Hilary Hahn returns - the greatest?


On Friday, Oct. 21 at 8 p.m. the Carmel Palladium will host a recital by one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- violinist on tour today. Conductor Larry Rachleff , who guest conducted the ISO a few weeks ago, called Hilary Hahn "another Heifetz." A native of Lexington, Va., Hahn was raised in Baltimore and now 31, has appeared three times with the Indianapolis Symphony, each time bowling me over with the beauty of her tone, her seemingly innate musical understanding and her unsurpassed technique.

She'll be joined by Valentina Lisitsa as her accompanist, a celebrated pianist in her own right, the two touring as a pair since 2007. Their program will include works of the "three B's" -- Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, as well as selected shorts from her about-to-be-released CD: In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, featuring new selections written for her by various composers.

Aside from her violin playing, I found Hilary Hahn to be a fascinating conversationalist, as the ensuing interview indicates:

NUVO: Let me start by saying I've scanned a great many web entries about you and your playing, in which every possible comment, both positive and negative, has been proffered: your personality (always ingratiating), your social life, your boyfriend--or not, why such and such is a better violinist, that you used to be better than you are now, that you're better now than you ever were, your vibrato, whether you'd pose nude for a men's mag, etc. How do you cope with being so completely dissected -- perhaps even violated -- in front of the classical-loving public who scans all this stuff?

HAHN: The undramatic part of all of this is that most speculation is silly. I have read dissections of my technique which were exactly opposite from how I actually play. The rumors online are, although interesting, rarely true. Even quotes attributed to me, taken as fact by readers, are often interpreted by journalists before they are published. But some reporters get it just right!

Here's how I see it: A lot of people are gossiped about; in most cases, we don't see everything laid out online, but the potential is there for anyone. When people know who you are, without really knowing you, they feel safe gossiping because they don't anticipate those awkward moments that occur in person. It's like talking about the plot development of a TV show. It's an unfolding storyline, something to connect over. When it's my name they're referencing, the interest is a good sign, but the comments can be bizarre. It's not really me they're talking about. It's my image with its own life.

NUVO: As a classical celeb, how much do you miss the privacy and personal friendships you must have had when you were an unknown? Do you still get to hang with many of those earlier friends--even occasionally?

HAHN: It's not that bad. I do value my privacy and am very protective of it. I like observing people, and when I travel, people-watching is one of my favorite things. But, as a famous actor said: when people are observing you, you can't observe them very well. So I love being unrecognized for that reason.

If someone does recognize me, though, I am flattered and surprised. Or, if it is a pharmacist filling a prescription as happened yesterday, a little bit embarrassed. I like that people appreciate the work I do, or that music means so much to them. That is reassuring and, in case I am caught up in some little world in my own head, reminds me that I am doing something positive.

I still have some friends from when I was little. And I have kept some long friendships from when I was just starting out with a full-time career. Those are some of the best, in a way, because they know me as me. But I also have some newer, fantastic friendships that I value for the same reason. And I get to meet lots of fascinating people just working with my colleagues.

All in all, I am very happy with the balance that I enjoy now. I have enough recognition to be able to initiate and participate in projects that I'm excited about, but I am private enough that I can live my life pretty much exactly the way I like.


NUVO: How old were you when you really knew you were destined for a life in the public's eye as a touring soloist? And did you decide at that point that being a classical celeb was what you really wanted, or has the life you've since led ever given you second thoughts?

HAHN: I never really decided or knew it for sure; some things you can't will to happen no matter how much you want them. I was pretty young when I concluded it would be fun to be a musician, but I had a lot of other interests so it was more a matter of pursuing this one first. I thought I might be a concertmaster or a chamber musician until the solo thing took off, and then I thought, well, this is pretty neat, we'll see where it goes!

Because I have other interests still, and because I enjoy a range of activities within my field, I feel like I have the chance every day to reaffirm my desire to continue on this particular career path. That is important to me, because this lifestyle is strenuous. If I know that I have chosen this and I know why, then I can be engaged in it wholeheartedly. It really is wonderful to be able to do creative, expressive activities every day and to be able to sink myself into work that is truly fulfilling. I feel very lucky.

NUVO: I understand you had an association with David Zinman when he was the Baltimore Symphony's music director. Could you tell us how or whether he influenced your music making?

HAHN: David Zinman was very helpful -- I met him when I was 10, and he was a true mentor to me: he gave me advice on how to play with an orchestra; the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presented me when I was 12 in my major orchestra debut; he listened to pieces I was working on; he was very supportive behind the scenes; and he arranged for a member of his administration to act as an interim manager to me until I was at a good age to have regular management. I really appreciate his mentoring. You cannot ask someone to do all of that and it was generous.

At the same time he was working with me, I was of course studying with a wonderful teacher, the late Jascha Brodsky, who will always be near and dear to me. He had the most influence on my music making in that time period, though he encouraged me to learn from everyone I came across, and that was a valuable lesson in and of itself and certainly applied to my work with Maestro Zinman.

But from another angle: before I even met him, David Zinman conducted many of the orchestra concerts I attended. He was the first conductor I saw consistently, so in a way, he was a model for my expectations from conductors even to the present day. I still remember how impressed I was by his gracefulness in motion and the joy he conveyed when conducting. I would go home after a concert and pretend to conduct like him. I was taking ballet at the time, so his sweeping arm motions caught my eye.


NUVO: Let's talk about your vibrato--because it was the first thing about your playing that attracted me. I think that, like soprano Kathleen Battle's, yours is perfect--which is of course a subjective view. And even though it varies a bit from lighter to heavier, it's always perfectly controlled. In fact, you do with your instrument, exactly what Battle does with "hers." But what most don't do is to control their pitch variation. Tell me how you acquired the way in which you vibrate your left fingers while bowing: Were you coached into it or did it evolve on its own?

HAHN: I wish I could offer some insights, but I was so young when I started learning vibrato that I don't remember much about it! I do recall years of refining the technique: working with a metronome to make sure I was doing the motion consistently, hearing over and over again in lessons that my vibrato needed to be a bit more of this, a bit less of that -- tweaking that to me was unpredictable but probably made a lot of sense in the big picture. Mr. Brodsky was picky! He knew what he was talking about, though. These days, when in doubt or when I'm not sure what sound I want in my ear, I listen to old recordings of Kreisler, Heifetz, Elman, Grumiaux, and Mr. Brodsky in his years with the Curtis String Quartet. Those get me back on track very quickly. Something like vibrato, which is both technical and expressive, is never "done." It will always be an evolving aspect of my playing.

NUVO: I won't ask what your favorite concerto is, because you're undoubtedly the most involved with whatever you're working on. But between the standard Romantic repertoire that the paying, concertgoing, "lay" public prefers, and the modern, contemporary works that most music school grads seem to prefer, which do you lean toward, and if the latter, is it because of tiring of that which becomes too familiar?

HAHN: I don't think it is possible to compartmentalize who likes what, at least not these days. Preferences are all over the map! A lot of concert presenters prefer the tried and true, but some presenters are very adventurous, and a lot of audience members are open minded, some preferring to hear something they don't know so well.

I think that nothing is too jarring or too tiring if it is introduced to an audience that has not built up prejudices. By keeping people on their feet, surprising them with what they don't expect from something they think they already know -- or vice versa -- expectations stay fresh. All music is linked. It is impossible to categorically love one group of repertoire and categorically dislike another group. But it is fine to have opinions that grow out of your own instincts. Opinions are what help listeners to connect with music and to define themselves through the music that they prefer.

As a listener, I like to be jarred sometimes. It shakes me awake, makes me think about why I like what I like and how I can reconsider. As a performer, I like to be tired out by familiarity sometimes. It makes me more creative as I think of new ways to play the piece, new ways to approach how I perceive it, and that process helps me to arrive at a renewed appreciation for a great work.

NUVO: The solo violin literature is scant, to say the least. Your recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas is great. Have you recorded or often performed the Paganini Caprices or the Ysaÿe Sonata set, or do you see these as a future projects?

HAHN: I have not recorded them, but I have performed them, the Ysaÿe much more than the Paganini. Who knows what the future holds!

NUVO: How do you view the present state of classical music, with the world economy in its present state of flux, and what do you see for its future when, say, you hope to be performing as a 50 or 60-year-old?

HAHN: That is so hard to say. I have only really been aware of the economic elements of the classical music field for the past decade, and I am learning more every day. It is intricate, and internal politics play a role as well. Every organization is different.

I think the best thing that classical music, or any artistic field, can do is to acknowledge the varied strengths and interests of its contributors. If someone wants to try a certain type of performance style, or if an artist adores a particular composer, or someone else wants to engage in a special project, then they should be given the chance to dive in within a supportive environment. Each artist has something to offer. Every person approaches their work a little bit differently. The variety is really healthy. With the flexibility to do things in a personalized way, artists will find their audiences and their fans will find them.

As a 50-or 60-year-old, if I am still performing then -- a lot can happen in 20-30 years and I don't take anything for granted! I would hope that we can have the same dedication from audiences that we have now, with this wonderful mix of bright-eyed newcomers and longtime, enthusiastic concertgoers and music students and everyone in between. I am curious to see what new opportunities and projects the coming decades bring; we'll see some very interesting ideas discussed and put into action, and I hope I get to be there when they are.