. Though he no longer performs as part of the Ying Quartet, he remains friends with the brothers and has always said yes when asked to come to Maine to teach.

He’s also friends with Jennifer Elowitch, founder and artistic director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival and fellow violinist. She’s invited him to perform at the Portland festival as a way to extend his time in Maine, an invitation Huang has accepted annually, in part because he loves the music that Elowitch programs and always finds it challenging and rewarding. He also appreciates the intimacy of playing chamber music.


In an interview between lessons at Bowdoin, the quiet and soft-spoken Huang seemed unfazed about becoming one of the most recognized musicians in the world. His biggest concern, he said, is finding a place to live when he gets to New York. He still serves as concertmaster of his hometown Houston Symphony, and he has obligations in Texas the same week of the season-opening gala in New York. He has no time to look for an apartment in New York and trusts that his friends with the orchestra will take care of him.

“It’s starting to get a little busy,” he said, laughing.

He was appointed to the post in April. The New York Philharmonic is among the top five orchestras in the United States and one of the oldest cultural organizations in the country. As concertmaster, Huang is the leader of the orchestra, second only to conductor Alan Gilbert. His job is translating Gilbert’s vision into notes.

If a sports analogy is apt, a concertmaster is akin to a quarterback in football. Just as the game plan of the coach depends on the play and leadership of the quarterback, the sound and character of an orchestra depends on the leadership of the concertmaster. The concertmaster sets the tone.

He says he’s not at all nervous. He performed as guest concertmaster with the New York Philharmonic three times last season. He knows the musicians and is getting to know Gilbert, who has announced he will step down after the 2017 season.

Instead, he feels a sense of responsibility – to the tradition of the orchestra, which dates to 1842, to Gilbert and to the audience, but mostly to musicians on stage with him, whom he considers friends. “I want to inspire not only how they play, but I want to inspire as many things as possible,” Huang said.


Huang spent the first seven years of his life in Beijing. Soon after he was born, his parents left China for the United States to improve their lives and create more opportunities for their growing family. His parents were both musicians but could not play music for a living in China. They worked as laborers, he said.

His grandmother raised him while his parents established their lives in the United States, eventually settling in Houston. Once established in Texas, his parents brought Huang to live with them.

His mother, he said, insisted that he begin playing the violin as soon as he arrived. He called her a “tiger mom.”

“I met her when I was 7, and she started me on the violin a few days after I got to the States,” he said. “I think she thought there was a lot of lost time to make up.”

Huang didn’t understand why he had to practice so much, when his friends were doing other things. It was unfair, he said.

As he got older and realized his skills on the violin separated him from his peers, he understood what his mother was doing.

Now, he appreciates her discipline and lessons, and he hopes to impart his wisdom to the next generation of performers.


About 250 musicians from around the world come to Bowdoin each summer to study and perform. Huang tells his students that to play any instrument at a high level, early and unwavering dedication is essential. Practice habits begin at a young age, he says. “If I can get these kids to make the decision to focus and practice, then my time here is productive,” he said.

Peter Simmons, executive director of the Bowdoin festival, said Huang is an effective instructor because he listens well and understands how to identify student weaknesses and strengths. He helps strengthen the areas in which players are weak and accentuates their strengths, Simmons said.

Huang also performs while in Brunswick, as do all faculty at the summer festival. His final performance in Brunswick is Friday night, when he joins a large group of musicians for Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Portland Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Moody will conduct. The concert is sold out.

The Portland concerts on Aug. 13 and Aug. 15 are at Hannaford Hall at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

Elowitch called Huang “one of the most extraordinary violinists I’ve ever heard.”

“His technique is flawless, and he is so creative that, in a good way, you never know what will happen in a performance,” she said. “He is always creating, and that is what you want in chamber music. You want it to feel like it is being created on stage. Frank is brilliant at that.”

In Portland, Huang never requests music in advance, and asks that it be placed on his stand in advance of rehearsal, Elowitch said. Most musicians want to study the music ahead of rehearsal, but Huang has the ability to synthesize the material quickly, she said.

“Within a short period of time, he plays it as if he has been playing it his whole life. It’s just different for him than us mere mortals,” she said.


At the same time. Huang acts without pretension. Elowitch expects he will be “just one of the guys” when he shows up for rehearsals in Portland. His new position and status in the classical music world will not affect how he treats his fellow musicians, she predicted.

Huang said he enjoys playing in Portland because the music challenges him. Elowitch has a knack for choosing music he’s either never performed or isn’t familiar with, he said. He also likes the casual nature of the Portland festival. He stays with the same host family year to year, and often invites members of his own family to Maine to be with him.

Elowitch never doubted that Huang would land the New York Philharmonic job. She’s a little surprised that he kept his commitment to Portland, given how his life is about to change.

“When he got the job, I kind of thought he would cancel,” Elowitch said. “Why would he do this? He can do whatever he wants now, pretty much. But I am so thrilled that in the realm of what he is doing, this type of experience is still meaningful to him. I hope he comes back for as long as he can.”

Simmons thinks Huang will continue playing in Maine, if for no other reason than because of his friendship with the Yings.

“The more his new role requires his time and attention, the harder it will be for him to do these kinds of things,” Simmons said. “But he’ll deal with friends before he deals with strangers. And Frank has been friends with the Yings for a long time.”