Talk about double threats. Hilary Hahn is not only one the supreme violin virtuosos of our time, but she is also among the most intelligent, open-minded and forward-looking classical musicians around.
She gained widespread attention in 2011-13 for her imaginative commissioning project, “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores,” in which she tried to revivify the overlooked short form. She invited 26 composers to participate, including Mason Bates, Jennifer Higdon, Nico Muhly and Einojuhani Rautavaara, and chose the final participant via an online contest. After presenting these short works on tour, she released a recording of them in 2013 with pianist Cory Smythe.
She and Smythe will perform two of the encores — David Lang’s light moving and Lera Auerbach’s Speak, Memory — as part of her Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music Series concert April 12. Also on the wide-ranging program will be John Cage’s Six Melodies, J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3, Claude Debussy’s Violin Sonata and Robert Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1.
Ahead of her appearance, Sounds and Stories asked Hahn about today’s classical-music scene, the ups and downs of touring and some of her favorite composers, recordings and concert venues. As a nod to the number of works from “In 27 Pieces” that she and Smythe will perform at Orchestra Hall, the questions call for doubles:
Two composers you believe are under-appreciated?
Composer appreciation changes with the times. The challenge of prejudice against certain composers is that negative assumptions can accidentally permeate interpretations or keep audiences from enjoying pieces they might be inclined to like if left to form their own opinions. This goes the other way, too: Someone who doesn’t like Bach might feel bad that he or she doesn’t identify with what a “true” classical music lover sees as essential, and then that person may feel alienated from classical music. In fact, it’s completely fine to like and dislike whatever your instincts tell you to. There are so many options in classical music that you can build your own landscape.
I’ve had surprising, opposite experiences recently with the following composers: 1) Charles Ives. While in the States, his music is sometimes seen as radical and baffling, in Europe, it is greatly appreciated for its poignancy and depth. Ives was a progressive composer in his time, but that was a long time ago, and our ears today are familiar with different styles. His writing is relevant to current American musical culture. 2) Aaron Copland. Verging on popular in the States, he is relatively obscure in Europe, to the point that programming his music is scary for concert presenters. This makes no sense to me. His pieces are beautiful, and you don’t have to be American to enjoy them!
Two disappointing aspects of today’s classical-music world?
1) There is a tendency to panic and revert to the same sensational talking points that have been reported and discussed for decades. The reasons for concern are legitimate. However, we are the fortunate ones. Compared to other genres, classical has some basics that are virtually non-existent in other musical fields: salaried jobs, lifelong careers, audiences that pay attention to the music, well-designed and well-equipped performance facilities, extensive high-quality musical education, regular audiences of 1,000 or more, established concert series, and an environment that values ability, hard work and knowledge. Those are great building blocks. We shouldn’t shy away from conversations about challenges and unfortunate developments, and we need to ask the tough questions, but let’s not take what we have for granted.
2) Putting a cap on creative people’s seemingly odd ideas. Sometimes performers and administrators want to try little tweaks that they think would make the concert or musical experience more interesting or just different. There is a lot of fear around little changes. But there’s not much harm in trying them once or in a lower-key environment or a tiny bit at a time.
Two favorite violinists from the past?
1) Jascha Brodsky, my teacher from when I was 10-17 years old, who studied with Eugene Ysaÿe and Efrem Zimbalist, and was first violinist of the Curtis String Quartet for over 50 years. As a teacher, he developed my sense of musicality, and I admire the few recordings that I have of him. Mr. Brodsky’s style combined a lot of my favorite elements of various violinists of his day, while still being completely his own. A lot of his expressive gestures remind me of his personality.
2) Most violin fans are familiar with Heifetz, Kreisler, Elman, Stern and Milstein, whose recordings I indeed listen to extensively, but one violinist who isn’t as well known in the States is Arthur Grumiaux. I’ve been taking in his Mozart, Beethoven, and classic-encore recordings lately. His playing is so classy — balancing refinement with flair.
Two exciting aspects of today’s classical-music world?
1) Access is becoming easier for new audience members through emerging venues, special presentations, social clubs centered around classical music and the wide availability of recordings online. People can find their own ways to classical music and pick their experiences for themselves.
2) Student repertoire options have widened at all levels, and teachers can select from everything from arranged pop songs to classic staples to contemporary music. Students study performances on YouTube of whatever they want to work on, which expands interest as well. There are ever-increasing opportunities for them to relate to their instruments and communicate through music.
Two violin concertos you believe are under-appreciated?
I’m partial to these two, since I play them frequently and love what they offer musicians and audiences alike. 1) I became intensely interested in the [Arnold] Schoenberg Violin Concerto when I overheard a conversation in which the piece was being denigrated for reasons that didn’t resonate with me. I couldn’t help but think that it might not have been given a fair chance. If you are challenged in a new way by a piece, the solution is not to bad mouth it, it’s to give it your best shot! And Schoenberg is a great composer — very smart, imaginative, expressive and complex. When I listened to some recordings, I immediately heard so much possibility in the music. Once I started learning the concerto, I discovered a whole other level of layering and compositional ingenuity. There is a lot happening in that work all the time, within individual instruments and in the small ensembles Schoenberg created in various sections of the work. The musical characteristics evolve constantly, from charming to angular to hyper-romantic.
2) Vieuxtemps Concerto No. 4: Henri Vieuxtemps has long been connected to the Russian school of violin pedagogy. Franco-Belgian though he was, he spent five years in the middle of the 19th century as the court violinist to Tsar Nicholas I and as soloist in the Imperial Theater, and from that position of prestige, he founded the violin school of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. To this day, most Russian violin professors I know share his Fourth and Fifth Violin Concertos with their pupils. My first teacher, Klara Berkovich, from Odessa and St. Petersburg, was no exception. Vieuxtemps No. 4 was the last big piece she taught me, when I was 10 years old, and she imparted to me a love of its lyricism and natural virtuosity. I grew up with the Heifetz recording. (Hahn’s latest disc, Mozart 5, Vieutemps 4, released March 31 on Deutsche Grammophon, features this concerto.)
Years later, I would realize that I had an inherited connection to the piece: After Vieuxtemps returned to Brussels, he taught Ysaÿe, who in turn taught Jascha Brodsky, who taught me. Not enough established performers these days play Vieuxtemps’ Fourth Concerto live. The orchestra parts are colorful, the solo violin lines tailored perfectly to the instrument, the emotions displayed proudly on the sleeve.
Two favorite concert venues in the world?
Certain venues are known for their acoustics and design. They are famous around the world and agreed by all to be the best halls. I won’t try to choose among them. Instead, here are two I love for my own reasons: 1) Opera City Concert Hall in Tokyo. It’s not the best for orchestra, since the stage is relatively small and the acoustics resonant. However, for solo violin, it is incredible. When I’ve played Bach there, it felt like my violin had expanded to become the hall, and I was inside of that same instrument. The sensation was surreal. The ceiling forms a huge, stepped pyramid. Each layer is illuminated so the shape glows, and from the stage, it looks like the peak is right overhead. The wood on every surface of the hall is a beautiful, warm honey color.
2) The Philharmonie at the Gasteig in Munich. I kid not, every musician I have met strongly dislikes this hall (poor Philharmonie!). But I look forward to every concert I get to play there! There’s a sweet spot onstage that I was advised to stand in for best acoustical effect — maybe that helps. Additionally, I have worked in that venue more than in any other orchestral space in Europe. When I was 15-18, I had an exclusive European touring relationship with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by maestro Lorin Maazel. We started every tour with rehearsals and performances in that hall. I have played so much of my concerto repertoire there, I feel completely at home there now, no matter what the orchestra or piece. Even the crooked-looking balconies seem friendly. The audience in Munich is great, too.
Two best things about touring?
1) Seeing and meeting audiences around the world gives me a sense of the reach of classical music and the individuals who love it, of all ages, experiences, and nationalities. It puts the daily work into perspective.
2) Constant change: Every time I walk out the door, it’s a different scene. I can take a new neighborhood walk every morning or go grocery shopping where I can’t read any of the packaging or visit the Panthéon in Paris one day and join a graffiti walking tour of Berlin the next.
Two favorite non-classical musical artists?
At the moment: 1) Ella Fitzgerald and 2) the Indian violinist Kala Ramnath.
Two worst things about touring?
1) Constant change: Everything being new also means the brain gets tired sorting through basics like where the light switches are in the room and where to eat.
2) The schedule is different every day. Travel occurs at all times of day and night, rehearsals are booked any time between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m., concerts span anywhere from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., meetings are coordinated across time zones and needs like sleeping and eating get jammed against each other. I do like the occasional free weekdays, though — can’t complain about being able to be a tourist or run errands while most of the rest of the city is at the office.
Two favorite violin recordings?
1) The second movement of the Prokofiev Concerto No. 2, played by Heifetz. It is divine.
2) Samuel Barber’s song “Dover Beach” for baritone and string quartet (the violin can play many roles), after a poem by Matthew Arnold, in the original recording in which Barber himself sings with the Curtis String Quartet.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based art writer.