Bin Huang's violin recital last night at the Peabody Conservatory demonstrated that she is able to bring a large audience to its feet in cheers, but not much else about what what kind of musician she is.
Her program was somewhat old-fashioned in that it consisted primarily of encore pieces and showpieces. One says "somewhat old-fashioned" because even in the early years of this century most programs had more substance than that presented by Huang's selection of Beethoven's Sonata in A Major (op.12, No. 2), the slightest of the composer's first three sonatas in the violin-and-piano genre.
As it turned out, the Beethoven showed the young, Hunan-born violinist, a student of Peabody's Berl Senofsky and the winner of the 1994 Paganini Competition in Genoa, in an unflattering light. In Beethoven's sonatas, piano and violin should be equal partners, but Huang reduced the role of pianist Shirley Hsiao-Ni Pan, to that of an assistant. The lid of Pan's instrument was closed and what emerged from it sounded remote enough to have been coming from another room. This was unfortunate because it was Pan, a young Canadian who studies at Peabody with Ellen Mack, who had the most ideas about the piece. While Huang seemed content to produce a smooth and beautiful tone, it was the pianist who seemed responsive to the quirky NTC explosiveness in the first movement and she who captured the composer's joke at the end of the final one.
Elsewhere on Huang's program, one could hear what impressed the Genoese jurors. There was her smooth, silken tone in Saint-Saens' "Havanaise," her sweet applications of sentiment in three "Slavonic Dances" by Dvorak and the finish of her scales and the accuracy of her octaves in Franz Waxman's "Carmen Fantasy."
But even in her playing of show pieces -- the program also featured Vitali's "Chaconne," Sarasate's "Zapateado" and three Paganini caprices -- something was lacking. The caprices simply weren't capricious enough. These dazzling pieces should sound almost as if they were improvised; Huang made them sound sober and studied. The biggest disappointment came in Waxman's "Carmen Fantasy." What makes this piece come alive is not merely brilliant instrumental execution, but also an ability, absent in this performance, to suggest the human voice.
This recital showed that Huang is a very good violinist. Whether or not she develops into an interesting one is something that only time and she can determine.