Interview: Hilary Hahn

Hilary Hahn joins her alma mater in a Pulitzer-winning concerto at Carnegie Hall.

HAHN SOLO Violinist Hilary Hahn champions a work custom-made for her by an illustrious professor.

HAHN SOLO Violinist Hilary Hahn champions a work custom-made for her by an illustrious professor. Photograph: Peter Miller / DG

Carnegie Hall; Tue 15

When Hilary Hahn released her debut recording, in 1997, the then teenage violinist proved that she was more than just another horse on the child-prodigy carousel. Moving beyond an all-Bach debut, Hahn spent her twenties exploring unusual (and unusually expressive) concerto pairings for recording projects. There was the massive Brahms matched with quirky Stravinsky, and the thorny Schoenberg tempered with the luscious Sibelius. Those offbeat juxtapositions gave audiences an altered, if not elevated, listening experience—no small feat with repertoire that had been recorded by others dozens of times already.

Yet Hahn owes some of her familiarity with great composers to Jennifer Higdon, the Curtis Institute of Music professor who introduced the violinist to 20th-century music when she was a student there. "She was really about hearing, and about picking out what you specifically notice about the composer," Hahn explains via phone from a concert stop in Leipzig, Germany. "If I hadn't had that, I don't think I would have had the same context [in programming]. She really kind of set me up for this whole perception thing."

Hurtling forward into the new century, this week Hahn gives the New York premiere of Higdon's Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall with her alma mater's orchestra. Composed specifically for Hahn, the concerto contains nods to Curtis—the first movement, titled "1726," is the school's Philadelphia address—and to musical individualists befitting Hahn's personality (look for knitting needles in the percussion section). After a successful string of first listens in New York and Europe plus a formidable recording released last year (coupled with Tchaikovsky's colorful Violin Concerto), the piece netted Higdon the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for music. The work is now making its final rounds on what Hahn jokingly calls the "premiere tour," with dates in Philadelphia and New York.

"It's such a meaty piece," Hahn says of Higdon's work. "You hear something different each time." Indeed, Higdon's concerto is vibrant and kinetic, certain to heat up Carnegie Hall on a cold weeknight in February, and almost begs for those repeated listens with its artfully layered details and harmonics. "She immediately grabs attention to draw people in, and it's really quite a tour de force," Hahn adds. "It goes through a huge range of emotions and ideas...and she ties them all together."

Though Hahn has played the concerto with several orchestras—including the co-commissioning ensembles in Indianapolis, Toronto and Baltimore—her performances with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra (which also offers up Hindemith's Konzertmusik and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 for the occasion) mark a poignant homecoming: Hahn's not just an alumna of the institute, but also a former member of the orchestra. She remembers performing in the violin section for the premiere of Ned Rorem's 1991 Piano Concerto for Left Hand with soloist Gary Graffman at Carnegie, and counts herself lucky to have had those ensemble experiences. Her gratitude shows: Hahn's impressive presence as a soloist is partly due to her ability to engage in a dialogue with the orchestra, rather than float in isolation as a lone island in a symphonic sea.

This is not to say that solo work is beyond Hahn's purview. Her next commissioning project, just announced, involves handpicking composers to write encore pieces for her to perform and ultimately record. These short pieces, often thought of as a dessert to the fuller musical meal, reflect Hahn's dedication to expanding the repertoire and musical language. Tired of the usual suspects, she started to contemplate bringing new encore works into the fold a decade ago, and began the process in earnest more recently.

"I got a dark-chocolate bar for caffeine and a cup of tea without caffeine," she says, laughing, "and I would sit until three or four in the morning, listening to all the different composers I could find. Eventually it just became clear to me which pieces really resonated." So far, 26 composers have signed on, forming a diverse list that includes Krzysztof Penderecki, David Lang, Nico Muhly, Lera Auerbach and yes, Jennifer Higdon. "I'm very much enjoying the projects that I'm doing these days," Hahn says of her ongoing voyage of discovery. "I've done a fair number of things, and there's still a lot I want to explore. So it's a good point right now."

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