Written by Laurie Niles
Published: February 2, 2014 at 3:42 AM [UTC]
Sure, she can whip up the best of traditionally palatable and entertaining virtuoso fare. But she also can make the unlikely seem inevitable, like a chef who makes spinach ice cream seem like the most delectable creation since buttered toast. After tasting it, you never quite feel the same about spinach, or ice cream -- or maybe buttered toast!
Some of the less-likely pieces she's recently championed include the Schoenberg Concerto and the Ives Sonatas. She brought modern composer Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto to life (before it won a Pulitzer), and most recently, she commissioned the composition of 27 encore pieces by living composers. What do these all have in common? The conviction with which Hilary Hahn plays them.
And so it was with the Nielsen Violin Concerto, which Hilary is playing this weekend with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was musically challenging, presented with fire and precision, by an intelligent and thoughtful artist. I attended Friday night's performance, there are two more, tonight and Sunday, all conducted by Andrey Boreyko.
I had to read the program notes several times before I could believe that the Los Angeles Philharmonic had never performed the Violin Concerto by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen before last night. Though it's not played often, I certainly knew of it. I didn't realize it was quite that obscure to the more general public. The work has had a good many champions over the last few decades: Vilde Frang recorded it in 2012; Eugene Fodor in 2002; Nikolaj Znaider in 2001; and Maxim Vengerov in 1996; In 1990, Cho-Liang Lin recorded it, with LA Phil conductor laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen at the baton, no less!
Hilary's interpretation of this work felt fully formed; the Los Angeles Philharmonic's, still a little bit under construction. Her presence completely took over when the orchestra dropped out for the first-movement cadenza, as she filled the hall with perfectly-in-tune 10ths and double stops and plenty of other tricks. Riding back on a wave of dazzling bariolage, she seemed to charge the orchestra into action. The more complicated this music became, the more she dove in. The lyrical "Poco Adagio" movement had the violin singing the whole time -- a pleasure, with Hilary's strong and sure singing violin-voice. The last movement, "Rondo: Allegretto scherzando," was perhaps my favorite, "scherzando" meaning "jesting." It was a back-and-forth between orchestra and soloist, a conversation. And who wouldn't want conversation with someone with so many witticisms at her disposal? It's cleverly-constructed music, full of musical humor. Every time the orchestra starts to get too serious or moody, the violin solo seems to coax it back to good humor. The cadenza winds itself into a state of virtuosity and self-importance, but returning to the orchestra, it delivers a punchline: the simple statement that started the whole movement off. Hilary pulled this off so well, I nearly laughed out loud. It was all so interesting, I found myself at the Disney Hall gift shop afterwards, poring over the score!
Following the standing ovation and several curtain calls, Hilary played an encore -- not one of the ones she commissioned, but something traditional and much beloved: the "Gigue" from Bach's Partita in E Major.
The rest of the evening included more Nordic treats -- as I overheard someone say: "It's an Esa-Pekka night, without Esa-Pekka!" Before Hilary's Nielsen was the U.S. premiere of the 1999 composition "King Tide" by Scandinavian composer Anders Hillborg. The piece won me over with its shimmery waves of sound, which at times made me think of the "wabba wabba" of sheet metal vibrating. With no percussion, the music still delivered effects resembling bells and static. The composer emerged from the audience at the end of the piece, to enthusiastic applause. The second half of the program was devoted to the Symphony No. 2 by Jean Sibelius.
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