Interview with Hilary Hahn: 'Eclipse'

October 14, 2022, 12:09 PM · Did the sun really just go away, right in the middle of the day? That's what seems to happen during a solar eclipse. Ancient peoples thought it portended the end of the world, or the permanent blotting out of the sun. But no - the shadow passes, the light returns.

For violinist Hilary Hahn, a performer who thrives in the spotlight, the shadow of the pandemic felt like a long eclipse. And the return of the light - a new beginning.

Hilary Hahn
Violinist Hilary Hahn. Photo by O.J. Slaughter.

The recording that she released just last week actually is called Eclipse. For Hilary, who was just named Musical America’s 2023 Artist of the Year, it was her first-ever recording of three works: Antonin Dvorak's Violin Concerto; Alberto Ginastera’s Violin Concerto; and Pablo de Sarasate's "Carmen Fantasy."

Her original plan had been to perform these works for a full season, then record them. All those concerts would have allowed her the kind of valuable exploration with orchestra that comes only with live performances. But that season and those concerts didn't happen - instead, she had to prepare in isolation. So it took a leap of faith, when she decided to go ahead and record the works with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and its Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada.

"When I got onstage for the Dvorák (live-stream) in April 2021, it was like a jolt of life, as if the world came rushing back in Technicolor," she said. Hilary and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony gave their first post-lockdown concert together in front of an audience two months later, during which their Ginastera and Sarasate performances were recorded live.

Last week I spoke with Hilary over the phone about this special project that marked her return to live performing and recording. For Hilary, the pandemic clarified a certain fact of her life: she needs the stage.

"Emotionally, that's where I can put everything in one certain place, where I can flow it out of me and put it to use," she said. "When I didn't have that, when I didn't have the dynamic of making music with other people, when I wasn't playing music that other people were hearing by listening live, then I just kind of - I wouldn't say 'imploded.' But I felt a little melty inside." (she laughed)

"I felt a little collapse-y and melty and confused, and a little aimless," she said. "But I still knew that I was getting back to it. It was just a matter of, where am I, after all of this? Where have I landed? And who am I, as a musician? I've been going through a lot of personal evolution, but what does it mean in my playing?"

Hilary had performed the Dvorak Violin Concerto many times over her career, even though she had not recorded it. But the Ginastera Concerto was new to her fingers, and learning it in isolation was challenging.

"I was trying, very hard, to learn it during the pandemic," she said, laughing. "It felt like Teflon, but I was trying!" While there are recordings of the Ginastera, Hilary had a different vision for it. That required a little experimentation - and feedback from the orchestra.

In some ways it was like preparing for a world premiere of a piece, she said. "I was trying to do something a little different, so I had to have my own relationship to it," Hilary said, "and there was an element of unknowability until I was able to play it with the orchestra."

"Also, when you play by yourself, you can never replicate what you do physically on the instrument, playing with other people," she said. "Something else gets drawn out of me when I'm in the moment, and that happens in rehearsal. But it never happens in a practice room. You would think that I would have a way to draw it out - no. I just know how to practice so that I'm ready I'm ready to harness it when that kicks in."

The Ginastera Violin Concerto was first performed by violinist Ruggiero Ricci in 1963, with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, which commissioned the work. It's a cool work, but it's not exactly a warm hug.

"For me it feels raw and confrontational - but also like magic," Hilary said. "Often we think of music as dissonant or consonant; tonal or atonal; rhythmic or not rhythmic. But I've stopped using those words because that they are categories that ultimately inhibit how we relate to the music," Hilary said. "Ginastera writes in the service of an emotional reality."

"Ginastera was living in a world that was increasingly connected, multi-faceted and complicated," she said. "In his music, he brings you into emotions that tend to get shoved under the rug. He excavates these emotions and then moves you through them. There is a certain beauty in music that makes you a little bit uncomfortable or maybe catches you off-guard, with either positive or uncomfortable feelings. It reminds you of something that you otherwise might not deal with, then it progresses you into a resolution."

The piece is in three movements, but the first movement is divided into six "Studies" or "Studios" with titles such as Chords, Thirds, Other Intervals, Arpeggios, Harmonics, and Quarter Tones. Each one is "a mini-study on a building block of composition -- things that you think of as really basic and consonant," but Ginastera does something different."

Ginastera uses the building blocks of music to create something unexpected. It could be compared to the way language is used in poetry, as opposed to a short story.

"We think that chords, thirds, etc. are used as building blocks in a certain way, just because that's the tradition," Hilary said, "but a third is a third, and it doesn't really matter what other third it moves to, it's still a third," she said. "He's making a point, that you can also think of it in this other way."

The Dvorak is more of a traditional concerto, by a well-known and well-loved composer. But even so, it has taken this concerto some time to rise to its current level of popularity.

BELOW: From Hilary's April 2021 performance with Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony: the "Finale" from Dvorak's Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53:

"When I was a student, it was not considered mainstream," Hilary said. "Now, everyone knows it." At this point it seems as mainstream as violin concertos by Sibelius, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky, she said. "I've been playing it more and more, and as people comment on it, I see that it's a piece that is really loved. That feeling is in the hall when I play it now. But didn't used to be."

One of the big complaints about the concerto, over the years, has been that it is awkward and doesn't lay well on the violin. But tell that to someone who just mastered the Ginastera concerto....

"What is comfort any more?" she said, laughing. "What fits any more? What are we talking about? Mendelssohn is awkward, we play Ginastera, what even is a normal piece? I can't think of a single piece that I would say across the board is going to be comfortable for everyone, not a single one!"

"Everything is uncomfortable in its own way, and uncomfortable is good," Hilary said. "There are different ways that composers make you feel awkward. Maybe they're not familiar with the instrument - in that case, they are challenging your perception of the instrument, so it's something to engage with. Or, they know the instrument so well, they're doing it on purpose. In that case, it means that they understand how to choreograph your relationship to the instrument for maximum emotional impact. When we are tense physically, it shows in the interpretation. So there is no harm or shame in not feeling comfortable in a piece, it's actually an asset. You just have to learn how to harness it."

"In the Dvorak concerto, if you don't feel 100 percent comfortable with where you're going in it at every given moment, you will lose the audience," Hilary said. "You will lose the thread, and it will feel confusing. The first and second movements can feel like a big run-on sentence before you get to the popular themes of the third movement that everyone's waiting to hear. It's like a singer singing their new work, and then when they get to their big hits from 10 years ago, everyone is singing along! Sometimes the concerto can feel like that. But that's just because you need to break it down."

"The lines are so long in this piece, if you let it try to tell you where the phrase ends, it isn't clear," she said. "It helps to make some executive decisions: here is one of the stories, and here is another story and here is another story. You have to be very clear about it, you change the tempo by chunks, you change your tone by chunks of the piece, and you change the pacing of your phrasing. In some sections I do much longer phrases, and in other sections I do shorter phrases. It becomes super-fun to explore, and before you know it you're at the third movement."

"Also, you have to make sure that your colleagues aren't rolling their eyes at a piece that you love. The second that anyone doubts any piece, the authenticity is lost," Hilary said. "It's not just Dvorak, it's any piece. If you are playing the Tchaikovsky concerto, or if you are playing a Mozart concerto, if you're playing a piece of chamber music and you say, 'Why are we doing this again?' then there's no point. You have to find that thing to relate to and believe in it."

The "Carmen Fantasy," written by 19th century Spanish virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate, takes themes from Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen" and spins them into the kind of technical showpiece that is often used to impress judges at international violin competitions.

It's been in the repertoire so long that the conventions are almost automatic: it's played as a virtuoso vehicle, from a violinistic perspective.

"With 'Carmen,' you have to make a decision as a violinist: are you going to go with the violin traditions, or are you going to go with the opera? Because they are opposite, in many places," Hilary said. "The accents, the articulation - are notably different."

She gave the example of the flute interlude at the beginning of the "Gypsy Song.

In the opera, it has more the spirit of something like the 'Coffee Dance' in the Nutcracker - "it's kind of swanky, a little mysterious, meandering. The energy is on the back of the heels. That's how that starts," she said. "But if you listen to the violinist version, it's often played very fast. It's a mood - so you're not doing a tempo, you're developing a mood. And your colleagues can't just play to accompany you, or it falls flat. It's much harder, musically, to convey the actual opera version on violin, but if you have the right combination of people, it is a great piece when it is thought of that way."

The "Fantasy" focuses primarily on the character of Carmen, thus the name "Carmen Fantasy." "It's about her," Hilary said. For the recording, "I was lucky to have colleagues who were interested in exploring this in-depth, from a character perspective."

"I feel with this album like we made something powerfully beautiful together during a difficult time," Hilary said. "When we played the final note of the Carmen Fantasy, I felt like I’d gone through a huge shift of perspective, through something really challenging, and emerged stronger as a person and a musician. I know why I do what I do, and I'm not letting go."

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October 14, 2022 at 09:22 PM · Very nice interview, thanks Laurie.

My admiration for HH grows not only for her pristine technique but also for her sensibility and fine perception about everything she does on violin playing.

I want to draw special attention to the HR-Sinfonieorchester, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. Such a high grade orchestra with an incredible video library in YouTube with well regarded conductors and soloists. Most concerts are broadcasted live (like today's) and made available for us on high level standards for video and sound - all free of charge or ads.

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