Total Pageviews

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Hilary Hahn Interview 2001

Having just recently enjoyed violinist Hilary Hahn's concert at The Stone, and her CD of Charles Ives's four sonatas, I was reminded of this interview from almost exactly a decade ago.

Ran: 11/20/01 on
Head: The Provocative Pairings of Hilary Hahn

There have been such marketing abuses in recent years of the prodigy phenomenon that the prospect of hearing another young, female violinist might have connoisseurs blanching. Hilary Hahn, who released a CD of Bach at age 17, was the antidote to that. And it's not just that Sony hasn't plopped her into the ocean wearing a gauzy white shift for any album covers. Hahn is one of the finest violinists around, regardless of age; she's self-assured without the least hint of arrogance; she's constantly putting together intriguing discs pairing warhorses of the concerto repertoire with more modern works; and she's articulate and thoughtful.

The Baltimore native began playing violin at age three in the Suzuki program of the Peabody Conservatory, and from the age of five taught by Klara Berkovich. Upon entering the Curtis Institute, at age 10, Hahn was taken under the tutelage of the late Jascha Brodsky, an Ysa├┐e pupil, and continued studying with him until his death; later teachers included Jamie Laredo and, for chamber music, the late Felix Galimir and Gary Graffman. Sony signed Hahn to an exclusive contract that has so far yielded four CDs: the aforementioned Bach disc; a pairing of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Leonard Bernstein's Serenade; the Violin Concertos of Samuel Barber and -- commissioned for and premiered by Hahn -- Edgar Meyer; and now the Concertos of Brahms and Stravinsky. All have been not only much praised, but successful on the classical sales charts as well.

Now 21 years old, Hahn is perhaps past the prodigy stage, but her playing continues to thrill and please.

CDNOW: Once again, you've made a concerto disc with an unusual pairing. How do you decide what to record?

Hilary Hahn: Sometimes I propose an idea to Sony and sometimes they propose an idea to me, and we work out something that works for everyone. The Brahms/Stravinsky was actually my idea, because I've wanted to record [the] Brahms for a long time. It's such a great piece, and the chance to work closely on such a masterpiece like that in the recording experience is really something that brings the piece a lot closer to you and you clarify a lot of things about it in your mind, at least for me. So I wanted to record the Brahms, and I was trying to think what would go well with it. It's a little tricky with a piece like the Brahms, because it's such a full-scale work, it stands completely on its own. I was looking for something that could hold its own next to the Brahms but not take anything away from the Brahms, and vice versa. I wanted to have something in which both pieces would reflect the strengths of the other.

One thing I find that's fascinating about the Brahms and Stravinsky combination is, both composers worked very closely with violinists, Brahms with [Joseph] Joachim and Stravinsky with Samuel Dushkin, in the course of writing the pieces, and you can hear that the composers themselves were not violinists, because there are some ideas that seem to come from other instruments, or the familiarity with playing another instrument, certain sequences or patterns or whatever. But they still work for violin, because they worked with violinists on it and got the ideas to come across well for the players too.

So I liked that aspect of it. I love both pieces, and I had wanted to record the Stravinsky as well. I thought about putting them together and it seemed to work very well. The Brahms, as I said, is very full-scale. The Brahms has three substantial movements, plus the cadenza. The Stravinsky has four shorter movements that add together into a very memorable concerto, for me. I've never played any piece besides the Stravinsky that starts with the same chord in all movements and diverts from there into its own individual movement. So I thought the Stravinsky was a fascinating piece, and I like the unusual structure of it and the form. I had some ideas that I want to bring across in it, and same with the Brahms. I feel lucky we were able to work it out.

Was one of the ideas in the Stravinsky that it's very similar to chamber music?

That it is; it certainly is very much like chamber music. The Brahms in its own way is as well. Brahms wrote so much chamber music, I've played some of it. The Stravinsky has a lot of things going on at once and at different times. The Brahms is a more -- I don't want to say it's more unified, because the Stravinsky is unified too -- but the Brahms, it's more consistent throughout the piece. There's sort of a long line from the very first note to the end of the third movement, to the last chord in the whole concerto. Stravinsky is more segmented, yet when you put all the segments together, it makes for a very complete picture. So the pieces feel very different to me playing them. The Stravinsky is very much like chamber music in that there are a lot of instruments that have their own individual parts, and there are a lot of different things that happen. Stravinsky is a great orchestrator, and the Brahms is the Romantic masterwork.

I'm sure Stravinsky would play his own music very differently than I play it. But for me, I love the concerto 'cause it has so many different things within it. It has a huge range of emotion. There are parts that are very dry, parts that are very witty, other sections that are extremely lyrical, and some melismatic lines in the third movement especially, some things that are very driven rhythmically and others that are quite free. One thing I like about the Stravinsky is, I can hear where he bases certain sections on Bach. There's a part that reminds me of one of the Orchestral Suites, and then he used part of the Bach Double [Concerto] as inspiration for part of the fourth movement of the concerto, you can hear where that all comes into play. And Brahms, as well, admired Bach, so that's another connecting factor between the two.

Your Brahms is not slow, bucking the trend of the past couple of decades epitomized by Perlman and Mutter. To a degree, your recording recalls Heifetz and Milstein.

Those are the recordings I've heard the most, as well, and maybe just having that in my ear, and also, Jascha Brodsky, my teacher, was 83 and good friends with, or at least very well acquainted with, those musicians, so I feel a real connection to the past, and that's the group of players that I grew up on and grew up listening to and feeling a connection to through my teacher.

So you do listen to recordings of other players.

They're mostly dead, actually.

Do you take them into account when you're forming your interpretations?

I try not to copy anything, but often there's a lot to be learned from any recording, because the person who's recording it has played it a lot and is very familiar with the piece and has developed their own ideas over time. Everyone develops separate ideas. There are certain basic traditions in some pieces that some people follow, some people break. But in the end, everyone comes up with their own take on something. With something like the Brahms, there's so many recordings. I don't know what-all I've listened to; I've listened to a lot. But as far as using recordings, I tend to listen to a lot of recordings when I'm first learning a piece, to get the feel of the whole piece, hear how it all fits together and get different ideas of where to start from, and then once I've figured out what I want to do with it, I just go from there, and I don't tend to listen to tons of recordings after a certain point. And I always try to learn the orchestral part to every concerto that I play. I get the conductor's score and I get a recording that has a clear orchestra texture to it. So then I listen to the recording and play along with it, just playing the orchestral part, so I know what-all is going on.

Have you decided what you're going to record next?

I'm going to be recording Mendelssohn [E-minor Concerto] and Shostakovich 1 in Oslo with the Oslo Philharmonic and Marek Janowski. Another combination! We're going to be recording that this coming Spring and releasing it in the Fall.

How many concertos do you have in your repertoire at this point?

Forty-something, I think 42 or 43. I try to add on about three or four concerti every year, or two to four. It depends. This year it's four, some years it's two. I play Beethoven and Brahms every year, and try to cycle through the other stuff as much as possible.