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.