Yi-Jia Susanne Hou grew up with the melodies of The Butterfly Lovers violin concerto wafting through her head. “My father used to play this piece to me on his violin,” says the Shanghai-born, Mississauga-raised violin virtuoso. “And I remember being told the story, a Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet.”
Hou and her parents—father Alec and mother Yvonne—moved to Canada in 1981, following the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution; the next year, at age four, her father began teaching her to play violin. She studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and during her teenage years commuted between Toronto and New York (by car with her parents sharing the driving for the 24-hour roundtrip) every few weeks for private lessons with Dorothy DeLay. She later attended the Juilliard School on a full scholarship and graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree of music and the distinguished artist diploma. Hou has toured as a soloist with orchestras in over 50 countries, including Canada, and performed with the likes of Pinchas Zukerman, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Alan Gilbert.
The Butterfly Lovers became popular after it was first performed in 1959. For a period of time in the ’60s and early ’70s it wasn’t played, but after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, restrictions on Westernized music were eased and it could be heard again. These days, the melody is everywhere in China—in elevators and taxis, and during morning tai chi—and while it is one of the most famous orchestral works from China, it is relatively unknown in North America. Hou realized she had a role to play in bringing the piece to the Western world. “I thought, if anyone can give it an authentic voice, has the capacity, is willing to do the research, and has connections to the composers—if anyone is going to do this, it probably should be me.”
“If the next generation of violinists are not better than me, then we have failed as human beings and as a society.”
For over three years, Hou researched the piece. First, she studied the story—about two young people whose love for each other is thwarted by secret identities and unwanted betrothals, but are finally together in death, fluttering away as a pair of butterflies—which is based on a legend set during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420 CE). She then memorized how each note and phrase of the solo violin—the heroine’s voice—correlated to the text, and even learned a new body language to use when she played. “There are layers of symbolism in the way you hold yourself,” she notes. Hou ultimately travelled to Shanghai to meet with the composers, He Zhanhao and Chen Gang, who had attended the Shanghai Conservatory of Music with Hou’s father.
Not long after Hou recorded her interpretation of the concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and maestro John Nelson, she brought together four outstanding violinists from the best music schools in the U.K., China, the United States, and France. She explains, “If the next generation of violinists are not better than me, then we have failed as human beings and as a society.” This was no typical master class held in a studio with the teacher and an accompanist. These students honed their performances with the entire Royal Philharmonic—which plays with only the best of the best.
Produced by DakApp, an app dedicated to music education, Hou’s master class was filmed in 3-D and 360 degrees using 28 cameras and is now available to anyone who wants to virtually join the class. Included with the master class are sheet music analysis and interviews with both Hou and Nelson. Hou is so passionate about supporting the next generation of violinists that she has created an international education program. She is currently gathering mentors, including musicians, conductors, and managers, as well as people from business and the film industry that young artists can turn to with questions or when they need advice.
This fall, Hou will return to China to perform in the 60th anniversary celebrations of The Butterfly Lovers, with a series of performances with various orchestras continuing through March.
Photos by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.
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