Hilary Hahn on A Prairie Home Companion ('Live from Here'): A Win for Classical Music

October 29, 2017, 4:59 PM · An interesting thing happened Saturday in Pasadena, Calif. at the taping of the public radio show A Prairie Home Companion (now called "Live from Here"), which featured violinist Hilary Hahn as one of the guest artists. (If you'd like to hear the show, here is the link to the broadcast on the 'Live from Here' website.)

Hilary Hahn and Chris Thile
Violinist Hilary Hahn and Chris Thile, broadcasting A Prairie Home Companion in Pasadena Saturday.

The show, hosted for many years by the deep-voiced storyteller Garrison Keillor, is now in the hands of virtuoso mandolinist Chris Thile, who seems to be steering it in a more musical direction, while still keeping much of its traditional humor and storytelling.

At the beginning of the show, Tim Russell announced all the guests that would be appearing: Dan Auerbach, Robert Finley, Fiona Apple, Nick Offerman... when he came to Hilary Hahn, the audience applause was polite, but there was no surge. I was sitting in the audience with my husband Robert and some V.commies, including violin teacher Nikkia Cox and amateur violist Steve Reizes. We hollered our loudest for Our Hero Hilary, the person we'd come to see, but I still felt a little like a specialty classical music cheering section.

The show went for two hours, during which Hilary played four times. By the time they announced her name at the end of the show, the applause was thunderous, downright enthusiastic, with hoots and howls all over the house.

What changed? Well, they heard her play.

And thanks to Chris Thile for that. After seeing his show live, I understood quite clearly what made Keillor choose Chris as his heir: Chris is a consummate connoisseur of sound. Somehow the feeling on stage seemed completely casual and easy, yet every time someone spoke or played into a microphone, the sound was high polish, whether it was vocal, instrumental or sound effect. A MacArthur Fellow who started his career in the bluegrass band Nickel Creek, Chris clearly has no preference for one musical genre over another. Not only does he write a new song for the week and thrive in the spotlight, he also is a musical shape-shifter who seems ready and able to support any kind of musician of excellence.

Two of Hilary's pieces were duets with Thile, in fact. The first piece they played was the last movement of the Bach Double -- violin and mandolin, at a good, fast clip and with plenty of chemistry. (In fact, despite his bluegrass upbringing, Chris Thile has long been a fan of J.S. Bach.)

Before Hilary's appearance, when Chris was introducing her, he stumbled a bit. "I've been...well, bragging that you were to be on the show, and people have been like..that's interesting, that's unique....people have almost been insinuating that it was odd that you would be here..."

"Thank you, people!" Hilary laughed.

When it came right down to it, it wasn't odd at all. It was clearly wonderful. As Chris said, "they've been psyched, but they've been like, oh, it's out of the ordinary."

Who wants ordinary? I have a feeling Chris has a taste for the extraordinary, and audiences are going to like it. They did on Saturday. When Hilary ripped through the "Preludio" to Bach's Partita no. 3, the audience roared. (This piece is so familiar to me, a violinist - I forgot how dazzling it can be to people who may not have heard it!)

Chris has a segment where he announces the week's birthdays of famous musicians and then plays pieces made famous by those musicians. This week was an eclectic assortment: Clifford Brown, Barbara Cook, Dwight Yoakam, Mahalia Jackson and -- maybe influenced by Hilary: he included Niccolo Paganini. If you listen to the broadcast, when he announced Paganini, you'll hear a tiny handful of audience members howl, "WOOOHOOO!" - that was us in the violin contingent. Hilary and Chris charmed everyone with Paganini's "Cantabile" for violin and guitar (mandolin, in this case).

Later, Hilary played one more solo, the lyrical "Mercy" by Max Richter, from her Encores album, In 27 Pieces.

Of course, Hilary was not the only artist on the show, there was more talent than I can write about! Fiona Apple was a treat -- I've long been a fan of her rather dark songs, with their combined daring and fragility. Fiona's popularity also seemed to grow as the show proceeded. And Nick Offerman's Rainbow Ode to his wife is certainly a must-hear; it is indescribably funny.

In the end, I'm more than happy to see the roster opened to classical musicians on A Prairie Home Companion, and Chris Thile is a musician's musician, playing back-up to his guests both metaphorically and literally. I'd go to every show just to see that.

Again, if you'd like to hear the show, you can listen to it on the 'Live from Here' website.

Hilary and Chris
Backstage after the show - Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles with Hilary Hahn and Chris Thile.

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October 29, 2017 at 10:36 PM · You make a good point about the solo Bach that Hahn played. It was great, but I confess that I found myself longing for something new. However just because I've heard it many times, still most people haven't, and therefore it was a great choice.

I'd like to point out that violinist Gabe Witcher did an amazing performance of a solo by trumpeter Clifford Brown. That's not easy to do on a violin.

October 29, 2017 at 11:05 PM · Mark, yes, I agree! I loved Gabe's playing - he did an amazing job in general!

October 30, 2017 at 01:57 AM · I also think highly of Thile. Keillor was able to get great acts on his show, and he did okay curating that content. But Thile's musical understanding obviously runs much deeper. I'll admit the first time I heard that Thile was taking over PHC, my thoughts turned to Drew Carey doing "The Price is Right."

October 30, 2017 at 09:24 AM · As a fan of "fiddle" music I'm always happy to find an artist in a music I'm unfamiliar with who changes my ideas of that music. Ms Hahn certainly did that. While I'll probably stick to Americana/Folk/Rock/Fusion I think I might sneak in a bit more of her sort of music now

October 30, 2017 at 07:02 PM · I'm wondering if she played her good violin. On the piece I heard (they didn't give the title), either the acoustics or mics were very poor, or she was using what sounded like an inferior instrument. And towards the end of the piece, there were some weird vibrations audible, as if a fine tuner or chinrest were buzzing.

October 30, 2017 at 07:21 PM · I wondered a bit too about how it was mic'ed. It sounded different live than it did over the radio (better actually on the radio because we were getting it over speakers with probably some ambient), but in both cases it didn't sound quite like her violin, which I have to admit, I'm used to hearing in a very different setting.

October 30, 2017 at 10:42 PM · I'll add, Gabe's violin sounded fuller live than on the radio. Tricky thing, capturing the sound of a violin!

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