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Terez Mertes

Hilary Hahn - A Portrait

June 27, 2007 at 4:10 PM

My life hobbies tend to have a trajectory of two years, my interest peaking around nine months before ebbing and finally drizzling to a halt. This month I celebrate my two-year anniversary of playing the violin and I’m happy to report no such trajectory. Instead, my interest in this difficult little instrument and the music it produces has only increased. More than ever, I want to explore its fiendish intricacies and experience, if only vicariously, what it feels like to be at the top of this game. It is unsurprising, therefore, that I should so enjoy the DVD documentary Hilary Hahn—A Portrait, a co-production of Germany’s Loft Music and Nightfrog in cooperation with Deutsche Grammophon.

This is both a lively and informative documentary, sure to appeal to both classical music enthusiasts and laymen alike. Set up as a “day in the life of…,” the documentary opens as Hilary heads to the Philharmonie Berlin for a performance of the Korngold Violin Concerto. From there, camera time is divided between the performance, brief interviews, and glimpses into her life as a concertizing artist.

Hilary and the camera take us inside the opulent Curtis Institute of Music, where Hilary trained under Jascha Brodsky from age ten. A hand-held camera follows her on an informal tour, which includes the richly decorated public space, practice rooms and recital hall (where Hilary points out, with self-deprecating humor, the back corner where she played with the second violins for years).

Both during the tour and throughout the documentary, Hilary’s digressions seem candid and unrehearsed. She talks about Bach, whose pieces she often plays to warm up before going onstage, musing over what musical influences came before him to so inspire him. She offers her opinion about recording versus performing live, the crucial give-and-take of an audience, the challenges of contemporary recording standards. The smallest sound, even a sticky finger on a string, she tells us, can mar a recording, requiring take after take, which the camera captures in another refreshingly human glimpse of the life of an acclaimed soloist.

Performance footage includes not only the Korngold Violin Concerto, but also Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, excerpts from “The Lark Ascending” by Vaughan Williams, the Paganini Concerto No. 1 (while recording it at Abbey Road Studios), and the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor. The latter is performed, intriguingly, at Dresden’s Yellow Lounge, a classical music venue and club where listeners can wine and dine or quietly socialize while the artist performs. Not surprising, Hilary’s playing rendered the room silent.

Hilary Hahn—A Portrait offers an artful, comprehensive view of an artist who is not just at the top of her game, but is willing to share this with others—as evidenced by her website with its engaging long-time “postcards from the road” journal entries. (Check this out here.) That, I believe, is one of Hilary’s most endearing traits, right alongside her prodigious talent. This documentary reminds me that I am not just listening to an artist who is gifted and marketable, but one who is eager to engage with her audience, through her music and her words. These kind of devoted, giving artists, I’m convinced, represent our brightest hope for keeping classical music alive and in the public eye. A highly recommended DVD, with great bonus features, including uninterrupted concert footage of the Korngold and Mozart, as well as interviews with Hilary and longtime collaborator, Natalie Zhu.

Here is my list of favorite classical music documentaries that offer not just performances, but interviews, insight and offstage footage:

Hilary Hahn—A Portrait
Speaking In Strings – Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
High Fidelity – The Guarneri String Quartet
The Art of the Violin

Would love any further suggestions…

From Jim Tsai
Posted on June 27, 2007 at 5:27 PM
My favorite violin DVD by far.
It's literally impossible for me to stop the DVD during the playback of the Korngold concerto. and i've watched it half a dozen times. it's mesmerizing.
From Karin Lin
Posted on June 27, 2007 at 5:35 PM
Thanks for the review, Terez! I've been interested in this DVD for a while (it's on my wish list) and now I'm even more eager to see it. I also recommend for your list the DVD "Circling Around - The Violin Virtuosi") a documentary about the young violinists of the Indiana University String Academy. Very inspiring.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 27, 2007 at 5:45 PM
Ooh, Karin, excellent suggestion!

And Jim, glad you feel the same about the Hilary DVD. I really thought the documentary was well done and nicely balanced, but it helps that I'm a fan of the Korngold (and Hilary) and saw her perform it live just last December. So, I'm probably a little biased. Nah, I still say it's a damned good show, period.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on June 27, 2007 at 6:05 PM
Totally off topic Terez, but some good news:

According to my snail-mail "Chamber Music" magazine, Eugene Drucker (of the Emerson String Quartet Druckers) has a new novel called "The Savior". Amazon has the release date as 7/17. (I have pre-ordered mine through my locally owned independent book seller). It is a novel about a violinist living in the Nazi state.

Sorry about the interruption, but I thought you might want to know...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 27, 2007 at 7:28 PM
Oh, Anne, that novel sounds SO powerful. I just popped over to Amazon for a look - gorgeous cover, but I don't know if I'd have the fortitude to get through the book. PROMISE me you'll let me know how it is. In fact, my goal in the next blog is to present a comprehensive list of music novels, since as that earlier blog stands now, you have to sift through 43 posts to get a complete list of all the excellent suggestions.

And now, back to our regularly schedule program...

This, too, is off the topic of classical musician documentaries, but I just went and ordered myself a copy of the film Shine. Fictionalized, certainly, but oh, what a wonderful musician story, and Hilary's DVD has sharpened my appetite for more.

From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on June 27, 2007 at 7:47 PM
Thanks so much for this review Terez!! I just got this DVD from Netflix the other day and can't wait to watch it! I love music documentaries. If you're looking for a few other good ones, I'd highly recommend these:

From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China
Oistrakh: Artist of the People?
Music from the Inside Out
Isaac Stern: Life's Virtuoso
Knowledge is the Beginning/The Ramallah Concert

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 27, 2007 at 8:21 PM
Anne - Drucker would know. I believe his father was a musician who was a refugee from Nazi Germany.
From Emily Liz
Posted on June 27, 2007 at 8:39 PM
Don't know any of the specifics (release date, availability, etc.), but James Ehnes recently recorded a CD / DVD featuring performances on some of the instruments from the Fulton Collection in Seattle. Watch out for that, because I know that both Mr. Fulton and Mr. Ehnes have really high standards, both musically and technically, and I imagine it'll be really good. (And interesting from an instrument perspective; I don't know that there's really any DVDs out there at the moment that focus specifically on instruments.)

I wish more people would make violin DVDs; I think they're great resources. Looking forward to that list of music novels.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 27, 2007 at 9:24 PM
Ruth and Emily, thanks so much for the suggestions! James Ehnes is coming to the San Francisco Symphony next season and I finally get to watch him perform. Looking forward to it.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 27, 2007 at 10:54 PM
Terez, I love the Hilary Hahn DVD, too. In addition to being a great performer, she is great at engaging the audience when she talks and helping us understand the music she plays and how she relates to it. She comes across as a very even tempered, down to earth person who knows and loves what she does.

I second the recommendation for David Oistrakh: Artist of the People. It reveals the relationship of the Communist Russian government to him. They pressured him relentlessly and inappropriately to win first prize in all his competitions to prove the supremacy of the USSR. They also used him to try to convince the world that they were not against Jews. Oistrakh would have liked to defect from Soviet Russia, but his family was there, so he stayed there. The DVD is very dramatic and beautiful and gives us another perspective on music and musicians.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on June 27, 2007 at 11:12 PM
The DVDs I have and adore:

"The Art of Henryk Szeryng", Radio Canada
"Heifetz, Rubenstein, Piatigorsky", EMI
"Aaron Rosand: Live at Mills College" VAI
"David Oistrakh" EMI
"Great Violinists of the Bell Telephone Hour" VAI

Plus others also mentioned...

From Albert Justice
Posted on June 28, 2007 at 2:42 AM
I think Hahn is super because of her 'real' connections with people--I read her web site, and she seems 'so' grounded.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 28, 2007 at 3:16 AM
Albert, you said it. And Pauline, you said it even more eloquently. (No offense, Albert!) Nice to hear your take on the David O. documentary, as well - I have one of his music DVDs but I really want to learn more about him. And Anne, thanks for your list contributions!

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