On our way to Susanne Hou’s home for an interview, her rendition of Pablo de Sarasate’s classic composition Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) echoed in our car. Her surging, impassioned notes evoked sorrow, empathy and vitality. It is difficult to believe that the hands of a delicate Chinese girl called this music forth without seeing a video of her performance.
Google “Yi-Jia Susanne Hou” and find a gold medal winner at the 1997 Pablo Sarasate International Violin Competition in Spain, the 1999 Rodolfo Lipizer International Violin Competition in Italy, and the 1999 Concours Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud in France. Susanne Hou has written an unprecedented chapter in the history of violinists.
When we arrived at Hou’s Toronto home, we were greeted by her father, Alec Hou, also a master violinist. He is probably the happiest person in the world, having graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, later becoming the Shanghai Ballet Company Orchestra’s Concertmaster, and now having seen his daughter’s stupendous achievements. As we chatted, Susanne, smiling, walked down from upstairs and greeted us politely. The master violinist on the stage was now the girl next door.
“My dad hoped to teach me to play violin when I was three years old. I was still too small to hold the instrument; I had to wait until I was four.” Mr. Hou treasures a photo of four-year-old Susanne practicing. Her chubby little face, gazing intently, is pressed against a tiny instrument as she draws a bow.
“At Christmas that year, we went to my brother’s house for dinner,” he said. “I discovered a good piece of maple there and made Susanne’s first violin with it, the one in the photo.” Thirty-two years later, Mr. Hou still has that keepsake.
“My father said to me that if I wanted to learn to play violin, I had to practice for two hours every day. I was just four years old. I didn’t understand two hours. He taught me: the long hand goes around to 12 o’clock twice. After careful consideration, I told my father: OK, I can do it.” Since then, practice time has only increased and never paused, even when Susanne was sick, not an easy task for a young child. But to this day, she still highly values the commitment she made and the lesson her father taught her. Her character and willpower are forged of platinum.
Susanne made rapid progress, becoming more and more skillful under her father’s strict guidance. When she was 12 years old, to give her the best opportunities available, her father sent Susanne’s practice recordings to Master Violinist Dorothy DeLay of New York’s world-famous Juilliard School of Music. Hou soon received an invitation to audition. After listening to Hou’s performance in person, the “Godmother of Violin” was stunned. She admitted Susanne into Juilliard immediately.
Hou lived up to the Godmother’s expectations. When Hou returned from Paris after winning gold at the Concours, the then 84-year-old DeLay could not sleep out of excitement. Susanne recalls spending an entire hour on her way to a restaurant, as countless students and teachers came up to congratulate her.
As she plays complex emotional compositions, Hou expresses a profound understanding of life. We asked how she gains her insights and listened to the struggles she and her parents went through.
“My parents used to be China’s best violinists. China has one billion people. To be at the top, I think, is far more difficult than in Canada. With the arrival of the Cultural Revolution, their artistic careers were interrupted completely and they chose to leave the country. We came to Canada in 1981, when I was 4, which meant that they had to start from zero. Nobody knew who they were, and all of their past splendours vanished.” In a foreign environment, the Hou family struggled financially. Susanne’s father purchased her second violin from a thrift store.
“I think that a lot of people are given opportunities. My parents were not.” Susanne Hou recounted when she was 15 years old, upon realizing the sacrifices her parents made for her violin studies, she considered relinquishing her violin career. Her loving father, for example, drove her back and forth from Toronto to New York for her Julliard lessons: she was too young to live in the city on her own. When she told him her thoughts, Mr. Hou remained unusually calm, simply telling her to make her own decisions. Susanne didn’t touch her violin that day. When she went to bed, she found herself constantly tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep. She realized that the violin had already integrated into her life, as she grew up, and had become a part of her soul. She could not part with her violin.
“My family’s experiences have made me grateful, and I cherish everything I have. It is so easy to do everything that’s fun. But it doesn’t mean anything. I believe that music has a connection to something deeper down.”
Today, what Hou holds in her hands is probably the most coveted instrument of any of the world’s violins — crafted in 1733 by the famed Italian violinmaker Guarneri del Gesu, with an estimated value of around 6 million US dollars. The Chicago-based Stradivari Society loaned this violin to her in 2009, and she has been playing on it ever since. Once used by the legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler, this masterpiece is one of only 150 del Gesu ever fashioned.
A young violinist, her artistic career is still a long path for her to travel. Her medals launched world tours. Her recording ambitions are equally compelling, including work with the London Philharmonic, and the interpretation of Chinese classics. She is also mentoring rising performers by sponsoring concerts and contests. She is even bottling her own red wine in Kelowna, exploring what she perceives as subtle cultural relationships between wine and music. Hou believes that “music is the most honest expression of the heart. I use honesty to experience life and perceive music.”
Photography by Victor/ Baozhi Hou