A conversation with Hilary Hahn

A conversation with Hilary Hahn

It’s been nearly twenty years since Hilary Hahn released her first recording in 1997 at the age of sixteen, an album of solo violin pieces by Bach which the New York Times called “amazing.” Since then she’s recorded fourteen more albums, won three Grammys, received an Oscar nomination, and won numerous awards and accolades from around the world. She made her major orchestra debut at age12, and has gone on to become one of classical music’s most popular and esteemed musicians, and one of its few true superstars.

A favorite of contemporary composers, Hahn is an advocate for new works as well as a master of the traditional violin repertoire. Her 2010 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was paired with Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto, written for Hahn, which went on to win the Pulitzer prize. In 2013 she released In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores, a groundbreaking 2-CD set featuring works by 27 living composers, each selected by Hahn, who commissioned the works for herself and other violinists to perform in front of audiences around the world, introducing them to new voices for years to come.

Now 36 years old, Hahn’s performed nearly 2000 concerts and recitals in 43 countries, 291 cities, on 5 continents with more than 200 conductors (and counting). Gracious and engaged with audiences, she makes herself available for meet-and greets with concertgoers after as many concerts as possible, and maintains an active presence on social media (although she turned her Twitter account over to her violin case). I spoke with her before she embarked on her current tour during which she’ll play pieces by Bach, Mozart, and Copland alongside new works by the composers Tina Davidson and Antón García Abril. The tour takes her and pianist Cory Smythe to four American cities before heading to Europe where they will perform in Germany, Austria, Turkey, France, Switzerland, and Italy.

Mark Rudio: How did this particular program come together? Is it strictly about the music or do you have a kind of metacommentary or narrative in mind when you're selecting pieces?

Hilary Hahn: As you know, every performer goes about this differently. In my case, I really do look at the music itself for the experience -- I don't tend to do thematic programming as much as I focus on the content and listening sequence. So I will go through the repertoire and see what I have that I would like to explore, what I have that I would like to return to, and obviously I want to pick a program in which I'm excited about each piece that's on there. But I wind up having to leave a lot of things out every year because you cannot program four hours of music that you're excited about for every night. I want to save some things for the future and then the next year I return to the those pieces that I saved that didn't quite dovetail well with the previous year's program and I revisit them -- sometimes I do get to do them the next season, and sometimes a piece isn't quite working, or I'm not as enthusiastic about it the next time around. So it's kind of a layered, ongoing cycle of repertoire that I have. There are some pieces I like to return to as frequently as possible, but I have to be aware of where I last played them and when it was, so that it's not too soon, and then sometimes I do commissions, so I want to make sure I program those pieces so that I get to bring it to as many people as possible on the tour.

For this recital I have actually for the first time in my life a solo commission that is a set -- I've never done a solo commission before and I've never done a set of pieces from the same composer -- this is the Antón García Abril Partitas -- and this came out of the Encores commission project I did, which featured twenty-seven different works from twenty-seven composers. Tina Davidson's piece "Blue Curve of the Earth" is also from the Encores project.

MR: What specifically was it about Antón García Abril that drew you to work with him? 

HH: When I was working with Antón García Abril on the piece that he was writing for the Encores project he also sent over a solo piece that he wrote for me, just because he felt like it [laughing], and I was happy he wrote me a solo piece, but I felt bad because it wasn't part of the commission and I thought maybe I miscommunicated and he went to all this extra trouble. He'd actually written three short pieces for me, and he said "just pick one, whichever one works best," so I did. But I noticed in his solo writing he had a real gift for polyphony in solo violin and it seemed that polyphony was one of his building blocks of composition: it's a very traditional technique -- basically it means you have multiple lines, multiple voices going at the same time on one instrument, so it's kind of a balancing act. It's used a lot on piano because on piano you have so many keys, and you have ten fingers, so it's possible to do many things simultaneously. But on the violin you have four strings, and the four strings provide a framework that is challenging for polyphony. Bach is known for his polyphony, and there are some sets of works for solo violin which highlight polyphony, and they tend to come in sets of six -- you have Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for violin, Ysaÿe wrote a set of six sonatas for violin, Heinrich Ernst wrote a set of six polyphonic plusieurs for violin, which are more like show pieces. He also wrote "Der Erlkönig," but that's not part of it. 

So these sets of six, it's like six is kind of a magical number for some reason, and when I saw Antón's writing I just got a hunch that I needed to commission him to write a set of six works for solo violin. I don't know why I was compelled to do this, but it was crystal clear to me I needed to commission him to do this. I remember asking him if he would, and he's just a very sweet, humble, gracious man and he said, "I don't know. What would I write for six pieces? Six pieces! How do I write six different pieces for solo violin?" But it's not that he couldn't, he was just being humble.

One day I showed up for my next meeting with him and he had already drafted all six and he presented them to me and I was just so excited because it felt like that was something that needed to be in the repertoire so I'm finally getting to take that project on the road and officially premiere them. It's going to have its world premiere in D.C. at the beginning of the tour and then it's going to receive premieres around the world during the course of the tour. 

MR: Will you be performing all six of them on this tour?

HH: This season I'm doing the first three of the set and next season I'm doing the second three, so I will kind of cycle through them during the course of the tour because playing all three on each program doesn't quite allow for the rest of the program that I want to do, and also I think it's nice to stay fresh with the pieces as a listener. So in one the programs I'll do all three, and in other programs I'll do one or two, depending on the rotation and the vibe of the particular audience. 

Originally I did specify that was going to do one of them, but I'm realizing as I'm working on them that it might be possible to do two on the same program and still keep the continuity because each piece has a really different character and they're not super long. They're each single movements, but they cycle through so many emotions that you feel like you've been on a complete journey every time you get to the end of one of them, and it's a very different journey for each piece. I want to present as much of it as I can in each program, so I'm still deciding that, but I don't think it will drastically change the program to do one or two of them. It's kind of hard to decide that until they're in performance rotation, so I may be announcing that at the last minute. 

MR: Do you have plans to record them at some point in the future?

HH: I would like to. In the past I've released recordings regularly but I'm starting to get to a point where I want to take bigger breaks between the recordings. I feel like it was something I started feeling during the Encores project, because that was such a big project for me and it was so consuming. It had a really long arc -- it was about ten years from the time of my first idea to do it until I recorded it, and the complete published edition of all the works will come out in the fall.

It was a constant cycle for me of the preparation, the recording, the production, the release, and then a couple months break and start again. I really love that as a musical experience, but I really wanted the Encores to have as much reach as possible and I didn't want to immediately follow that project with something else. 

And so I did the Mozart and Vieuxtemps recording, which was for me almost a continuation of the Encores project in the sense that the Encores were sort of where I had arrived in my career at that point: working with composers, making my own project happen, coming up with my own ideas and then finding colleagues who were perfect for the project. The Mozart and Vieuxtemps were pieces I had learned from my teachers when I was ten and those stayed with me for a long time, and I also got to record them with one of my really close conductor colleagues and an orchestra that I toured with and had great experiences with worldwide [Paavo Järvi the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen], so it was really nice for me to get to represent my current career point in a concerto sense. For me those two recordings are linked in that they illustrate the arc of my performing life. 

And then I've felt like it's just nice to let those settle and let them have their own life for a while without trying to follow them with anything immediately. I do like to record everything I commission because I think it's a helpful resource for people who might want to play the pieces, but also I think it's good because not everyone can make it to the concerts, and this way if you have a recording of something that you've commissioned that you were playing more than anyone else, I think it's good for people to be able to listen to that and become familiar with it by hearing it again and again and again if they choose. 

So yes, at some point I would like to record these but I don't have plans in particular as far as a booked hall and sessions lined up and all of that, but I think it would be good to record them and it would be a wonderful recording -- I just haven't gotten there yet in my planning [laughing].

MR: And the rest of the program?

HH: The Mozart sonatas I always love to return to -- there are so many of them – and it's one of those rare sets of many works for violin. Violin doesn't tend to get those sets. The piano does, but violin often gets one, two, three, maybe four by the same composer in a certain genre or style of composition, and Mozart wrote many, many more, so it's a set I can keep returning to and exploring. 

And then Bach, of course, the six sonatas and partitas, I felt it was necessary to program one of those since Antón's works are partially referring back to Bach's as far as the structure of the polyphony and in the sense of there's a set of six. The fact that they're solo polyphonic works I think is rare, so I really want to put those together because they're in very different musical languages yet they have similar goals. 

And Copland, I've loved that sonata for a long time and really wanted to program it. I feel it's a great match for my musical partnership with Cory Smythe. I was looking for a program in which it would be able to stand on its own and also work in sequence with the other pieces, so finally I get to do that and I'm really excited about it. That's the long explanation of the entire program.

MR: You've interviewed nineteen of the composers for the Encores project, and they're really illuminating and insightful -- not only about the music, but about the composers themselves and how they work. Do you plan on completing the series and interview all twenty-seven?

HH: [Laughing] Some people are unreachable. I did what I could, and if do get a chance to do an interview with the remaining people I will, but I did the best I could with the technology and the connections that were available. 

MR: It's very impressive.

HH: Thank you. With some people I had more of a flow of communication by email, due to language barriers, and with others it was a phone relationship or I would meet them in person. And some people I could Skype with. I had communication with every single composer, and I worked with them the best I could to make sure the recording of the piece represented their concepts the best I could interpret them. Every composer has a different set up and a different way of working and not everyone is on Skype. 

MR: I think you captured that pretty well.

HH: I really enjoyed those interviews because I learned things about the composers that wouldn't have come up in normal conversation. When the frame is an interview people explain themselves differently and they explain things more thoroughly because they don't assume you know what they're talking about. They actually start from the beginning of the story and I really appreciated that, being able to talk with them. Even if they were people that I talked with frequently, just hearing them reframe their own stories and experiences. It showed me a lot, and working with them I realized how differently all these composers worked. I mean it's a no-brainer, but I thought how many different ways can you compose? Well, it turns out there's an infinite number of ways and people have all different ways of working in their everyday lives and different ways of coming up or processing the new material that comes to them. They have different goals, they have different abstract concepts about music. Every focal point varies. I was both amazed and inspired by that as a creative artist myself.

MR: Circling back to the Copland sonata, that piece premiered in 1944 with Copland playing the piano and Ruth Posselt on violin. She also performed a number of other world premieres, including works by Barber and Hindemith, and yet hers is not a name we hear much about these days. Do you know much about her, or have any connection to her?

HH: I don't have a personal connection to her that I know of, but I'm sure I do have degrees of separation because my teacher, Jascha Brodsky, was born in 1907 and was very good friends with Barber. They were friends from their school days at Curtis, and in fact Samuel Barber wrote the quartet that contains the famous adagio for the Curtis String Quartet, so it's very likely that Mr. Brodsky knew a lot of the violinists around Barber and other composers of that time, and I'm sure that he knew who she was, if not crossed paths with her. It's funny how some people's names stick and some don't, and I don't think there's a logical explanation for it. It's not even "right place, right time," but more like it's really hard to know why certain things take off and why others don't, and it's not just people, it's also works that people write and performances and recordings that performers do, and I think all you can do is do your best, and hope it reaches people.

MR: Well, one of the things that struck me about this, and granted this is an area in which I'm not well-versed, is that here is an obviously prominent musician from the middle of the 20th Century and at least to my knowledge, when we think back to the legendary musicians of that era, there aren't a lot women's names on those lists. Yet here's a violinist who performed the premieres of some significant works by major composers. I don't know if she was something of a rarity in that era, but she seems to have been a "go-to" musician for composers of that time much in the way that you, Leila Josefowicz, and a few others are today.

HH: I think it's an interesting question and one worth researching. I have not researched gender through the 20th Century in violin performance, but I do know of a few women who were famous. Maud Powell, among others, was involved in premieres [Powell premiered the Dvořák violin concerto, as well as the American premieres of works by Sibelius and Tchaikovsky], there was Erika Morini, and there were other famous female performers. There were also famous male performers, and when we recite our lists of people we often stick to the men and I'm not sure why that is. I mean there are so many reasons that could be, but I wouldn't want to presume I know all of the social and cultural dynamics around why certain careers took off. You also have other factors in people's success or lack of success, and it wasn't only gender. I think there's potential for a very interesting article there.

MR: And yet when we think of today's most highly regarded violinists, women dominate that list. I don't want to slight the men, but from my perspective the people who are doing the most interesting work are mostly women. I'll leave that right there.

HH: I don't know. I think I have seen a lot of men doing very progressive things as well. We hear about different people at different times. I can see in a way what you're saying. I have noticed that for whatever reason there's a cyclical aspect to these things and I'm not sure that there's a cyclical aspect to what people are doing so much as what is noticed. And that can be related to the media or it could be just the thing people are interested in at that time, because people like change or they like familiarity. I don't know, but people keep doing what they're doing, and certain things catch and certain things don't. 

I've seen that with recording projects; you think you know what the reception's going to be for a certain project and then you get through the project, and suddenly the theme has changed, and people are picking up on different aspects of the project, or you have to think about it differently yourself when you're presenting it to people. I'm sure that it's the same on a larger scale with careers and what's noticed. I really do feel people are continuing to do the great work, but it's just that certain things get picked up and others don't. At least that's my perspective.

MR: I also want to ask you about the Bach sonata, because this is a piece that's on your debut album from twenty years ago. Do you ever listen to that recording? I know Bach is a central touchstone for you, but how has your perspective on the piece changed over the course of your career?

HH: I'm still very aware that it's the longest piece Bach wrote for solo violin [laughing]. It's massive, and it's sort of the height of polyphonic achievement to write a multi-voiced fugue for solo violin that stretches a number of pages. It's a beautiful piece -- I have sort of different relationships to the individual movements because the thing about these Bach works is they can be played as complete works or they can be played as individual pieces or encores, although I don't think the fugue is quite what people are looking for in an encore all the time, but it's not impossible to play it as an encore as well.

The first movement has this pulse that's like a heartbeat and I've actually played it at funerals for friends and relatives, and I've played the third movement also as an encore, but for me it's emotionally loaded every time I play it because I remember where I've played it as I'm playing it. The third movement is beautiful and somewhat nebulous -- it has, not a literal syncopation, but when you're listening to it feels like there's a syncopation to the arc of the phrase that's not exactly as regular as you might expect from that type of a movement. The final movement is just a rollicking, confident statement and I like the attitude that it projects. The fugue is really complex, very thoroughly thought out, but that's not what you feel when you're listening to it -- you just feel this inexorable unfolding of what seems like such a simple idea at first that just grows and grows and becomes this great structure, and it's like you're looking at a building being built, and at the end you get to walk through it -- that's what it feels like to experience that particular movement. 

And then in playing that piece, I do remember what I have done with it over the years, but not exactly. I remember the concept, but the way I execute the details changes and that effects how the whole piece unfolds. So I may be trying for a certain effect, and the way I achieve that effect, but not in a calculated sort of way. It's hard to talk about emotion and interpretation without applying certain words to it. I may be wanting to convey a certain feeling and the way I convey that feeling may have different ideas during different years, and so I go about it differently. So maybe the expression does change, but to me, I'm still sticking with a consistent concept of the piece. That's the baseline, but I never try to copy myself -- I always try to reevaluate. Even when I'm trying to do something specific it changes naturally. I try to change, I try to look for new perspectives in the music, and the thing about Bach's writing is somehow he managed to write music that is inexhaustibly variable -- you can do so many things with it, and you can get so many new ideas on stage.

I've played these pieces so many times and every time I play them, in every performance, I find myself getting a new idea in the moment and trying it out. It can be a big idea or it can be a detail, and the detail has a sort of domino effect on all the other details. Not a domino effect in that it all collapses, hopefully, and develops from there. I'm loyal to the concept of how I was taught to play Bach, which is sort of a contemporary technique, but I try to adhere to the score as well. I learned it that way and I really like that way of playing it for myself, but I do like listening to other styles of playing for interpretive ideas.

MR: What do you know about this piece now that you didn't know in your teens?

HH: That's a hard one to answer because as you acquire perspective and new ideas you don't necessarily remember not having them. I don't think I've gained or learned anything in particular that I can pinpoint, but I think my way of perceiving music has changed, but it's hard to define how. We all experience that, even if you don't write or perform music, which are the most obvious ways to experience that change in perspective. But we all listen to music, so if you think about a song that you loved when you were sixteen, and what it meant to you and evoked in you, and you listen to it now, it may have a completely different meaning, like you hear all of the words talking about something in an entirely different way than how you thought it meant, and you have an entirely different emotional reaction to the music. But your initial reaction is still in there because it's so ingrained because you listened to that song a hundred times a week.

I don't know, I don't think I can answer that question -- I think it's how you change in life that changes, and I don't ascribe to the opinion that you need life experience to play things well. I think life experience might make you feel things more, or be smarter about conveying what you're feeling. I think what does happen is your way of communicating music changes, and you can gain a lot from people who teach you-- from mentors, from listening to people you admire -- you can kind of leapfrog over figuring it all out for yourself, so you can actually be very good at communicating these intense feelings that you have when you're younger that may lose their edge as you get older. When you get older you have other things that you learn about, so you let go of some things, and others stay. I don't think there's one that's better than the other. 

MR: You're recording career has taken place almost entirely within a time of great changes in the recording industry. From your perspective as a classical musician, what do you think the future of the recording industry looks like?

HH: That's a great question, but I think if there were answers, people wouldn't be as frustrated as they are. It's changed a lot and it's a fast developing industry, but any industry changes a lot, according to what's possible. Things should evolve, and things should change, and we just need to learn how to change with it. I think people have been doing a really good job at using the platforms they have and individually trying to find ways of getting what's important to them out there. But it does seem like the possibilities are evolving very, very quickly and it's hard to keep up with everything that's possible, and it's hard to get ahead of things.

As someone who's not developing the tools for getting stuff out, you always feel like you're reacting rather than initiating, but I think that's a nice challenge. Ultimately I think the goal is for people to hear the music. It's great if you can make it work for you as a business model, and I can't speak for everyone but what makes me really happy about recording is when people find a piece of music that they love and they develop a relationship to that piece. So I keep making records that matter to me and I try to get them out there. I consider myself a performing musician and the recordings are a great opportunity for me to learn about the music I perform and to work with my colleagues in a different way. They help me to share pieces I love with a broader audience, and it's not necessarily the people of the audience -- I mean I love when a recording reaches people who haven't gone to the concert -- but all the different places you can experience a recording, get close to it, and enjoy it. It's a wonderful opportunity to have, to be able to listen to music at home, to listen to it in the car, as you’re working, in your headset, or on your great surround sound system. I do think that performance is irreplaceable and recordings are a different way of experiencing music for both the players and the audience. 

MR: Here's my last question: given the chance, who would you like to interview, and why?

HH: Hmmm. I would like to be able to interview Mr. Brodsky. He was my teacher from when I was ten to seventeen, when he passed away. He was so formative for me, but I knew him during the time I was a teenager, and he was 73 years older than I was. He was born in 1907 and was 83 years old when I was 10 and started studying with him. I feel like the things that I've learned about people, and the stories people tell about performing, traveling, all of these things that are so present in my life right now, I was just starting to be exposed to as a teenager when I was studying with him. I would love to be able to talk with him now, as a grown-up, and take in what he says as a grown-up myself. That would be really wonderful.

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