September 2, 2008
Piano Prodigy on a Mission to Promote Bach
By Will Oremus
Hilda Huang doesn't like it when people listen politely as she plays a Bach fugue on the piano. She wants them to listen intently.She doesn't like it when people clap for her. She wants them to clap for the performance.
Twelve years old and an eighth-grader at Jordan Middle School in Palo Alto, Huang is more than just a virtuoso pianist. She's an advocate for the transformative power of classical music.
"It gives you calmness," the young Palo Alto resident says. "It teaches you how to focus."
And if you hope to follow the mathematically nuanced music she performs so brilliantly, you have no choice but to focus. She plays not to show off her ability, but to express to listeners the intricate "conversations" she hears within the music.
For the past year, Huang has been immersed in a self-initiated project to convey the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach to the general public, particularly kids her own age. She has recorded short films explaining the music, and she has a dream to start a series of "I Love Bach" concerts around the world.
For her efforts, she received a $25,000 fellowship this month from the Nevada-based Davidson Institute for Talent Development. She's the first Bay Area youth to win the award for music.
The fellowship adds to an increasingly impressive series of accomplishments. She recorded Bach's Two-Part Inventions at age 8, was the youngest pianist to perform in Music@Menlo in 2006, and earlier this year was featured on National Public Radio and the PBS program "From the Top at Carnegie Hall."
Huang is not only a great talent, but a unique one, says John McCarthy, director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's preparatory division.
"Hilda's exceptional in the way she hears," he says. "She hears horizontally. It's almost like she hears conversations between voices, where most pianists hear textures and colors."
While other piano prodigies dazzle audiences with rousing renditions of Rachmaninoff, Huang eschews flash in favor of structural complexity. As an example of the type of performance she scorns, she plays a passage from Franz Lizst, her arms sweeping upwards in bold strokes, body swaying.
"It's all flash, pedal, boom," she says.
Bach's beauty, she explains, is "more internalized. You have to bring it out. You have to really listen."
That makes it a tough sell for her Rihanna-loving peers, she admits.
"They do know a massive amount of pop music. But when you talk about Bach, they say, 'Who?' They're all like, 'Classical music is for nerds.'"
But in a time of sound bites and short attention spans, Huang argues, anyone can benefit from sitting down and concentrating on a profound classical composition.
Huang's instructor believes that if anybody can transmit the challenging music's rewards to the masses, it might be her.
"Hilda has a very modern way of hearing Bach," McCarthy says. "She is very responsive to the exceptional character of joy that's inherent in his music."
And she plays it with such verve that, by comparison, he says, "she makes me feel like I'm drugged when I'm playing the piano."
Huang says she can tell whether she's gotten through to someone when they congratulate her after a performance.
If they've listened politely, they'll tell her, "Good job." But if they've listened the way she wants them to, she says, "It's more of a 'Good job!'"
Will Oremus can be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published by Will Oremus, Palo Alto Daily News.
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