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Hou to be a Butterfly Lover, Explained

Susanne Hou just might speak to you in concert: don't be afraid!
Courtesy of the artist

“You’re a crazy woman!!”

Perhaps that’s not the expected way to open a conversation with a respected virtuoso violinist like Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, who will be performing culturally significant classical music in the vaunted halls of the Centre for Performing Arts, . . .

But she is!!

After the collapse of our first interview, while driving to her next performance, she calls me back on her cellphone as she passes a traffic accident, which I suggest might happen to her if she keeps driving while we talk:

it’s not illegal down here, you know. It’s the State of Freedom!” she laughs (otherwise known as Florida).

Ms. Hou points out that the drivers around her are much crazier than she could ever be, and that is supposed to comfort you. Do you feel comforted?

Such an attitude could be from her similarly unexpected start, being born during her father’s premiere of Western classical music in China in 1978 (one of the first to do so; during the second movement of Beethoven’s violin concerto, to be exact). Or the fact that she’s been performing on the fiddle since she was four.

More important, however, than the musico-phsycho-analysis, is the reason for her trip to Calgary on February 19th.The 7:30 concert with the Calgary Philharmonic, called The Splendour of China is where she performs Chen and He’s Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto. Though there’s kind of a happy ending (Spoiler Alert!), it’s a heartrending tale based on Chinese folklore of two star-crossed lovers who disregard tradition in order to be together. It was a well-known story to begin with, but the congruence of the Cultural Revolution and this musical adaptation proved to be unstoppable: Susanne comments that it’s “like the national anthem of China.”

She also mentions that her family has already been involved with this work:“(My father) was offered the premiere of Butterfly Lovers Concerto then, and recordings, but he wanted to leave the country at that time and bring his family to Canada. He knew that anything that he had accepted from them would prevent him from leaving, so he declined the opportunity.”

His daughter, however, hasn’t had to do much declining. And a successful classical performance and recording career hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm at all. Not only does she chat up her audience on occasion, Ms. Hou has expanded her boundaries into arrangement and production:

“I created a classical-musical called “String of Pearls”. It’s a sequel: the first one (“Around the Musical World in 80 Minutes”) was so popular that they’re bringing it back already. It’s an exploration of music from all over the classical music world: opera arias from Italy, Spanish dance, Argentinian tango.. . . . She also arranged an Astor Piazzola tango for violin, piano and percussion (with her pianist), included some Tchaikovsky ballet with dancers, Elgar solo violin, and other works she mentions too quickly to quite catch on her Miami drive-by.

If it seems strange that a virtuoso solist would be talking to a classical music audience during their performance, or mashing these genres together to bring them to a theatrical and cruise ship audience, Susanne would agree that she’s interested in shaking things up a bit. For example:

“I believe, very truthfully and sincerely, that if people feel like clapping (during a performance), then the music has dictated it so. And if they feel like dancing, it is the same; if they feel like singing and humming along also. However, in the middle of an extremely intimate Schubert song, or, let’s say, in the opening phrase of the Butterfly Lovers concerto, or in the moment when she sees him over the hill and she’s crying (knowing they cannot be together), people are not going to feel like cheering, and that would be inappropriate. I think that anything that triggers a natural human emotion, well, who are we to stand in the way of that? It’s part of sharing our experience.

“I’m more than happy to break down that barrier between the artist and our audience. It’s about time that that wall comes down.”

And like other world-wearied working musicians, she provides a travelling restaurant review: Hou To Dine.” Barriers, away with ye!

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