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Laurie Niles interview with Hilary Hahn: Violin and Voice

January 12, 2010 at 11:11 PM

With a new album out today called Bach: Violin and Voice, I expected violinist Hilary Hahn to tell me that the violin is the closest-sounding instrument to the human voice, something I've heard many times before.

I should have known not to expect the predictable from Hilary, advocate for the Schoenberg concerto, interviewer as well as performer on YouTube and possessor of an anthropomorphic violin case.

Hilary Hahn
© Olaf Heine/ Deutsche Grammophon

Her ideas about Bach's music for violin and voice started formulating when she was four, listening to one of her father's local choir concerts. Her interest was piqued when a soprano stepped up to sing an aria, then suddenly a second person stepped up – to play the violin, the instrument she'd been learning for just a few months.

“The way the instrument's sound wove in and out of the vocal line – sometimes plaintive, sometimes playful, always supple and alive-- seemed magical beyond belief," was how she described that first encounter.

Separate, but weaving a beautiful tapestry together. For this album, Hilary weaves her violin solos with the vocal talents of baritone Matthias Goerne and soprano Christine Schäfer, who sing arias from a variety of Bach sacred cantatas.

I still enjoyed what she said, when I asked her, over the phone last week, how the violin and voice compared. Hilary was speaking from Nashville,  where she was giving another performance of the concerto written for her by Jennifer Higdon.

Hilary: I think anything that makes music relates back to the human voice, in a way, because we're familiar with speech and with singing, from a very early age. I think the rhythm of how we use our voices informs how we hear music. So therefore, accidentally, without even without thinking about it, we all somehow refer back to the voice when we're thinking about how we want to interpret something instrumental.

Laurie: Hopefully we do!

Hilary: It's so ingrained: the nuances of speaking, and the range of pitches. There are so many songs around us, all the time, so much voice. I think it's almost automatic, that we connect, as instrumentalists, to voice because it's such an inherent part of the human experience.

When I was growing up, I was always encouraged to look to singers for (inspiration) for phrasing, and I didn't realize that singers are told to look to violin and stringed instruments for phrasing. It was so funny, I was having a conversation with a singer I was working with, early on, and I said, 'So great to work with you because now I can finally equate exactly what I've been told all along about modeling after singers.." And he said, “What? I was always told to model after violin!"

Laurie: No way!

Hilary: Yes! This particular singer was in a studio, and that's what the teacher taught in his studio. But I don't think it's unusual. I think a lot of singers look to instruments, maybe it's interpretation of the voice, in a sense. I think perhaps what people are referring to is, with violin, is the articulation, the sustaining, the dynamic variety – maybe the strings vibrating, like vocal chords …

There is often a connection drawn, and I'm not exactly sure what direction that comes from .

Laurie: The one thing that is different about the voice is that it can make words. How was it to work with that element? Because when we play Bach violin works, for example, there aren't words written for our Sonatas and Partitas.

Hilary: We could write them and sing along! (she laughs) But yes, you're right. The words change how the note comes out. The articulation of a word or consonant changes when the tone begins, so you have to think about that. It's also interesting, in these arias, that the violin is so central at the beginning of arias. The violin sort of states the theme and establishes the melody, along with some of the other instruments that are also playing. So it's tricky to play the violin part for these arias because the singer often sings the same thing later, but they haven't yet sung it when you start. So you have to think ahead to how the singer sings it, so that when the singer comes in, they're set up properly and they don't have to make any big changes in what's going on . But they also have to be free to establish their entrance, so you can't do everything..

Laurie: You can't steal their thunder.

Hilary: You have to prepare it in a way that's not going to be jarring when they enter. And it's so hard to know if you're doing it right, until they actually start. It takes a lot of rehearsing. You have to know the singer very well, and you have to be able to translate the differences in pronouncing words in a melody to articulations and violinistic technique while you're playing the same melody. The more I worked on these pieces with these singers, moving toward recording them, the more I realized that role is really important. It's more of a supporting role, but you're also a soloist, at the same time. That' a fine line.

Laurie: Did your approach change, as you progressed with the rehearsals?

Hilary: Absolutely. Not the idea of how I was going to work with the singers, but the way I played it. I wanted to leave the interpretation up to the singers, to make it possible for them to sing the arias the way they wanted. I wasn't about to say, 'Oh, well it works better for the violin to play it this way, why don't you sing it this way?' They have words to worry about, so they have a little bit more going on. And they have the limitations of breath –  although these singers are not limited at all -- but there are certain physical limitations in singing that you don't really have in instrument playing. It flips the other way around, too; there are things they can do that are very hard for us to do. And I just wanted to make sure that they could do their parts the way they wanted to, so they could express what they wanted to, and put the emphases and the words in the notes the way they wanted to. So of course it changed because I was trying to (go with) the way they were doing it, and I didn't know what that would be, going into it.

I started from a musical perspective with these arias, then I realized I had to think about what the words meant, too. You kind of know that you have to think about the words, but when you're actually working on it, and the singers are saying, 'No I actually think that this phrase should go here because of what the words mean in this whole sentence,' you realize, 'Oh, yeah! There's that to consider, too....' That's another reason I wanted them to set the interpretations.

Laurie: You must have emerged from this with a deep understanding of these songs.

Hilary: Yes, but nowhere near as deep as the singers have, because they're living the words as they sing them. It's a more internalized interpretation, from the literary perspective. For me, I have to make it work without the words, so I have to make my part sound right without the articulations or the tonal changes of the syllables. I know what the words are, I know what they mean, I know why the singers are treating them the way they do, but then I also have to turn off the words at times and just make the music work without the words. Because that's how it starts. It starts without the words.

Laurie: You are usually the soloist, and this album clearly is not the same as an album of violin concertos, where you are center-stage. What made you want to do this kind of project?

Hilary: I like chamber music, and I like playing a supporting role. This is a little bit more than a supporting role, but I enjoyed being able to share the decision-making in certain aspects of the (violin) solo part with other soloists. I had wanted to do a chamber album for a while, and I also wanted to record with singers, specifically Matthias, and later Christine. I was very happy to realize that I could do all of this in one album! I also love this repertoire. I was hoping for a long time to be able to put together a project like this, but I wasn't sure what form that would take. When I realized I could do it as a recording, I was very excited.

Laurie: How did this group of people come together?

Hilary: I'd met Matthias on tour and I'd heard him sing – amazing voice. We got along well, so I thought it would be nice to work on a solid project together. I definitely wanted Christine on the project as well; I brought Christine on board as soon as I was familiar with her work  It's nice to have different voices in an album like this. Also, I'd mainly worked with male singers and I hadn't had any extended experience working with female singers, in this repertoire. So I was happy to be able to work with two different voices and with those particular singers.

I also worked with the Munich Chamber Orchestra and Alexander Liebreich – those guys brought in some great musicians to fill out the ensemble. An amazing group; I was so lucky. I really enjoyed working with them as well – they were just as important as anyone else on the album. We were really fortunate, it wound up being a good group of people.

Laurie: Why Bach; what is it about the Bach choral music that inspires you?

Hilary: You know, every fifth album I record Bach. (she laughs) I just realized, hey, you know, I seem to have a tradition of recording Bach every five albums.

There is a lot of choral music, but there isn't a lot of choral music that has a defined role for the violin (like the Bach does). Since that's what I play, I was really interested in pursuing that. I just love these arias, they're so beautiful, and they're varied, too. It's possible to put together an album of the same type of music by the same composer and not get repetitive. You can still convey a lot of moods. When you're recording, you don't want it to feel like the same thing for an hour. There's so much of this repertoire, I could pick and choose and still have to leave things off because there wouldn't be room for all of it on one album. That was appealing to me, having that range.

Laurie: I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about Baroque performance practice, period music, etc. What kind of approach did you take in this recording?

Hilary: I think everyone on stage was doing it the way they felt was most genuine to themselves. In a way that sounds not-very-coordinated, but when you have a group of soloists together  – I consider the continuo players to be soloists as well – who all are experts in some area of what they do, then everyone is going to have a little something different to offer. For my part, I'm not trained in period playing; even if I were to sit down and study those particular arias for years from a period player perspective, I would still not really know what I was doing in that style. It's such a scholarly and knowledgeable side of the field, I don't feel comfortable stepping into something I don't really know much about and pretending I know that much about it. I want to leave that up to the people who actually know.

So I stuck with a style that feels most natural to me, and the singers weren't, as far as I could tell, singing in a particularly historical style. Matthias was not, Christina was referring a little bit more to it. Then we had the orchestra that played kind of in a period style, though not completely, because we weren't all doing it. And then we had the continuo players, who are so knowledgeable about that style. So I could ask them for their input, for ornamentation and other things, and I could try to incorporate that. So I think I learned a lot from them. It was interesting to try to bridge the styles and the individual approaches to this repertoire.

Laurie: Do you have anything to add?

Hilary: Just that these are great violin parts, for these arias. I would encourage students to learn the violin part if they're a violinist, or learn the continuo part if they're a cellist or keyboard player. If you're curious about this repertoire, you don't have to play just your instrument's part. You can look at the vocal part, play along with the vocal part. It translates really well to a lot of different instruments.

Also, it's really enlightening to work with singers, because you realize the technical aspects of singing and you also realize how connected they are to their bodies, not just their interpretation. That's a different approach, and it's good to be reminded of that. They have a very close relationship with their bodies because the voice is generally a fragile instrument.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on January 13, 2010 at 12:22 AM

Thanks it is so interesting!


From Lawrence Franko
Posted on January 13, 2010 at 3:11 AM

 All violinists, nay, all instrumentalists should learn to sing...and to dance! It is not an accident that the Bach Partitas are DANCE suites. Alas, most of the time one would never know it from the performances we hear. Kudos to Hilary for emphasizing the singing connection to phrasing. But violinists should also aspire to make their audiences want to get up and Move to music! PS to Hilary. I love your Schoenberg.

Lawrence Franko

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on January 14, 2010 at 5:24 AM

Thanks for another great interview, Laurie.  Hilary Hahn always has so many good insights about the music she plays.

From Christopher McGovern
Posted on January 14, 2010 at 10:28 PM

Hahaha, every 5 albums is a Bach album!! I didn't even count them that way. I guess at some point she'll get back to the unaccompanied partitas and sonatas like people keep asking about! :)

Really nice interview! I was at the Bach Party at Le Poisson Rouge in NY on Monday and Hilary asked one of those cellists that performed that night about baroque period performance practice as well! They had a whole panel discussion on Bach for the second half of the event and it was great hearing what everyone had to say. Hilary played the Bach Chaconne live that night and it absolutely killed!

BTW, I can't wait to hear the CD, I ordered it yesterday


From Bart Meijer
Posted on January 16, 2010 at 3:09 PM

I seem to recall that her first album was Bach.. In order for "every fifth album" to make sense this would need to be at least the eleventh album of Hilary Hahn. Such an industrious person!

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