Wu Hung, Principal Violin II
KS: Could you tell me the story about your dad, a record player, and how you chose to play the violin?
WH: Back before I was born, in the 1950s, although Taipei was still the capital of Taiwan, you could still see rice fields in the city, it was quite a different place than it is today. My father graduated from the police academy and married my mom. Every month he would hand over his salary to my mom, as she was the boss of the house.
One day my mother told my father to use some money to buy himself a suit for attending weddings and special events. In those days, buying a suit was very expensive, so he needed to go to a second hand store to look for one. When he was at the second hand store, he saw this unusual box lying on the floor. He was a very curious person, and he loved to try anything new, so naturally he asked the store owner about it. The owner told him that it was a record player, which was very rare in Taipei at the time, the more common device that people used was the radio. My father was very curious about the record player and there was a stack of LPs on the side as well, so he started to play one record in the store and loved it so much that he decided to buy both the record player and the stack of LPs instead of the suit. It turned out that all of the records that he bought were classical music.
At that time, classical music was very rare in Taiwan, most of the time when you would hear music, it was patriotic music on the radio. Listening to LPs on the record player became regular family entertainment for us after dinner. I have 3 siblings, two older sisters and one younger sister. When my 2 older sisters became 5 or 6, they chose to learn to play the piano, and when it was my turn at age 5 and a half, although I had never seen a violin before, I had heard the sound on the records my dad played, so I imitated the sound for my parents, and they recognized it as a violin. I realized later that I was imitating sounds from a Heifetz record, and that’s how I chose to play the violin.
My parents continued to buy music records. We lived in newspaper housing, and later we moved into my father’s policeman housing. The neighbors would want to hear the records too, and they would come over to listen to music with us. Even at my father’s funeral, some people came up to me and expressed gratitude to my family for exposing them to classical music.
KS: These days we know so many incredible classical musicians who grew up in Taiwan, it’s hard to imagine that such a short time ago classical music was rarely heard. How has the value of classical music changed over the past few decades?
WH: Now people in Taiwan have a totally different attitude towards classical music. They see it as culture, and in general people want to be culturally elevated; it’s now widely appreciated. One year when I was visiting Taiwan, maybe 10 years ago, I got into an elevator and heard a recording of the Schumann Cello Concerto. Another day I was eating at a shave ice place, and the business was playing a recording of a Mozart Violin Sonata. I’ll also never forget going to an old style Chinese breakfast place that had a Brahms Violin Sonata playing. The guy in the back was a butcher cutting meat, with a cigarette in his mouth, a very striking image.
When I was growing up in Taiwan, my school required to me to learn how to read music. Singing is also part of the school curriculum. The philosophy behind this is that integrating music into early education is leading the way towards a higher culture of the whole population. Scientific research shows that children who live in Asia have a higher than average rate of developing perfect pitch, and part of it is the language, because we have different tones as a part of the pronunciation and you have to be very careful about your pitch when you speak.
KS: You also repair and re-hair bows, how did you develop that skill?
WH: I’ve always been interested in finding out how string instruments work, I would always watch luthiers and ask a lot of questions whenever I went to a shop or had repair work done. One summer I went to a workshop to learn how to repair and re-hair bows at College of the Redwoods in California. People here trust me and let me work on their bows. So far I haven’t broken one yet.
KS: How did you move to Hawaii?
WH: My first job out of college (New England Conservatory) was performing in the first violin section of the Sacramento Symphony. Unfortunately, that organization declared bankruptcy at the end of 1992. When that happened, somehow the only 2 violin positions that were advertised were to be Associate Concertmaster of the Virginia Symphony, and the other was Principal 2nd violin of the Honolulu Symphony. The two auditions were in the same month and I took both auditions successfully and was offered both positions. I first got the job with the Virginia Symphony, but before I did that audition I had already spent a week in Hawaii performing as a sub with the Honolulu Symphony. While I was in Hawaii, I was encouraged to take their audition, and the audition repertoire lists were pretty similar, so I decided to do that one as well. Even before I graduated from the New England Conservatory, my teacher (James Buswell) told me that the Honolulu Symphony was good, so I decided to take the position here.
Kathryn Schulmeister, HSO Patron Services Representative, interviewed Wu Hung in October 2015.
More about Wu Hung
Wu Hung began violin studies at the age of 5 in his native country of Taiwan. He came to the United States in 1986 to study at the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut where he earned his Artist Diploma in violin performance. He went on to receive his Master of Music degree with honors from the New England Conservatory in Boston. He has been Principal 2nd Violin of Honolulu Symphony (now Hawaii Symphony) since 1993.