June 24, 2009 at 5:11 PM
Recently I heard a fabulous concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop with Hilary Hahn playing a violin concerto written expressly for her by Jennifer Higdon. Also impressive was the question and answer session immediately after the concert. Ms. Hahn, Higdon, and Alsop sat onstage and answered questions from the audience. I learned a lot about the birth and nurturing of a new concerto.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was a good orchestra before Marin Alsop took over as Music Director two years ago, but now they're top notch. The program started with Beethoven's Egmont Overture, a solid, noncontroversial crowd pleaser. Under Ms. Alsop's direction, however, it sounded vibrant and sparkling. The piece started with a dramatic chord which made me lean forward in a state of thrilled and heightened anticipation. I saw other people in the audience react the same way. I've heard this overture many times, even played it a long time ago, but it was never like this. There were so many nuances, shades of dark and light, harmony and disharmony, pauses which made me hold my breath, "conversations" between sections of the orchestra, fast and slow changes in dynamics and tempo, that the piece drew me into very active listening. Somehow, through all this, it was perfectly coherent and satisfying.
The artists discussed the violin concerto after the concert, and they discussed and elaborated on many of my reactions to the music.
The violin concerto was unusual and fun from the very start, when Hilary Hahn played several runs of harmonics, each answered in turn by some tiny cymbals in the percussion section. The harmonics were quite impressive. Ms. Hahn's left hand flew deftly all around the high end of the fingerboard. I never knew that there were so many harmonics there. The effect was quite lovely and unusual and not at all gimmicky. The dialog between the solo violin and parts of the orchestra or the whole orchestra continued through much of the rest of the concert. It was always interesting, and it always kept me alert and listening for more. Another major, impressive aspect of the concerto was the huge range of emotions conveyed by Ms. Hahn. They all sounded good, and they all kept me hanging on for more. In the hands of a lesser violinist, the concerto probably would not have sounded so good. What I heard was a real treat.
During intermission, both the violinist and the composer autographed CDs or anything else you brought them. I used to collect such signatures for myself, but after a while, I thought,"What's the point?" I asked the staff at my luthier's whether they would like me to get such signatures for them, and they said "yes" enthusiastically. They want to hang the autographed signatures up in their store. I got a doubly autographed program for them, and I enjoyed doing that.
The icing on the cake for this concert was the question and answer session following the performance. Hilary Hahn, Jennifer Higdon, and Marin Alsop sat on stage and took questions from the audience.
Someone asked about the interactions between Ms. Hahn and Ms. Higdon in writing the concerto. Ms. Higdon said that Ms. Hahn had only requested that the concerto be written in a major key. Ms. Hahn said that she intentionally gave little guidance to Ms. Higdon because she wanted to let the concerto be Ms. Higdon's own.
Someone asked Ms. Hahn how long it took her to learn the new concerto, and Ms. Hahn replied about four months, although she was doing things during this time. She talked about how she learned a concerto which had never been played before, one which had no precedents to guide her. Ms. Hahn said that she started by reading the scores for all the orchestra musicians so that she could understand the context in which she would be playing. She said that she has to experience the concerto as a whole, from the inside out. She does not memorize her part measure by measure or line by line. Rather, she learns to play it with a constant sense of where the music is going. She added that she enjoys playing chamber music a lot, and she sometimes approaches a concerto as if it were chamber music with the orchestra and its sections as the other chamber players.
Another person from the audience asked Ms. Higdon how she felt when she heard her composition played for the first time. The composer replied that while she was writing the concerto, she had a mental concept of what it would sound like. An example of one very small part of this experience was that she wanted the tiny cymbals at the very beginning of the concerto to sound like knitting needles. When she first heard the concerto played, she found parts that she wanted to tweak. She would do some rewriting, and the orchestra and the solo violinist would play it again. They repeated this process several times. In this way, the composer, the orchestra, and the soloist cooperated in the creation of the piece. The composer said that it was sometimes surprising and always very exciting for her to hear her composition brought to life. She was full of excitement and fun when she spoke.
Someone asked Ms. Alsop how she felt about playing a new piece that no one else had ever conducted. Ms. Alsop said that it was challenging because there were no precedents to help her. However, she said, she enjoyed the great opportunity of participating in the development of the concerto. She mentioned that the performance had been recorded for possible release as a download.
Another v.commie, Michael Divino, asked each of the three women how it felt to collaborate with two other women ( http://www.violinist.com/blog/HilaryHahn/20096/10222/ ). Ms. Hahn replied that she found it difficult to work with two people who have short hair (both Ms. Higdon and Ms. Alsop).
I enjoyed the Q & A session as much as I enjoyed the concert. I felt as if I had been present at the birthing of a new work of art. The three women onstage were obviously having fun talking to us. I hope that Ms. Alsop will have more post-performance discussions in the coming season.
Pauline, for some reason I seem to remember Hilary saying she really likes working with women who have short hair, but I am still in a haze of meeting HH to exactly remember.
It was a fabulous concert. The Egmont, to me was particularly moving because of the wholeness of sound eminanting from the violin sections. There was only one sound, but it was warm, inviting, lush and not at all rough.
My favorite part of the Higdon was the second mvmt and the use of first and second stand players in some places. It was great seeing soloist/ orchestra interact this way.
Marin Alsop is a joy to watch conduct.
Michael, I'n sure you're right about Marin Alsop's answer to your question. I was too excited to remember the details. Ms. Alsop paid special attention to the violins during Egmont. I suppose that's the reason they played with such lush and varied tones during that piece. It was an all around great concert, wasn't it?
We saw Hilary Hahn perform this concerto here in Indianapolis a few months ago. It was brilliant. I really loved the interplay between the soloist and the sections as well.
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