Striding toward Monument Circle wearing cuffed pencil-leg jeans and a fitted plaid shirt, clean-cut Austin Huntington sports a short-cropped One Direction-ish ’do. Making his way through the noon crowd, he looks like your average teen. And considering his course, one might assume he’s headed to Rocket Fizz like so many his age that file through the candy store’s door.
But the bulky, white case he carries, which stands nearly as tall as him, hints at another destination. Following a familiar path, he turns on his heels, stopping one address short of the sugar-buzzed shop and promptly disappears inside the Hilbert Circle Theater.
For anyone this summer who attended the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s Lunch Break Series or Symphony on the Prairie, this young buck in the front row likely caught your attention. And if you thought he was a high schooler playing with the ISO pros as part of the Side-by-Side program, think again.
- Photo by Gerry Justice
Huntington performs famous movie scores of John Williams with the ISO during this summer's last Lunch Break Series concert.
Anything but average, this 21-year-old from South Bend, Indiana, is the pro and also the orchestra’s new principal cellist. While he’s no teenager, Huntington is the youngest musician in the organization and one of three new ISO members for the 2015-16 season. The others are Peter Vickery as assistant concertmaster (on violin) and Michael Muszynski as the orchestra’s new second bassoon.
Last February Huntington submitted to the ISO his resume, which reads like a Who’s Who of Orchestral Musicians and an extended edition of The Wunderkind World Report (if there were such a periodical). He made his solo orchestral debut at 10 years old and is the recipient of numerous grand- and first-prize national and international awards. And he’s performed in masterclasses for exceptionally regarded musicians, including Truls Mork, Lynn Harrell, Ronald Leonard and Gary Hoffman.
The fourth-year Bachelor of Music student at The Colburn School Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles will perform in concerts again with the ISO this September and November. Then he'll begin playing full-time in January, while commuting to L.A. to finish his final year of school (in just one semester).
- Courtesy Austin Huntington
After playing for 17 years, Huntington boasts the resume of a child prodigy that grew into a consummate professional.
Huntington was invited to audition before the ISO in March (at which time he successfully passed the first round, competing with 70 other musicians, and was advanced by the committee of judges straight to the third and final round). He performed well enough to make it through and be invited by ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański to then participate in a trial week. It included attending five rehearsals and three concerts with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Huntington then agreed to play additional ISO concerts, including four performances of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. During a break in the second performance of the famous piece, Urbański walked over to have a word with him.
“The music director pulled me aside with a couple of other committee members, because they had just voted,” he says. “He congratulated me and told me that I got the job. That was a special concert for sure -- to get the news and then play such a momentous piece as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.”
Originally from Michigan, Huntington and his family moved to South Bend when he was 8 to be closer to his music teacher at the time. Then when he turned 10, Huntington began weekly music classes in Chicago with Richard Hirschl, who still plays with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
But the self-proclaimed “Hoosier at heart” says he began playing a tiny eighth-size cello at just 4 years old. "It was basically the size of a violin, and its bow was more or less the size of a chopstick.”
He laughs telling about his grandfather who still chides him for “faking music practice so I could hurry and go outside to play.” But he credits his parents for knowing just how much nudging was necessary to fuel his passion without burning him out.
- Courtesy Austin Huntington
An 8-year-old Huntington practices with his instructor, Emilie Grondin.
“I have two other brothers, and we were all obsessed with Legos,” says Huntington. “So my parents used this reward system with me, letting me go to the toy store to pick out a new Lego set as incentive to practice or to improve.”
He says as a kid he just wanted to build a little spaceship or whatever Lego kit he had at the time, but now looking back he sees Lego brick building much like a metaphor for the process of making music. Huntington says similarly both involve a lot of tiny pieces that intricately fit together and can build extensive creations.
Clearly a gifted and talented musician, Huntington has crisscrossed the country and traveled the world performing and competing, but he refuses to take full credit for his accomplishments. Instead, he humbly shines the spotlight back on those who encouraged and taught him.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have had amazing teachers -- to lead me along without pushing me along,” he says. “I would hesitate to call myself a 'child prodigy.' I definitely don’t have a technical mind, but I’ve been blessed with great teachers, both musically and academically, so I think maybe that’s part of it.”
One of five children, with two brothers and two sisters, Huntington says his entire family enjoys classical music and have all played an instrument at some point, though each has moved on to other fields, such as veterinary medicine, physical therapy and pre-med. His father, an E.R. physician, used to play classical LPs for him and his siblings when they were young, and his mother, a registered nurse, played clarinet in her youth. But as a family, they all went to Orchestra Hall often to watch the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform.
- Courtesy of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
Since making his orchestral debut at age 10, Huntington has performed as a guest soloist for no fewer than 17 orchestras.
“When I was 10, my instructor, Richard Hirschl, used to sneak me backstage to meet the conductor and the other musicians,” he says, fondly recalling that special attention. “He’d let me find an empty seat once the concert began, and I'd sit up in the nosebleed section while he’d go down to play with the rest of the orchestra. Sometimes he’d hand me off to one of the ushers who knew the drill [to find me a seat in order to watch the performance].”
In fact, playing a Dvorak concerto with the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall remains one of Huntington’s dreams. “It’s a beautiful concert hall and Dvorak is my favorite concerto, because it encompasses the whole spectrum of the cello,” he says. “And I grew up going to the Chicago Symphony concerts.”
“The ISO is the nicest orchestra in the world,” he says. “Everyone I’ve met, without exception, is the most supportive I could ever hope for, and they go out of their way to help me -- from finding a place to stay or going out to lunch, to finding an apartment.”
Playfully Huntington names his cellos. Inside his trusty white case, the one he currently plays is a Venetian cello made by Carlo Tononi circ 1725. He calls her "Toni Tononi."
Having spent the past three years in L.A. and most recently back with his parents in South Bend, the soon-to-be Mass Ave resident looks forward to starting his first permanent symphony job and adult lifestyle. He jokes that his new apartment "has just enough hipster element to remind me of L.A. without going overboard, beyond my comfort zone."
Huntington recognizes the age difference of his colleagues, but he says it doesn’t matter in the big picture.
“Age is kind of like the elephant in the room, because I’m like, 21 and some of them are in their 60s, and while that is a big divide, I feel we have a pretty big similarity -- playing in this orchestra and accomplishing the same goals together,” he says.
He knows of other musicians who’ve moved to different orchestras and states every couple of years, but that’s exactly what he doesn’t want to do.
“You can’t build musical relationships or personal relationships with anybody that way,” he says. “I want to make it so that I have a little place in the orchestra and a purpose in it. Not like it’s my orchestra, but I want to stay here as long as I can actively contribute to it.”
Eager to begin his professional career and settle into a place where he can set down his big, white case, Huntington jokes about growing up.
“It might sound lame, but the other day I was so happy because I found a sale on plates for my new apartment. That’s how you know you’re an adult, when you get excited about those things instead of something cool like a new Slip ‘N Slide. No, now it’s over plates.”