When Bin Huang takes the stage at the Peabody Conservatory tonight to play her first Baltimore recital since winning a prestigious international competition last fall, she will mark the latest step in a journey that began in her native China 19 years ago.
She remembers the weather was still warm that October evening. She was just 4, playing in the street with friends, when her father called her over to present a birthday gift: a tiny violin.
"This violin was so small, I think one-eighth [normal size], or at least one-quarter," recalls Ms. Huang of the gift from her father, a university physics teacher in Hunan Province in the People's Republic of China.
Flash ahead to another October evening, in 1994. In Genoa, Italy, Ms. Huang again takes an unusual violin into her hands: one of the world's most famous -- the "del Gesu" by Giuseppe Guarneri, the very instrument played by virtuoso Nicolo Paganini.
Ms. Huang, 23, earned the honor of playing the violin by winning the 1994 Paganini Prize, the highest award in the Paganini International Violin Competition.
"Paganini is like a legend for us, like he never really existed," says Ms. Huang, an Artist Diploma student at the Peabody Conservatory. "When you see the violin, and touch it, it's like some kind of connection with Paganini."
She will also play an extraordinary violin tonight: an instrument made by Pietro Guarneri, another member of the famed Italian family of artisans, which she received on long-term loan from the Stradivari Society in Chicago.
Ms. Huang, a student of celebrated violinist/mentor Berl Senofsky since 1988, returned to Baltimore last weekend after a triumphant three-week visit to China. She performed concerts in Beijing and Nanjing, including two broadcast live on national television.
Tonight's Peabody recital is part of Ms. Huang's degree requirements, and earlier this week she worked anxiously to catch up on rehearsal time with piano accompanist Shirley Hsiao-Ni Pan.
How did the only child of two university professors in Hunan -- her mother teaches mathematics -- progress from playing a child-size instrument to awing audiences with a determination that "explodes over the strings of the violin," as one Italian critic raved?
Ms. Huang says her ability was spotted early. "Within a few months, my father hired for me a private teacher. She was really very excited about me. She said she had never met anybody so talented."
Still, she herself wasn't convinced for another four years, when she traveled to Beijing in 1980 to audition for the Central Conservatory of Music.
"I was very nervous, but when I listened to the other children play I thought I was much better than them," she says, adding, "I was the youngest, and that was the first time I really had confidence in my playing."
She studied at the conservatory for eight years and remembers that when she was 11, she even performed for Mr. Senofsky, who was in temporary residence at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. "But he doesn't remember me from then," Ms. Huang giggles now.
Mr. Senofsky has been responsible for directing a number of talented Chinese instrumentalists into the West, but Ms. Huang was not one of them. Her connection to Baltimore came through another violinist who preceded her at the Peabody: Li Quing, who plays in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
"We were schoolmates in Beijing, and when she came to Baltimore, she wrote to me and said, 'Are you interested in coming?' " recalls Ms. Huang. She sent her friend a tape of her performance of Wienawski's "Variations" and notes matter-of-factly, "I played it when I was 14, almost perfectly." Soon enough, she was Baltimore-bound.
Ms. Huang praises Mr. Senofsky warmly, explaining, "when I play for him, I feel like nothing should matter except the music. He always makes me feel so hopeful about my future."
Tonight's concert is co-sponsored by the Mayor's Sister Cities Program, which maintains connections to both Genoa and Xiamen, China. Ms. Huang plans to return to Genoa in early March for a concert, and will again play Paganini's Guarneri.
Ms. Huang's victory in the Paganini competition is her most prestigious, but she has also done well in others, including: fourth prize in the Marguerite Long-Jaques Thibaud International Violin Competition in Paris in 1990, Silver Medal in 1992 in the Prague Spring Music Competition, and bronze in 1993 at the Queen Elizabeth International Violin Competition in Brussels.
What: Violin recital by Bin Huang
When: 8:15 tonight
Where: Miriam Friedberg Concert Hall, Peabody Conservatory, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place
Information: (410) 659-8124