in: Reviews

June 22, 2012

Hahn, Hauschka Promote Silfra at ICA

by

Violinist Hilary Hahn and German pianist Hauschka performed for a not-quite-but-almost-full house at the Institute of Contemporary Art yesterday evening. Against the backdrop of Boston Harbor, the two musicians finished up an international tour to promote their new album, Silfra, an intriguing recording of collaborative improvisation.

One is reticent to call it a trend, but there does seem to be a self-consciousness amongst classical musicians these days, as the old “classical music is dying” arguments get recycled. Younger musicians, in particular, seem to be stepping outside boxes — not just in the music they explore, but in the way they present themselves. Hahn and Hauschka’s approach to the evening was less formal concert and more jam session. There was no program, and while both artists provided conversational banter between sets, there was no attempt to lecture upon or define what was taking place on stage.

Hahn is smart. She isn’t ceremonial about her risks — she just plays. And it is because of this that there is an organic sincerity to the collaboration — Hauschka and Hahn are interested in making music, not shock-and-awe. The 32-year old violinist, decked out in boots and a festive-print sundress, commanded the stage with her gifts of phrasing and tone, while Hauschka (the performing name of Volker Bertelmann), reinvigorated the prepared piano not as an archaic oddity courtesy of John Cage but as a viable new instrument unto itself. His playing didn’t have the sort of self-congratulatory aggression one often encounters in performers too busy trying to be “edgy.” With a preparation that included (at times) ping pong balls and assorted electronic devices, Hauschka’s sound was rich and fluid, giving voice to the unorthodox timbres which arguably have a rightful place among the more traditional sounds of conventional instruments. In this way he honors Cage’s legacy, even if his music is very different in both sound and concept. It is unfortunate that Thursday night’s performance conflicted with Steffen Schleiermacher’s SICPP performance (featuring two of Cage’s pieces for piano, among other works), as I’m sure there were many, like myself, who wished to be in two places at once.

In part due to the theater space at the ICA, the piano was sometimes too loud, smothering Hahn’s contributions (even though her violin was miked). But these moments were few, and the music gave ample evidence of the listening abilities of the two performers, as they wove tapestries from each other’s threads. The repertoire drew upon works from the album and that which they had played in the tour but were created anew, as is the nature of improvisation. Hahn said she wanted to bring the “freshness” of the process of “creating the album from scratch” to each performance. She revealed a stylistic and technical smorgasbord of shimmering harmonics, undulating tremolos, and stunning lyricism. Hauschka often provided some sort of ostinato, so characteristic of post-minimalism, and Hahn’s contributions were primarily melodic and motivic. Her sustained notes seemed to take on a life of its own, static but never stagnant. She knew exactly what sound image she needed from her instrument, and her control was all in her breath and bowing, sans facial theatrics. Hahn’s playing in the fourth piece was particularly dynamic, beginning with something akin to a modal spaghetti western theme, then launching into a romantic Casablanca-esque bit of nostalgia. The middle set, as Hahn explained, showcased “a little more solo” playing, and both artists clearly took full advantage of this. Hahn no doubt pleased many in the audience with some fireworks that included a rhythmic beating on the fingerboard with her fourth and fifth fingers while playing maddeningly fast ostinati. She was, after all, the “draw” for many in attendance.

While waiting in the stairwell for the hall to open, one woman explained to a passerby that the line was for the concert with Hilary Hahn and “some German guy whose name I can’t pronounce.” But the “German guy” was not background for the shining virtuoso—the two performers had a symbiotic collaboration. Their work was most effective when both violin and piano were textural rather than melodic. Most of the pieces offered little in the way of harmonic interest, which was soothed by the final work on the program. As part of this piece, Hauschka unceremoniously “de-prepared” the piano, throwing those ping-pong balls and various other preparations onto the stage as he played against Hahn’s steady two-note patterns. The piano, now unadorned, seemed to revel in its freedom, and the rich harmonies proudly celebrated the instrument’s innate capabilities. Hahn’s violin, meanwhile, provided dissonant counterpoint, and after the hypnotic harmonies of most of the pieces on the program, the tension was welcome.

The piano did not remain naked for long; the encore featured Hauschka cutting duct tape with his teeth and laying it across the strings while motioning for Hahn to start. She and Hauschka delivered an encore with all the requisite speed and virtuosity, but with an added celebration of sound itself, from the ripping sound of the duct tape to Hahn’s superhuman tremolos. But for all the virtuosity evident on stage, excessive theatrics were notably absent.

At one point earlier in the evening, Hauschka mused upon the logistical difficulties in transporting his electronic gear on tour. The equipment, which appeared both inside and outside the piano, is his own, and he humbly offered that lugging it around made him second guess the sanity of touring with prepared piano. After Hauschka’s good-natured bellyaching, Hahn got a good laugh when she said to the audience, “So you’d better enjoy it!” And this is how the evening was — unrehearsed, spontaneous, at times as serene as it was electrifying. Hahn and Hauschka have dimmed the metaphorical stage lights and the pomp of concertizing, and they offered a little bit of the fun that, ostensibly, musicians first enjoyed when they picked up their instruments.

Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculties of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory, where, this semester, she is teaching a course on Cage.

5 Comments

  1. I also enjoyed the concert and hearing Hillary Hahn in that setting was quite special. But I was distressed at the “sometimes too loud” piano. I wonder where the reviewer was sitting…I was about 6 rows back from the front, dead center. Without the visual cue that Hahn was actually playing, it often would have been hard to discern that she was. I spoke with a few members of the audience sitting near me, and they had the same impression. Others sitting elsewhere may have had a different experience. I was hoping for an intermission to talk with the fellow at the mixing panel, but there was no intermission. I suspect that there is indeed something odd about the sound dispersion in the space…I can’t imagine the sound technician or the performers intended what we, in the middle of the audience, were hearing.

    Comment by Bob Domnitz — June 22, 2012 at 6:03 pm

  2. Hi Bob,
    I was sitting about 12 rows back, dead center. My guess is that the issue was the same for almost everyone. I think it is a difficult thing to try to balance, in that space in particular. Hauschka probably could have taken it down a couple of notches, but I worry that kicking up Hahn’s volume would have distorted her tone too much. Please report back if you hear about the experience from the sides or other locations in the audience. I’ve never been to that space before and will be curious if it is a general issue with the hall. Thanks for your comment!

    Comment by Rebecca Marchand — June 25, 2012 at 9:08 pm

  3. Thanks for the review, Rebecca!
    Too bad about the sound issues. It seems like they’ve hit several bumps along the road with this show, but the album rocks, and they did a really good version of the jams on WNYC’s Newsounds podcast.
    Did Hilary use the wah-wah pedal for any of the improvs, and also did she play anything solo at this show?
    I would have loved to have seen this!

    Comment by Chris McGovern — June 27, 2012 at 12:01 am

  4. Hello,

    I am Hilary’s current recording producer, and was the mixer for the Silfra shows in the US.
    Thank you for the favorable review. It is unfortunate that much of the audience continue to be ignorant of “the German guy”, Volker, and these shows are mixed to be equal in pairing. As the album reflects, their lines dynamically fade into each other, and often the orchestra of sound that comes from the piano will envelop the violin. They request that the shows be balanced as such to allow the motions to carry the audience. ICA is an amazingly beautiful venue, but was the most tricky to mix in for various reasons. Pending on location, the sound was perfect, others, closer to the stage found it difficult. I encourage the feedback so I can work to make the experience better the next go around.
    All the best and enjoy!

    Andreas

    Comment by Andreas Meyer — July 3, 2012 at 7:02 am

  5. Going back to early shows at the ICA. Bruce Brubaker and Nico Muhly played a show with live acoustic piano and electronics and it was amazingly transparent and easy to hear everything. So it’s possible in that space… :)

    Comment by Erin — July 5, 2012 at 3:04 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.