“It’s just music.”
A very simple but telling quote from Hilary Hahn, a lady whose livelihood depends on what people that are buying the CDs and coming to the concerts think of the music. She uttered these words while describing to a listener/fan on one of her YouTube videos how she feels about the academic aspects of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto. She also happened to say this to me at a CD release party 3 years ago (When we were in a noisy atmosphere and you couldn’t hear yourself think) after I had awkwardly expressed that I didn’t care for the Schoenberg Concerto (For the record, it grew on me since then). Perhaps in her mind it is always “just music”; I know by that statement she really meant the music speaks in an emotional language that goes beyond the restricted lines and numbers of time signatures of the printed theory on every piece of paper, and that it speaks to people that can’t even read music the way she and so many gifted musicians can. But it’s not just music, it’s much more.
Loving classical music like I do, I don’t know how normal it is for people to be as ardent a fan of one or two soloists/singers/conductors in particular, but I knew that one day when I was CD window shopping (Imagine doing that now!) back in 2002, I was struck by the CDs of Hilary’s, thinking “A nice girl that plays really nice music?”. At that time it seemed rather inconceivable, but after checking out her music it was clear Hilary was no pop star.
I think the first thing about her playing I noticed was on her recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto. The 3rd movement marked “Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace”, she played the leading phrase with more legato than what I was used to hearing.
I’m not really sure when it was that I went from fan to überfan, but after having seen HH live several times, perhaps it was at a CD release event in NY when she performed with mandolinist/singer-songwriter/composer Chris Thile (Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers) that I was really transformed. As well as great classical pieces by Bach, Ysaye, and Tartini (She played a reading of The Devil’s Trill that received a standing ovation), she also performed music with Chris Thile that ranged from her own classical style to folk and bluegrass.
After having seen this and a video of her indie-rock performance with Trail of Dead, I was convinced Hilary Hahn could do anything. I even flew to Chicago to attend The Ravinia Festival in 2007 to see her collaborative concert with Josh Ritter, and I was convinced that missing out on that would be a mistake and that there wouldn’t be another opportunity to see them working together (I was wrong, of course, as they announced the Met date for the following April).
The other side of all of this, I must point out, is that Hilary was also bringing attention to these other performers. I had never heard of Chris Thile until I saw him that night. I barely knew who Josh Ritter was. I think I knew Trail of Dead from at least one Conan show from the nineties, but I certainly would not have checked any of it out without her influence (BTW, after she had suggested him at the end of her Ravinia set, I am very glad that I checked out Gabriel Kahane, whose compositional style defies genre; The dark-humored “Craigslistlieder” is his masterpiece).
Before I knew it, I was looking for clips from around the world of Hilary Hahn on TV in both performance and interview. Some of those clips are on YouTube, but I did actually purchase one of her German TV appearances and was able to see how advanced her fluency in German is. Astonishing, and, at the same time, great feelings of inadequacy come over me as I can barely count to 10 in German. Of course, I sometimes forget Hilary had been taught the language as a child.
I felt that the best way to channel my überfan-dom was to cobble together a DVD-R compilation (Just for viewing fun only) of various clips of her music, her interviews and silly moments that runs 3 hours and change, looking something like a director’s cut of a documentary film. I do wish that somebody would make such a film someday, but if the creator of that film isn’t me, I’d love to sign on as a technical advisor.
The silliness of Hilary Hahn is easily captured in various clips like her own YouTube videos where she can be seen singing “Happy Birthday” to Arnold Schoenberg in the style of Marilyn Monroe, or in a web extra clip made for the now-defunct Danish TV program “The 11th Hour” where she is putting on her own puppet show with hand puppets in the available studio from some unknown Danish kiddie show (BTW, anybody happen to know what that show was? I’m curious!). Even on a radio show for WGBH Boston she couldn’t resist doing a vocal imitation of a guinea pig.
Coming back to the live performances, I saw HH perform a recital with Valentina Lisitsa at Purchase College in NY in 2009. A cute moment occurred when the venue officials forgot to bring out the chair for the page-turner. Hilary was at the wings waiting for someone to hand her the chair, and when someone finally did, she sprinted across the stage to the piano holding the chair in one hand and her bow and violin in the other. Did I mention this was while she was wearing a long-hemmed stage dress and probably really nice shoes?
Her performance style during this show was apparent to me that she has, at times, the movement and depth of a dancer when she plays. It was especially during one of the Ives Sonatas (Of which 3 were played that night), that Hilary appeared to have ended up holding her bow up in some kind of pose when the music paused in mid-phrase, and it reminded me of interpretive dance. Whether she really is organizing these things in such a fashion or it is all just second-nature, I’m not sure, as I’ve never heard Hilary address this.
By now, I have seen Hilary Hahn in performance many times over in the last 7 years, and it has been a pleasure to see such a wonderful performer continue to grow as an artist. Having seen her play again recently in both a symphonic performance at Carnegie Hall (Performing the Pulitzer Prize-winning Higdon Violin Concerto) and yet another recital at the beautiful Strathmore of North Bethesda, MD, where I had to take in her interpretation of George Antheil’s 1st Violin Sonata. By the way, just want to add that Hilary Hahn, despite what some schmoe says in print somewhere, is not a freak of nature, and her choices of program music, whether it’s from the baroque, classical, or later periods, are not second-tier, and he should know she performed that show under the weather and impeccably so.
Hilary Hahn continues to entertain, inspire, educate, and even amuse me as an artist and a person.