The International Violin Competition of Indianapolis saved the best for last. After 15 recitals in four days during the semifinal round, American soloist Sirena Huang took the stage at 9pm on 19th September, shaking off any torpor for an audience who had heard more sonatas in a weekend than most people hear in a year. She beautifully balanced the interplay of high Romanticism and folk melody in Brahms’s Sonata no. 2 in A Major, Op. 100 and brought a haunted quality to the competition’s commissioned work, John Harbison’s Incontro.

2022 Medalists Sirena Huang (Gold), Julian Rhee (Silver) and Minami Yoshida (Bronze)
© Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.

It came as no surprise when Huang was named one of the six advancing finalists, and on the following Saturday, she wowed the audience at Hilbert Circle Theatre with a refined yet thrilling rendition of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor. Again, she played last on the program, after two nights of virtuosic music-making with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Leonard Slatkin, but based on the audience's insistent cheering, I sensed that they would have happily stayed for an encore.

Huang was named Gold Medalist of the 11th Quadrennial Competition, where she joined the ranks of Mihaela Martin, Pavel Berman, Juliette Kang, Augustin Hadelich and Jinjoo Cho, among others. She also collected an astonishing tally of eight special awards in the course of the competition, namely best performances of works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, John Harbison and Kreisler as well as prizes for best encore, non-Beethoven sonata, and Best Performance of a Concerto in the Finals.

Sirena Huang receives the 'Best Performance an Encore Piece' Award from Thomas J. Beczkiewicz
© Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.

The 28-year-old Connecticut native was still processing the experience when I spoke with her by phone a week later. “When they got to the top three prizes, all of us just gave each other a hug, because at any point when they would call our name, it would be incredible,” Huang said. “Then when it was Julian [Rhee, the competition’s Silver Medalist] and me, we gave each other a big hug too, because we’ve known each other for several years. At that moment, either way, I already felt so grateful. One of the backstage crew sent me a video from when I won, and it was really funny to see how I reacted. I just crouched down, and I was completely in disbelief. The fact that I won this competition is so surreal, and I have to be perfectly honest – it still hasn’t really sunken in.”

Prior to arriving in Indianapolis, Huang hadn’t been on the competition circuit for several years. She prepared diligently for months in order to feel as focused and ready as she could for the main event. “I started preparing in December of 2021, because it’s such a wide range of repertoire,” Huang said. “I really wanted to have enough time to let each piece sink in, and for me to be able to explore it and put my personal interpretation into it. I didn’t want to just simply prepare it – I wanted to have my own take on it.

Sirena Huang
© Todd Rosenberg

“During the summer, I had several performances, so I took advantage of those opportunities and played through a lot of the pieces,” she continued. “Especially for the pieces that were new to me, it was great to have the opportunity to play them in a concert setting. And about two weeks before the start of the competition, I would wake up at 8am and run through my first-round repertoire. I wanted to be able to play through them without warming up, and it was a challenge and a test to see where I was at with these pieces. The first round has a lot of unaccompanied work that is technically very demanding, so I wanted to put myself in a worse-case scenario. If I felt comfortable playing through them first thing in the morning, when I hadn’t warmed up at all, it’s a way of building confidence.”

The Indianapolis win represented the culmination of a journey that began when Huang was four years old. Her older sister played the piano, and she was drawn to the instrument, despite the fact that neither of her parents were musicians. But for practical reasons, she was steered towards the violin from an early age. “I would go with my mom and sit in on [my sister’s] lessons, and my mom recognized that I was strangely enthusiastic,” Huang said. “She decided to get me some lessons too, but they said, ‘She’s four years old and her hands are kind of small. Why doesn’t she start with violin?’ That’s basically how I started.”

Huang first began studying with Suzuki master teacher Linda Fiore in Hartford, whom she affectionately called her “Violin Mom”, before entering the Juilliard pre-college division at age eight. “It’s a full day of classes every Saturday at Juilliard,” she explained. “My dad is a full trooper, because we lived about 3 hours from New York and sometimes we had classes starting at 8am. But he drove me every Saturday and we were there all day.”

Sirena Huang performs with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in the Finals round
© Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.

At the age of 11, Huang had the experience that solidified her resolve to pursue a career in music. “I had the honor of performing at a World Peace Conference in Petra, Jordan,” she said. “The King and Queen were there, Nobel laureates were there. I played the Bach Chaconne. I was only 11 years old, but being invited sparked something in me. It made me understand that music could communicate something to so many people from different backgrounds, different beliefs, different cultures. It sounds very clichéd to say this, but it really felt like music was a universal language. I was grateful to have the ability to play music, and in a way, that was my tool to build community. That realization still stays with me, and if anything, it’s actually stronger now.”

After earning her undergraduate degree at Juilliard and an artist’s diploma at Yale, she began her concert career in earnest. At 28, she won the Indianapolis in her final cycle of eligibility, and on her first stab.

In addition to a $75,000 cash prize, the Gold Medal carries a full suite of artist services, including professional management for four years, a bespoke website, concert appearances and a debut recital at Carnegie Hall, scheduled for 2024. These perks are meant to transition the winner into the next phase of her mature career. Huang brings maturity and wisdom to her outlook as she moves ahead as an artist.

“I’m still on Cloud 9,” Huang said. “These opportunities are incredible. A lot of these [upcoming] concerts are ones I’ve dreamed of having, and they keep coming in. I’m still processing it. I think it’s really important, too, to try and play the best music in all of these opportunities that are being given to me. Going forward, when I say I want to play my best, I mean that I want to share my voice through the music that I’m playing, and to stay true to myself.”

This article was sponsored by the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.