The Utah Symphony and Hilary Hahn
Utah Symphony Orchestra
Thierry Fischer, conductor
Hilary Hahn, violin
de Jong Concert Hall at Brigham Young University, Provo, UT
Thursday. November 15, 2012
Written by May Anderton Ryan
The arts have found a backdrop in the great American western mountains of Utah. The arts accept the challenge to thrive here in the desert, to capture natural beauty, industriousness, and to create a sense of community. Artists and musicians converge in the Salt Lake Valley to form the Utah Symphony.
I have never heard the Utah Symphony before Thursday night, and I haven’t heard a live, professional orchestra in at least three years. I was having withdrawals.
Last April, when BYU announced that the Utah Symphony would be performing at the de Jong Concert Hall, and when the school mentioned that Hilary Hahn would be a guest artist with the symphony, I knew that I had to go. I knew that I would.
I bought tickets on October 15, the day they went on sale, and my husband sat next to me in the sixth row. He could tell how excited I was to be there. We noticed the diverse crowd: Elderly people who have season tickets to the BYU concert series, college students who know members of the Utah Symphony and/or who Hilary Hahn is, families with little girls who play violin and look up to Hilary Hahn as a role model.
Mozart’s “Jupiter” (Symphony No. 41 in C Major), Mahler’s “Adagio” (Symphony No. 10), and Korngold’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Concerto (in D Major) comprised the program.
We listened to a smaller group of the Utah Symphony warm up, and they got set to perform Mozart’s last symphony, “Jupiter.” The mere mention of Mozart’s name comes with certain expectations, and the Utah Symphony met them perfectly during all four movements. It had been a while since I listened to an entire Mozart symphony, but I know I became smarter during those 40 minutes, because I still believe Mozart’s music can improve intelligence. “Jupiter” is light and bright and forward-looking, and the Utah Symphony made it sound as if they talked to the composer personally to capture the symphony’s essence.
Thierry Fischer dazzled from the podium. I have never seen him conduct an orchestra, and my first time watching him made me smile and want to cheer. He got away with dancing on the podium and calling it conducting. He went beyond being a human metronome, and he interpreted each piece with nuances in his waving arms, his bending knees, his facial expressions. (We were close enough to see his face and hear his cue breaths/grunts!) The orchestra responded accordingly, following every direction that came from the baton and Fischer’s person, magnifying the delight of the whole performance. Very fun to watch.
After intermission, the full orchestra set up for Mahler’s “Adagio.” I never heard that piece before and it was at least 20 minutes long, which I haven’t encountered with other adagios. When I saw the violins turn to the last page of their sheet music, I assumed that maybe three minutes remained in the piece. I didn’t take into account several minutes of rests and the stretching tempo that turned it into the longest last page ever. I still liked the piece, though: unsettling, intense, passionate, and peaceful – something one would definitely expect from the commotion of the early 20th century. The French horns in particular made warm, golden entrances, and I wanted the Mahler to continue for that reason, despite the longest last page ever.
But I also wanted to hear Hilary Hahn.
I’ve been a big fan of Hilary since 2000. I had her first three albums, which I brought for her to autograph the first time I saw her perform, which was with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in September 2001. I even called the box office week before to make sure the concert would still happen. (I would have understood if it were cancelled – I didn’t think the concert was more important than the 9/11 attacks.) The week of the concert I broke into hives, because I was so nervous about meeting her.
The last time I saw Hilary perform was at the first Central Park Summerstage concert of 2009. Josh Ritter was the main event, and Hilary was one of his guest performers. I didn’t know she would be there, and I was completely surprised.
The past 12 years have tempered my obsession, or at least my nerves. Instead of having hives, I had gratitude and contentment for being there to hear Hilary in person once more. The orchestra made room around the podium for her to stand during her performance. She walked out in a black sleeveless gown with a print of gold leaves shaped like stars, a very sparkly necklace and earrings; she brought her violin and a smile. The audience clapped, she took her place, and everyone poised themselves for Fischer’s first downbeat.
The Korngold piece somehow feels like Utah; it feels like every western filmed in Utah, which makes sense because Erich Korngold was a Hollywood movie score composer from the first half of 20th century. The piece starts with a gallop, very much telling a story, very much describing the frontier. The piece almost immediately showcased Hilary’s virtuosity, and the soloist’s part zipped and zinged along such that a few people in the audience couldn’t help clapping when the first movement ended. I laughed nervously. Then the rest of the audience applauded.
After the first movement, Hilary took a moment to tune her violin. She apologized, and then after turning the pegs and testing the strings for a while, she said, “This is what happens when I come to Utah.” She can’t help being adorable, all the time. The audience loves it, all the time. Win-win.
The second movement floated, sustained and built into a calmer intensity that caused the audience to hold its applause and its breath before the Utah Symphony let the third movement rip.
During Hilary’s time on stage, I stopped paying attention to Fischer’s conducting and focused completely on her. It could be that the conductor reined in his dancing, but it seemed that all eyes were on Hilary.
The entire third movement sounded like a seven-and-a-half-minute flourish. A few of the hairs on Hilary’s bow broke halfway through the movement. I sat on the edge of my seat watching Hilary sweep, swoop, and sway in her space on stage, her face calm with easy concentration. I marveled at her fingers sliding and dancing all over the neck and fingerboard, and the way she follows all the way through her bowing. I’m no violinist, but Hilary’s technique, endurance, and musicality shone. I’m no orchestra, but so did the Utah Symphony’s.
All three movements featured full swells of orchestra alternating with Hilary’s solos. The Korngold displays moments of unison and even showing off non-Hilary parts, truly making the piece a concert for violin and orchestra. The interplay between the soloist and the larger body of musicians reflects the relationship of community this western narrative has with its heroine. There was a happy ending.
We leapt to our feet and cheered. Hilary shook Fischer’s hand; she shook the concertmaster’s hand. Fischer acknowledged Hilary who acknowledged him back and also acknowledged the orchestra while we clapped. Our clapping acknowledged all of them.
Hilary left the stage, and we cheered her back on for an encore. She left the stage once more before returning to play one of my favorite Bach Partitas. We stood for her again and clapped and she came out, bowed, and left the stage, and we kept clapping and whistling and bravo-ing until the house lights came on. I could have kept clapping.
Thank you, Utah Symphony, for inviting Hilary Hahn to come back. Her performance and personality emitted brilliance. Your concert with her instilled in me a confidence in artists, musicians, and appreciators of the arts in the West. They thrive here.
May Anderton Ryan, an instructional designer at Allen Communications, is also these things in her spare time: a part-time photographer, a writer of poetry, fiction, the occasional review, and her own blog titled A Little Thinking. She also lives in Orem, Utah with her husband Reilly, and, like me, is an avid Hilary Hahn fan. 🙂