Interview with Hilary Hahn: Bridges to the Past

April 7, 2015, 1:29 PM · What a year it's been for Hilary Hahn -- in February she won a Grammy for her recording of commissioned encores, In 27 Pieces, and in March she announced on Facebook that she and her husband are expecting their first baby mid-summer. Now she has released a recording of two classic violin concertos, Mozart's Concerto No. 5 in A major and Vieuxtemps' Concerto No. 4 in D minor, with The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and conductor Paavo Järvi.

It's a recording that represents another important year in her life: when she was 10 years old, in 1990.

"The year in which I learned both these pieces was really pivotal for me," Hilary said, speaking over the phone from Baltimore last week. During that year, she left her childhood teacher, Klara Berkovich, to study at the Curtis Institute with Jascha Brodsky. "This is where I began that path to being a professional violinist."

Hilary Hahn
Photo by Michael Patrick O'Leary, Deutsche Grammophone

She learned the Romantic, virtuosic Vieuxtemps concerto with Berkovich, and she remembers it as an exciting milestone.

Here was a piece that was well-known, that professional violinists recorded and played in concert. "It's such a classic violin work and it's so gorgeous. It's written so well for the violin, and it's a pleasure to play. The orchestra part is really colorful, too, so when you're playing it live with orchestra, it's just so vivid," Hilary said. "As I learned the piece, I grew very familiar with Heifetz' recording of the Vieuxtemps, which is phenomenal. I felt so excited to be playing a piece that Heifetz recorded. It occurred to me: Wow, this repertoire is the big league!"

Hilary had begun working with Berkovich when she was five, after meeting her at a summer music camp. Berkovich had recently emigrated from Russia, where she had taught for 25 years at the Special School for the Musically Gifted in St. Petersburg. For the next five years, Hilary took two lessons a week from her, for a total of about 500 hours.

"I remember, at that age, little things -- like how she would consider everything she said, before she said it," Hilary said. "She was not rash about anything; she knew exactly what she wanted to communicate. She would pause and put her fingers on her temples to think, and close her eyes. Then she would come out with a sentence that was concise and exactly what she wanted to communicate. Those sentences would stick."

Berkovich had a philosophy: that you never stop learning. Even when playing something already familiar, "you try to look at each piece that you're playing as if you've never seen it before," Hilary said. "She also taught me how to analyze music, how to understand the musical structure, how to break it down into big sections that made musical sense and then smaller sections within those big sections that would be phrases."

Berkovich also taught Hilary to think beyond music. "She encouraged me to think of each piece as a story instead of just the music," she said. "I remember thinking, what kind of story do I put to this? It was a good challenge because it made me go across genres to think about music. She also encouraged me to go to museums, to look at the art work. She had a collection of art cards from the Hermitage Museum, and she would show them to me. At the time, I didn't entirely understand the connection, but she planted in my head that there was a connection. Now when I go to art museums, I see exactly what she was planting in my mind. Other art has parallels, and sometimes you can't really say what they are, but you just kind of take them in, you have an artistic sensibility."

Hilary with Klara Berkovich

Berkovich was an affectionate, grandmotherly figure, "but also tough, demanding," Hilary said. She also was sparing in her praise. "She would say, 'Here's what you need to work on for next week,' and as a kid, I responded to that well. I didn't respond to, 'That's great! But bring it back next week," because I thought, 'Why should I do it again, if it's great already?' But knowing exactly what I had to work on, having two lessons a week, and having these goals along the way, really helped me to improve a lot."

Also, Hilary really wanted to hear Berkovich say, "Good."

"If she said something was 'good,' then it was cause for celebration. I would keep trying for 'good.' When she said something was 'good,' I felt like I'd arrived," Hilary said. "If I could move on to another piece, I felt absolutely great, because I knew that she wouldn't do it dishonestly. If she thought I was ready for a new piece, then I was ready for a new piece. My dad would take me out after the lesson and get a soda or fries to celebrate."

Hilary's relationship with Berkovich is still important to her. "I still see her from time to time because she lives in Baltimore," Hilary said. "When I go home to visit my parents, I might stop by her house and say hi and have tea. So I still see her and her husband, and the studio is the same as when I studied there, down in the basement. She's very much still a presence in my life, and I think that's not something that everyone can say of their early teachers, just due to many different circumstances." In fact, the two of them even appeared recently on NPR together.

So why did Hilary switch teachers at age 10?

"I think I could have continued to study with her and still learn a ton more, but she felt it was important for me to have the experience of developing further with someone else," Hilary said. "I was sad to not study with her, but it was a very wise thing for a teacher to do, to realize the point at which a student would benefit from something else. And she never closed her door to me; she was always very happy to see me. If I wanted to play for her, I would just check with Mr. Brodsky, and he never had anything against it. She was always very deferential to him and didn't step on his toes. I never felt like I lost her as a teacher or as a role model."

To Hilary, getting into Curtis seemed like a long shot.

"Sylvia Rosenberg, who was teaching at the Peabody Conservatory at the time and whose master classes I was attending, said, well there's a wonderful teacher in Philadelphia named Jascha Brodsky, and I think he would be perfect for Hilary. He teaches at Curtis, so she should take their audition," Hilary said. "Mrs. Berkovich prepared me for that audition, and I'd just played my first full recital, shortly before it. So a lot happened really quickly: I found out I was accepted by Curtis and Mr. Brodsky chose to teach me -- it was a surprise. It wasn't something anyone around me or I myself expected."

"When I started at Curtis, it was eye-opening," she said. Suddenly, the idea of a career in music was no longer an abstract dream -- "at that point I was around a lot of people who, instead of imagining being on a career path to classical music, were actually on a career path. A lot of those kids were about to graduate and take jobs in classical music. At that time I didn't know if I'd be a soloist, a chamber musician or an orchestra player, but I could see that there were these options and that this could be very possible, if I just kept going with it."

The first concerto Hilary studied with Brodsky was Mozart's Concerto No. 5. "It probably wasn't the first piece by Mozart that I played, because I started with Suzuki and there are some Mozart adaptations in the Suzuki repertoire, but it was definitely the first larger work by Mozart for violin that I learned," Hilary said.

Hilary Hahn with Jascha Brodsky

The way violinists approach Mozart has evolved over the past 20 years, and Hilary's approach has evolved as well.

"Mr. Brodsky was born in 1907, and I learned a way of playing that was very classic in his generation and I think was a good basis for me," Hilary said. "Since then, I've changed my approach to tempi and also to the general flow of the music. But I think having that basis definitely shaped where I wound up with it."

"Playing Mozart involves such a delicate balance, and when you first start playing Mozart, you feel like you have to be delicate with it," Hilary said. "But in fact, it has its own refinement built in. I find that I have to be more energetic and courageous when I play it, as opposed to deferential. If I shy away from it, it just doesn't bring out this rebellious energy that I find so compelling in his writing, especially in that concerto."

"I do remember starting to learn that piece and being faced with these somewhat conflicting tendencies when playing Mozart, that I'd never anticipated when listening to it. It was really exciting, but it was also much more complex than I'd expected," Hilary said. "I remember trying to find that balance in, for example, the opening Adagio. I remember thinking, what do I do with this part, and how do I get into the next one, are they relative tempi, or are they separate? Just the classic things that you continue to think about."

In this recording, she felt she was able to find the ideal balance, in collaboration with Paavo Järvi and The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen.

"People play (Mozart) so stylistically different from each other; if you have a soloist playing it one way and an orchestra and conductor inclined another way, or if the orchestra and conductor are inclined a different direction from each other, it can be very hard to find your place in the interpretation as a soloist," Hilary said. "It's not a matter of just waltzing in and saying, 'Here's how we're going to play Mozart!' Everyone has to be able to believe it when they're playing it. I like playing Mozart with people from different backgrounds in the repertoire because I learn about different ways of playing it. But it's also great to play it with people who are similarly inclined, so we can dive into that particular style. That's what I had with Bremen and with Paavo."

And where is Hilary, on that continuum between historic and modern styles of violin playing?

"I like to play Mozart in a gutsier way. I have a very direct approach to tone production in Mozart, and I find that with my playing I have the most clarity when I'm direct, in this repertoire," Hilary said. "The music speaks for itself, regardless of what you do, but I think you can make it really flat, if you're not careful. It's very important to keep the dimension in it and the forward drive."

She also chose to perform the popular cadenzas by Joseph Joachim for this recording.

"There are so many great (cadenzas) out there," she said. "I sometimes write my own, but never for this concerto because (the Joachim cadenzas are) just such a part of that piece for me. In the history of violin playing, they're important. It's not that we all have to play them, but they're historic, and it's interesting to see how Joachim, who was such a close friend of Brahms, interpreted Mozart's music. It's a bridge between Mozart's time and our time; it shows how far back Mozart goes and how many people have played Mozart over the centuries."

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April 8, 2015 at 03:23 AM · Ms. Hahn is one of today's top violinists that I admire the most: she is not only an incredible musician and instrumentalist, but an equally erudite, well-spoken, thoughtful and thought-provoking artist and role-model.

Her recordings bear multiple listening with fresh insights discovered every time... Looking forward to Ms. Hahn completing the Bach VSP -- the first CD is simply spectacular.

The new CD mentioned here (Mozart/Vieuxtemps) is not-to-be-missed, as is "In 27 Pieces".

April 8, 2015 at 03:02 PM · This is a great interview because I think "how do I play Mozart" is one of those frequently-asked questions that comes up quite regularly in the discussion forum, and here's a top player being very candid about her own approach. I was glad to see that she said to play into it because that is what I think too. The opening bars of the Allergo Aperto in the M5 is a very strong musical statement on the violin! I like Vilde Frang's recording, and I'm eager to see how HH's compares. In these days of the iPod it matters very little which two or three concertos are on the same "album" so I think if the combination of the Mozart and Vieuxtemps has significance for her and if the sheer sentimentality of that rationale helps her sell a few more copies, so much the better.

April 10, 2015 at 01:03 AM · What an amazing player, and what a cool interview!

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