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Laurie Niles interview with Hilary Hahn: the Higdon and Tchaikovsky Concertos

September 20, 2010 at 3:53 PM

Listening to Hilary Hahn's new recording of the Higdon and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos, I noticed how differently the two concerti begin. The orchestral interlude at the beginning of the Tchaikovsky is full of warmth and comfort, like an old friend walking straight toward me with a smile and open arms. The opening of the Higdon casts me into a land of icicle harmonics; it seems more about wonder than warmth.

It strikes me that these concertos also had very different beginnings, as well. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's concerto was rejected by the man for whom it was written, Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer, who deemed it "unplayable" and canceled its premiere, delaying the piece's arrival into the world for two years, when in 1881 another violinist, Adolf Brodsky, performed it. By contrast, Higdon's concerto certainly has been embraced by the American violinist for whom it was written, Hilary Hahn, who has put much energy into playing it live and now recording it. Within two years of its 2008 premiere with Hilary and the Indianapolis Symphony, Jennifer Higdon was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its composition.

Hilary's new recording of both the Higdon with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko, is out this week. It is the world premiere recording of the Higdon Concerto.

Hilary was a student at Curtis Institute when she first met Jennifer Higdon, who was her 20th century music history teacher. The violin concerto was commissioned by the Indianapolis, Toronto and Baltimore symphony orchestras, as well as by Curtis. If you want to play or perform the piece, the solo violin part, full score and piano reduction parts are all available through Jennifer Higdon's website.

For this recording, Hilary also came back to the Tchaikovsky Concerto after a 10-year break. While Leopold Auer originally rejected the piece, he later came back and performed it – after making his own revisions to the score. Auer taught his version to many of his students, including influential violinists such as Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist and Jascha Heifetz, and as a result, Auer's edition arguably became the default version of the Tchaikovsky, at least for a time. For this recording, Hilary was drawn to Tchaikovsky's original ideas.

Hilary Hahn
Photo by Peter Miller, courtesy Deutsche Grammophon

Hilary talked with me over the phone last week about coming back to the Tchaikovsky, and about playing the Higdon concerto.

Laurie: As I was listening to the Higdon concerto, I was thinking, 'I wonder how playable this actually is?' It seems like the kind of piece that requires a lot of technique, and also a real commitment to learning it. What kind of techniques a violinist would need to play this piece?

Hilary: One thing that helps is being able to reach unusual intervals --- there are a lot of sevenths and ninths. They're not always played simultaneously, but I think you have to be comfortable with all of the intervals. So it helps not just to do scales or in thirds, sixths, fifths, octaves, but you have to do everything in between, too.

Rhythmically, it helps to be comfortable with the range of rhythmic options: fives, threes, sixes and sevens -- and syncopation, in those patterns. If you're comfortable with those things, then the piece seems less overwhelming. But you can also work towards being comfortable with them in a piece like this. You don't have to come to it, knowing how to do it. You can figure it out as you learn, and it actually gives you a focal point. It's not the worst thing to learn something new in the context of learning a piece.

It's a substantial work. I don't think it's overwhelming, I just think it takes time, like anything else. You keep chipping away at it and eventually you get things in your system that you weren't as familiar with before, and that becomes part of your technical and musical repertoire that you can reference later, whether in that piece or in another piece. It really helps to have a large (left-hand finger) extension and to be very comfortable in high positions.

Laurie: Does she require extensions beyond something like a 10th, or a 12th?

Hilary: It depends on your fingering and how you want to play a passage. There is at least one very large stretch in a double stop. With my fingerings I like to use the extension rather than hopping around too much, so I do think that's helpful for this piece, but someone else coming to it might come up with a different set of fingerings that doesn't require that as much. With a new piece like this, it's hard to know exactly what is required until multiple people have played it and they all come to the same conclusion. What I might perceive as required may not actually be necessary for someone else.

Laurie: Do you see other people playing it?

Hilary: At the moment I have exclusivity for performance, but that's not a forever situation, and the idea is that people do take it up and learn it – the idea is that other people play it!

Laurie: Do you see yourself ever teaching this piece, or giving masterclasses on it?

Hilary: So if someone showed up (to a masterclass) with (the Higdon), I would give them some guidance, but I don't think I'd make a point of teaching a class on it – it's not really my piece. It is, in a way, but it shouldn't be, in the end.

Right now, it's helpful that people want to perform it with me – and I've already done it. I find it really helps if someone on stage has already done a piece. It helps the rehearsal process, it helps in concert. Interpretatively it's free-reign for anyone who takes it on, but just for logistics of a new piece, it helps if someone has it in their ear.

Sure, I would teach it in a class, but I would teach anything else in a class, too. It's just kind of interesting to see how different people approach pieces that I'm familiar with and how they present pieces I'm not familiar with.

Laurie: I noticed that the concerto had some really beautiful orchestra writing – for example, the flute in the second movement.

Hilary: Jennifer is a flutist by training. She writes a lot of the soprano lines like a flute line, and I think the violin part is very flute-like, in a sense. It's a different kind of language for the violin, but it still works. She has a lot of hidden polyphony in it, and it's rewarding to locate that and it helps with the structure of the phrasing.

Laurie: I'd like to talk with you about the Tchaikovsky as well. As I understand it, you took a long hiatus from it. What did you find different about it, after 10 years away? I would think that the Tchaikovsky might look different to you after playing things like the Schoenberg Concerto and the Higdon.

Hilary: My first teacher, Klara Berkovich, always used to say that toward the concert, you have to approach the piece like it's fresh, like you don't know it. I never quite understood how I was supposed to do that, because if I knew it, I knew it! (laughs) But now I do see what she meant. I think that's what the break from it allowed me to do.

With the so-called standard works, we assume a lot about the interpretation. As musicians, we hear them from childhood, we play them, and we never quite get them out of our heads. It's really hard to come back fresh and to think about the notes on the page instead of all the associations we have with the piece as listeners and performers. So that break, and all the repertoire I did in the meantime, really helped. It wasn't intentional, it just kind of happened that way, and I'm glad it did. It also gave me a good perspective check on how I approach other pieces that I play regularly.

Laurie: Sometimes violinists can be really ambivalent about this piece. It seems to me that the Tchaikovsky has so much baggage attached to it. I've actually played this for teachers who have told me that they hate this piece, told me that they wish I hadn't brought it to them. I don't hate it; I love it. But there are a lot of weird things about it: the repetition, that last movement, whether or not to use the original...You used the original versions without the Auer cuts, right?

Hilary: It's as much toward the original as I got without actually doing historical research. The point, for me, wasn't to make a definitive original recording. But as I was working on it, over a couple of years, I realized that I actually preferred not doing the Auer change here, and then there, and then there... I wound up returning one little bit at a time, to what Tchaikovsky had written. It's not that I don't like the Auer version -- I grew up with the Auer version. I learned that from my teacher, and it's so familiar, it's part of my concept of the Tchaikovsky. But I also like having the flexibility to play it another way.

I like the details of the original version because it gives a whole other pacing to the piece. They may be small changes from what we're used to hearing (in the Auer version), but they add up to a big difference. For example, in the second movement, if you don't take it up an octave (in the music, at letter D; on her recording, track 5, 4:10 minutes) when the theme repeats at the end, then when you actually hit the highest peak note, it is the highest peak note (4:56) you haven't given a preview. So the emotional impact of that is intensified because suddenly you're up in the stratosphere. It doesn't stay there for long, but it's important.

In the third movement, there is a transition (in the music, before letter I, the transition into Tempo I; on her recording, track 6, 8:04 minutes) where Auer moves in a 16th-note pattern way up the fingerboard to a high C# and then back down, and Tchaikovsky just has a repeated pattern of 16th notes, down on the G string. The Auer version is flashy and exciting and more complicated-seeming – although the Tchaikovsky repetitions are kind of a finger-tangler. I find that if you actually just stay down in the bottom range and you repeat, it revs up the momentum and it keeps the audience wondering where it's going to go. The more embellished (Auer) version doesn't give you time to prepare yourself for something coming – it is like a focal point in itself. Then when you get back to the theme, the ascending pattern – you've already gone way above that before, so it doesn't really have the same impact. But if you hold down in the actual pure repetition, then it's like you're pulling the string of a bow back – a bow and arrow back – you're pulling the bowstring back and then you're pulling harder and harder and it gets more and more tension, then you release it and the arrow just flies. That's the effect.

(Going back to the Tchaikovsky version) changes the pacing a little, it changes the structural focus a little bit. I really wanted to make sure, with the interpretation, that I took my time in it. And I wanted to look at the piece as a whole, not just here's one half of the first movement, and here's the next half, and here's the coda and now here's the slow part and here's the fast part, and this is the cadenza that leads into's so familiar that people have short-cuts for reference for these different parts. It's really important to remember that these parts are not separate from each other. They are all part of a big whole that has to be connected in some way in order for such a big piece to have a long arc and to carry the audience through. You don't want them to be carried through by just recognizing the melody and listening along, you really want to draw them into the piece as if they're hearing it fresh. So that's what I tried to do.

Laurie: Another place I wanted to ask you about was in the first movement, the poco piu mosso (m. 109) followed by the poco piu lento (m. 114) I noticed you took a really different tempo between them, with the double stops much slower. It's written to be faster and then slower, but sometimes people still really race through the double stops. The way you played it, I really heard the contrast, and I also heard more in your double stops than I usually do.

Hilary: I discovered all these fun elements to the piece as a player. What's really fun about that part is just sitting back in the tempo and letting it go um-bah, um-bah, um-bah under the triplets. You can push and pull the phrasing within that kind of framework. But in order to set that up, it's important to pay attention to what comes before, to have a bit of a contrast, so people feel like there's more weight or... "wait"! Unless you have something different happening beforehand, then it won't sound like suddenly everything turned. It's kind of neat to find those transitions and make the most of them, and also to lead one thing into the next. Sometimes it's a sudden transition, but sometimes you have to prepare the next thing.

It's so tempting just to play it the way you've heard it or the way you were told to do it. It's such a big piece, it's so familiar – and it's kind of difficult. But you have to make yourself take it one little bit at a time when you're deciding what to do with it, and really just start over. That's a very important part of the process, especially for things that are known well.

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on September 20, 2010 at 5:45 PM

Many thanks Laurie and Hilary. This is a very interesting interview. I do not have the record yet but I am looking forward to buy it soon. I love the original version of the Tchaïkovsky which I learned as a teenager. And I can't wait to discover this new concerto written by Higdon. A new recording by Hilary Hahn,or her live performances, are always a revelation to me. She is a truly inspired artist with new ideas and a very individual approach.

From Kam Cheung
Posted on September 21, 2010 at 1:41 AM

Not sure you know it already, you can listen to the entire new album here:

From Michael Divino
Posted on September 21, 2010 at 1:45 AM

 Love Hilary!  I get the album in the mail tomorrow.  Thank goodness for Amazon!

From Barry Nelson
Posted on September 21, 2010 at 3:04 AM

Great interview, Hilary is my favorite Violinist

From Christopher McGovern
Posted on September 21, 2010 at 4:04 AM

The CD is a powerhouse of great music from start to finish!

The Higdon piece is enriched with so many radical-sounding ideas and to hear it performed by Hilary is twice as great!

And it's so cool that Hilary is giving back to Tchaikovsky the dream that was taken away from him by playing the original piece the way it was meant to be played!

I just saw Hilary and Jennifer at the CD event in NY and they discussed the album and both concertos, and it was a really nice night of discussion. Some laughs as well!

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on September 21, 2010 at 7:09 AM

What a great interview and such fantastic perspective.   This reads like one of the many interviews found in The Way They Play series.   Congratulations!   Very much looking forward to hearing this work!

From Royce Faina
Posted on September 21, 2010 at 5:00 PM

I am listening to the Tchaikovsky/Higdon Concertos now and it is just so fresh! I love the harmonics and doublestop harmonics at the begining setting up a foundation for the color and textures that follow.

From Wayne Rogers
Posted on September 21, 2010 at 6:17 PM

I had the pleasure of seeing Hilary perform the the Tchaikovsky last year in San Francisco.  Rarely have I been so involved in a performance.  During the performance I got the impression that the concerto was a chamber work.  It really drew me in and made me hear the piece in a new way.  I've really been looking forward to this recording, though I don't think a recording can duplicate the energy of that live performance!

From Vernon Kirby
Posted on September 21, 2010 at 8:28 PM

Hilary makes me very happy. I've always thought about playing some of those triplets slower, it's easier, and clearer, and better. Very beautiful recording! Such purity of sound, that's one of the main things she has going for her.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 21, 2010 at 9:25 PM

I heard Hilary Hahn perform the Higdon concert live with the Baltimore Symphony, and I attended the Q&A session afterwards with Hilary Hahn, Jennifer Higdon, and Marin Alsop.  For details, see my blog of June 24, 2009, "A Concerto Is Born".  I was mesmerized from the start, when Hilary Hahn played several dazzling runs of harmonics, each answered in turn by a pair of tiny cymbals.  Throughout the concert, I was impressed with Ms. Hahn's harmonics and notes played way up high on the fingerboard.  There were many "dialogues" between the violin and the orchestra.  The violin covered a huge expanse of emotions, and I sat on the edge of my seat for the whole performance.

During the Q&A session, Ms. Hahn talked about the way she learned the completely new concerto, one for which there were no preceding performances to guide her.  (She spoke about this in depth in her interview with Laurie Niles.)  She said that she enjoys chamber music and often approaches a concerto as a piece of chamber music with the violin, various instruments in the orchestra, and the orchestra itself as players.

It was very interesting to hear Ms. Higdon's perspective as the composer of a new piece.  She is a very dynamic, bubbly, unpretentious person.  She said that while writing the concerto, she had a mental sense of how it would sound.  For instance, she wanted the tiny cymbals at the beginning of the piece to sound like knitting needles.  When she heard the concerto rehearsed by the violinist and the orchestra, she found parts that she wanted to tweak.  She would do some rewriting, have the orchestra and soloist play it again, and repeat this process several times.  In this way, the soloist, members of the orchestra, and the conductor collaborated in the creation of the concerto.

I'm generally not a big fan of contemporary classical music, but I loved this concerto.  It was always interesting and sometimes really fun.  Ms. Hahn's pyrotechnics were fabulous.

I pre-ordered the CD, and I should get it in a day or two.  I can hardly wait.

Laurie and Hilary, thanks so much for the interview.  I learned a lot about music that I love, and now I will love it even more.

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