Hilary Hahn: Our Valentine for the Violin

Unsurprisingly, the phone rings right on time. I have some mixed expectations about the sound of Hilary Hahn’s voice—after all she’s been playing the violin since she was four years old and as a student at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, which makes for a grand total of 29 years of violin playing, all over the world, all over the place.

There’s no wear and tear in the voice–just friendly, inquisitive statements and answers to questions, sometime the tone of somebody who knows every inch and note and bit of musicology you can master living the life of a classical music star. Hahn will be giving a Washington Perforning Arts Society recital, accompanied by pianist Cory Smythe, at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall Saturday, Feb. 16. She is in the midst of a major tour with a program, the contents of which characterize where her musical life has led and now leads her.

“I don’t worry about what I haven’t done,” Hahn says. She’s calling from Tallahassee, Fla., where she’ll be heading for the airport in half an hour for a flight that will take her to San Francisco, exemplifying her nomadic touring life. “I don’t know what I’ll be playing 20 years from now, what kind of music. I’m always looking for ways to improving, to keep learning, how to best honor the people I’ve learned from, the music I love.”

The program for her Saturday performance at the Kennedy Center includes “Faure, Violin Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 13″; “Corelli, Violin Sonata No. 4a in F major, Op. 5” and “Bach, Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004.” The last is a Hahn favorite. For her, it is demanding, challenging and rewarding.

“Bach brings out the best in me, I love the challenge,” Hahn says. “Bach is, for me, my touchstone. He keeps me honest.” For many musicians, Bach seems to remain a slightly taller god in a crowded firmament.

Then, there are — to name a few — Anton Garcia-Abril, Richard Barrett, David Lang, Du Yun, Michiru Oshima, Kala Ramnath and others, all of them composers of new music, encores lasting from five to ten minutes or more. “I started thinking about commissioning new kinds of encores for this century,” she said. It’s something she’s given a great deal of thought, and she included an open on-line contest for the 27th composition. The winner of that was Jeff Myers’s “The Angry Birds of Kauai.” In short, she was seeking to play a new kind of encore for our times and beyond.

I have to own up here: I have two of her CDs, but I’ve never seen and heard her perform in person. She has led the life of a prodigy and moved into her teens and young adulthood relatively smoothly. For the uninitiated or less-than-aficionado, it’s probably hard to pick out an individual violinist (or pianist or cellist) by style or sheer sound from just listening on a record. My first real exposure to violin music was a concert at the Music Center at Strathmore (where Hahn has performed) by Yitzhak Perlman, which led me to Anne-Sophie Mutter, Hahn, Joshua Bell and others. What strikes me while listening to Hahn is how clean and precise is the direction from sound to heart. She removes any obstacles that might be to feeling with laser focus.

Hahn talks somewhat the same way—she went way beyond prodigy and grew up in her performances and her recordings and her work before a generation of music lovers, the Virginia-born kid from Baltimore, now with souvenirs from hotel rooms in the greatest cities of the world and praise like a critical ticker parade from peers and critics.

Hahn has aptly handled her fame in a thoughtful way. Visit hilaryhahn.com to see that she’s very much her generation’s child, savvy about the internet and its uses, creating a site where she interviews other musicians on video, answers all sorts of questions, updates her tours and activities, puts up entries for a journal of postcards and, in general, invites her fans into her life. On her site, she answers questions about life on the road, how she works and her music. She mixes her charismatic seriousness with vivid chatter. She sounds that way on the phone, engaging, respectful, and witty–whip smart.

Classical music these days is seeing a lot of genre and form crossing. Bell not so long ago did an album with “a few of his friends” that included Josh Groban and Sting, a foray into pop, jazz and other genres. Yo-Yo Ma has taken up some blue grass.

But nobody has done a collaboration with the German pianist and composer Hauschka (aka Volker Bertelmann), who works both the edgy rock scene and the edgier shadows of classical music like John Cage and plays the prepared piano (pianos which included other materials to produce different sounds). Hauschka and Hahn spent ten days in Iceland working together to produce what would eventually become an album called “Silfra.”

“Everything stems from improvisation, which usually isn’t a part of classical music,” Hahn says. “But it’s also exciting and frees you to try new things.” One of the new things must have been the sound of ping pong balls, one of the ingredients of this particular prepared piano.

A YouTube video shows the two of them prepping, playing (in both senses of the word) in the company of producer Valgeir Sigurdsson. The music you get the hear seems sometimes discordant, playful and yet beautiful. Sometimes, Hahn seems to making tunes meant for Irish gypsies.

“There’s no reason not to get involved with other genres,” she said. “I’ve worked with singer-songwriters like Tom Brosseau and Josh Ritter, and that kind of mixing of genres and styles is invigorating.”

On YouTube, you see the concert and recital mistress Hahn, with or without orchestra, alone but hardly lonely. In one case, before a Mendelssohn piece, she walks with strong strides to her place on the podium in a blazing, bare-shouldered red gown. She shakes a violinist’s hand firmly, places the violin in place, smiles and begins. The music has no hesitation. It’s a full launch.

“When you come, listen to the audience,” she says. “I love hearing what the audience hears and thinks.”

Displaying Hahn’s ease at crossing genres, another YouTube video, recorded in Moscow, shows and tells. The alt and brawly indie rock group “And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead” performed in what sounded like a rowdy club when this small young woman with a violin came on stage, all in black—jeans and sweater—and launched into “To Russia, My Homeland,” striding the stage like a rock star, playing with great power and beauty all the same, like some really cool but wayward player at a biker bar. The crowd cheered, whistled and yelled. Someone from the band said, a little in awe, “Hilary Hahn.”

The scene at the Kennedy Center on Saturday will no doubt be different, but there will also be someone to say, a little in awe, “Hilary Hahn.”

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