From Shanghai to the Palisades: Violin Virtuoso Tiffany Hu

By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer

Film is a collaborative art. Yet while we often know the names of the actors, director and (occasionally) the screenwriters involved, there are thousands of unsung heroes who contribute to a movie’s success.

Take this month’s family friendly blockbuster “The Peanuts Movie.” Perhaps you’re aware that composer Christophe Beck scored the new animated feature based on cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s iconic comic strip. Within Beck’s orchestra, there are many musicians at work, including a Palisadian in their midst: violinist Tiffany Hu.

Tiffany Hu Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer
Tiffany Hu
Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer

“He’s a great composer. I even did something solo for him,” she said of Beck.

On “Peanuts,” which debuted in 3,890 theaters last week, Hu was one of at least 24 violinists in an 80-piece orchestra.

In fact, Hu, a longtime Pacific Palisades resident, has played on many soundtracks overseen by Beck, including the animated feature “Frozen.”

For composer Michael Giacchino, Hu has lent her violin virtuosity to the scores of numerous movies by lifelong Palisadian J.J. Abrams, including “Super 8” and “Star Trek.”

Her work for Giacchino also includes 20th Century Fox’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” Pixar’s “Up,” “Cars 2” and “Inside Out” and both 2015’s highest-grossing movie (Universal’s “Jurassic World”) and its most notorious bomb (Disney’s “Tomorrowland”).

For Palisadian Thomas Newman, Hu has worked on fellow Pacific Palisades residents Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ latest collaboration, “Bridge of Spies.” For Steve Jablonsky, Hu worked on all eight seasons of “Desperate Housewives” (one of three violinists prominently featured) and last year’s biggest-grossing movie, “Transformers 4.” Hu’s credits go on and on.

Giacchino goes out of his way to spoil his musicians, she said. “Every movie, in the last session, he has a food truck come on the lot for lunch and a private screening for all the musicians,” Hu added.

Hu’s illustrious scoring credits also include films with composers John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, and on the “Titanic” and “Avatar” soundtracks, for the late James Horner.

“He was very serious,” she recalled. “His music always touched my heart.”

SHANGHAI SURPRISE 

On a recent business trip to her hometown of Shanghai, Hu met with various media to update them on her life and career.

At age 15, Hu left an indelible impression on her native country as a violin prodigy, especially after she was featured in the 1981 Academy Award-winning documentary “From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China.” She, in fact, appears on the movie’s poster, bespectacled with hair parted down the middle.

Hu’s mastery of music goes back to her earliest years, when her mother taught geography at grade school and her father was a professor of physics at Tongji University.

“I was always practicing,” Hu said. During the Revolution, every intellectual family learned an instrument but only children of peasants could attend college. As a result, music turned out to be “the only way to avoid going that route so I learned that,” she continued. “I loved to perform. During lunch hour, I would go and sing Mao revolutionary songs.”

As China opened its doors to a cultural exchange with Belgium, Hu was one of six plucked from 500 to study in Mons.

“I was one of two from the Shanghai Conservatory to be chosen,” she said, despite being underage. “I was 17. They broke the rule just for me.”

While studying at the Royal Conservatory of Mons, she lived in a dormitory, then “I moved in with a family who treated me like a daughter.” She returned home by 1983 and graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory two years later.

THE STERN HAND OF DESTINY

“He loved me!” Hu said of the late maestro Stern, who had forwarded recordings of her playing to USC professor Alice Schoenfeld.

“One day at home I got a call. A phone call from America. This was not possible!” she said.

Thanks to violinist Schoenfeld, Hu received a full scholarship to USC in 1985.

“It was so different,” she remembered of first experiencing L.A. life. “I didn’t speak a word of English.”

She lived with a Glendale family who would drop her off at USC in the morning. Schoenfeld, who lived in La Cañada Flintridge, took her home at night.

Soon, Stern had billionaire Richard Colburn, founder of downtown L.A.’s elite music institution The Colburn School, call Hu and ask her what she needed.

“‘I need to find a place closer and I don’t have any money,’” she recalled telling Colburn. With the help of more Stern associates—music critic Henry Roth and his wife—Hu found a room at a USC-adjacent Catholic dormitory, which Colburn subsidized.

“It was an adventure,” she recalled. “I won a lot of local competitions.”

As she took English courses and earned master’s and doctorate degrees, she would play solo recitals whenever Stern had a concert on the West Coast.

Eventually, Hu’s talents landed her a gig with the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, where she accompanied opera and ballet. In the early 1990s, she played violin in the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and at the Pantages Theater, accompanying musicals “Annie,” “Les Miserables,” and “The Sound of Music” starring Marie Osmond.

Then Hollywood called in 1997.

“The studio work was much bigger then,” Hu said.

Tiffany Hu with son Evan Epstein (l), husband Scott Epstein and Labrador retriever Chopin. Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer
Tiffany Hu with son Evan Epstein (l), husband Scott Epstein and Labrador retriever Chopin.
Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer

AFTER THE MOVIE REEL

Post-USC, Hu lived in Koreatown, Rowland Heights and Monterey Park, during which time her parents relocated to America. (Her father passed away in 2011.)

Initially, Hu and her husband of 16 years, Scott Epstein, lived in Marina del Rey but while house-hunting in 1999, they found one in the Palisades.

“We loved the view,” she said of their Marquez Knolls estate. “That was my dream house—the ocean view.”

In 1999, for composer George Fenton, Hu was one of only three violinists with solos on the soundtrack for “Anna and the King,” starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat.

“I was pregnant with Evan at the time,” she remembered.

Perhaps being exposed to music while in the womb did wonders for her son. Today, Evan Epstein, 15, attends Brentwood School, where he himself has become an accomplished musician.

“We discovered he had a talent,” she said. “We would be listening to opera in the car and he would applaud in the back seat. He had natural ability. We encouraged him to play piano, like his father.”

The protocol with Hollywood soundtrack work for Hu has been to wait for the call—calls which, because of a combination of outsourcing and union politics, have been drying up.

“There are only certain composers that I’m sure I’ll get on,” she said. “Even that [is competitive].”

As a result, Hu began selling homes this year, specializing in the Chinese investment realm. “They love the American educational system. They feel it’s not as stable politically in China,” she said of her overseas clientele.

Even though Hu has a scoring session set this month on the upcoming Disney animated feature “Zootopia,” she sees her musician side winding down soon and that’s okay with her. She’s ready for her encore in life.