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One of the World’s Finest

Violinist Hilary Hahn at the MSO

May. 20, 2008
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Violinist Hilary Hahn is an artist who seems to have emerged on the classical scene like a rare plant fully grown—an entity so perfectly and unobtrusively developed that the effortless maturity of her craft belies her youthful years.

  Born in Lexington, Va., 28 years ago, she began playing the violin shortly before her fourth birthday, studied for years under Russian teacher Klara Berkovich and made her first major orchestral debut with the Baltimore Symphony in 1991, when she was 12. Soon after, she appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra, then the Cleveland, followed by the Pittsburgh and the New York Philharmonic, all by the tender age of 15. Next she would debut in Germany, playing Beethoven with the Bavarian Radio Symphony under Lorin Maazel.

  Those who have had the pleasure of hearing her in person must have been amazed that this mere slip of a girl is the same artist whose recordings seem to echo the great violinists of the past with a patrician elegance and nobility usually associated with more seasoned performers from an era regretfully long gone. She freely admits to a greater affinity with the classical traditions of the past, which are gaining her international prominence.

Daunting Performance

  When one compares her 1998 recording of the daunting Beethoven Concerto, when she was only 18, one is impressed by the linear, unmannered self-assurance of the performance. It’s a concert style one associates with a performer on level with Heifitz, whose technical wizardry seeks only to narrow the distance between composer and audience while retaining a loving regard for the text. To the discriminating ear, Hahn seems to create her own melodic line—lean, clear, uncluttered with mannerisms and floating distinctly from the orchestral passages. She is her own master.

  However, like Heifitz, the linear purity of her style has occasionally been deemed “too detached.” Most of her listeners would disagree. As Hahn herself stated in a recent phone interview, she tries not to put herself in front of the music, shying away from an overheated “blood-letting” approach, seeking to temper the emotions in the score so that when the really critical moments show up, they are all the more involving. Though she opts for refined elegance in performing, she places her personal touches at the service of the music without reinterpreting the composer’s intentions.

  As a result, perhaps her hardest-to-pin-down recording may be British composer Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto, a massive work of singular sentimental beauty that seems more like a symphony with violin accompaniment. Hahn refers to this gigantic 45-minute piece as a “lifetime of experience,” which needs to be carefully developed by the performer so as not to reveal its treasures all at once. She approaches Elgar’s blatant emotionalism with caution, allowing her performance to breathe freely until the finale. The controlled reticence of her noble execution has never served her so well as in this elusive masterpiece. Her sincerity and faith in her innate ability to balance and control the intellectual and emotional aspects of this and other great violin works while paying full head to the integrity, purity and underlying truth of the score is Hahn’s fundamental trademark and her greatest asset.

  Having recorded the repertoire standards—Mendelssohn, Brahms, Shostakovich—she has included unique works such as Spohr, the acerbic Stravinsky and now a startlingly beautiful new recording of the virtually unknown Schoenberg Violin Concerto, the only Schoenberg work ever to hit the best-selling classical charts. Much of the credit for the Schoenberg Concerto’s instant acclaim must go to the inspired momentum that Hahn brings to the performance. The listener soon becomes unaware that the composer is one of the most formidable exponents of the 20th century 12-tone scale.

  Hahn sails through the score as if to the manner born, seemingly micro seconds ahead of conductor Salonen’s superb accompaniment, as if she were the inspirational exponent of the lyric beauty long lain dormant within this hitherto unsuspected musical treasure. Her unyielding self-assurance, her faith in the truth of her musical judgment and her eloquent advocacy of this lovely new musical marvel is the record’s strongest selling point.

  Once referred to as Paganini incarnate, she discusses her formidable technique as if talent such as hers was a given, needing only nurturing and careful judgment to give life to the music. Her aplomb during the most harrowing passages as in the Paganini concerto—as if this kind of talent is like an out of body experience—is remarkable to witness on stage. Yet she maintains that the mind must be ahead of the fingers “to set things up” and to allow for last minute bursts of spontaneous inspiration. “Otherwise chaos would result,” she says.

  Hahn likes to meet her audiences. She likes to chat. She comes across with sincere unaffected charm as if anyone present could also become one of the world’s finest artists.

  Hillary Hahn performs with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, May 30-June 1.

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