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Hilary Hahn in Celebrity “Encores”


Hillary Hahn (Peter MIller photo)
Hilary Hahn (Peter MIller photo)

Extraordinary violinist Hilary Hahn played Jordan Hall Friday night. Phenomenal prowess, it might be said, was the main attraction. Performance homogeneity dimmed an otherwise richly varied program of short pieces by eight contemporary composers and longer works of Corelli, Bach, and Fauré. Hahn and pianist Cory Smythe at once epitomized radiant youthfulness in their appearance and consummate polish in their delivery.

Interestingly, within several weeks’ time, Celebrity Series of Boston presented another esteemed violinist, Gil Shaham, in a program remarkably similar in its concept, if not markedly dissimilar in execution. [Reviewed here]

Selected shorts from “In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores” came in three clusters. A strong opener, Antón Garcia Abril’s First Sigh and Third Sigh transported us into a nostalgic modernity meshed with mixed mood and character from Hahn who was definitively at one with the piece. Hahn then shifted to erhu (Chinese two-string violin) qualities in Du Yun’s When a Tiger Meets a Rosa Rugosa. Hahn commissioned 26 new works in all from established composers around the world; the 27th would come from a contest drawing over four-hundred entries that she judged herself.

In Sonata No. 4 in F Major from opus 5 of Arcangelo Corelli that followed, Smythe became the focus. An improviser, we are told, he realized the Baroque composer’s figured bass in finely wrought figurations, fluid and stylish, that seemed a good foil to the deeper, slightly darkened bowing art of Hahn.

Their Corelli soundscape continued on into Sonata No. 1 in A Major, op. 13 by Gabriel Fauré. Theirs was a no-nudging no-motive-musing undertaking. They chose French clarity, religiously pursuing all that was immaculate in Fauré. If there were a single moment to point out, it would be the passage just before the Adagio’s close—rapturous playing.

The second cluster of selected shorts included Elliott Sharp’s Storm of the Eye, Kala Ramnath’s Aalap and Tarana, and David Lang’s Light Moving. Ramnath, herself a violinist nurtured in North Indian classical music tradition, called for a plucked piano string that buzzed and droned as an attractive underpinning to scalar replays conjuring her country’s mysticism and beauty. Hahn broke out of that pervading soundscape launched early on in the recital to create an ever-so pleasing and equally attractive meditative state.

The obvious audience favorite would have to have been Johann Sebastian Bach’s Ciaconna—more usually thought of as “Chaconne—from Partita No. 2, in D minor, BWV 1004. The Hilary Hahn followers at Jordan instantly bounded to their feet, the final note hardly over, cheering and applauding. Here and elsewhere, despite the recital’s concept and technical benchmarks, both Hahn’s and Smythe’s playing felt all too planned and beauty-charged, surreal.

The third and final cluster of “encores” included Hollywood’s James Newton Howard’s 133…At Least, Jeff Myers The Angry Birds of Kauai, and Mason Bates Ford’s Farm, which had the most American feel to it of all the American composers in these selected shorts.

Informative program notes from Hahn speak to the background of the clustered shorts, “I was curious where the new encore collections were. I realized that while I would hear people play new encores after concertos, I just wasn’t; feeling that people were aware that new pieces could be written as encores and could really catch on.” So, by now you might be asking if Hillary Hahn was brought back for an encore. The answer is yes she was, and yes it was yet another “encore” piece from “In 27 Pieces.” Why not a surprise instead?

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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  1. The criticism of a choice of encore seems somewhat perverse. Hahn played nine new works in the main part of her program, possibly a Jordan Hall record. What would have constituted “a surprise” ? Something familiar ?

    I think she is taking an interesting and honorable approach to dealing with the problem of repertoire exhaustion that often confronts soloists that start their careers so young (I will avoid the word prodigy; she is still, and always will be, a prodigy). This is particularly hard for violinists. There are only so many violin concertos that audiences are interested in hearing, and thus that orchestras are willing to program. It’s a difficult genre for the composer – from the high classical period on, the soloist is expected to be set forward, apart from or even against the rest of the orchestra, while playing the same instrument as a third of its members.The very difficulty of pulling this off has led to some ingenious solutions, but even Beethoven only tried it once.
    The recital literature is even sparser for the true soloist who is not a baroque specialist, because the real masterpieces of the “violin sonata” literature are chamber works. One occasionally encounters a performance of, say, the Kreutzer Sonata, in which the pianist plays the role of accompanist, but one shouldn’t. For better or worse, the audience for a Violin Recital expects works in which the violin is paramount. There are only so many of these that are genuinely interesting works, and Hahn has decided to deal with this sparsity by sponsoring the enrichment of the repertoire. We should all be thankful. I found every one of the works to be interesting, involving, and exciting. I look forward to her recording of the complete set.

    I think Mr Patterson describes the Fauré well. I was distracted from the Corelli by a high-pitched whine that I think may have been feedback from a hearing aid. Of course if the piece had been more interesting I might not have noticed it

    I am surprised at Mr. Patterson’s remarks about the Ciacconna, which seem dismissive. This was without question the most extraordinary live performance of this extraordinary work I have ever heard (not excluding Gidon Kremer at Longy last year). Many performances capture some aspect or another brilliantly, but this one seemed to comprehend them all and discover new ones never before imagined. At times it seemed like there were three or four voices in conversation, each different, each essential. There was a beauty and clarity of tone that did not mute the harsh attack of the double-stopping, but only put it into higher relief. Above all there was a true development, a balancing of the different parts of the work so it does not become just a set of variations, sustained always by the constant rhythmic ground that was always present even when it could not be heard. I am not a Hilary Hahn “follower” (that sounds too much like a stalker, and she probably has enough of those), but I did take my feet (though only after a decent interval, to show I am one of the select few that takes their standing ovations seriously). I am shy about such behavior, but after such a performance I didn’t know what else to do.

    Comment by SamW — March 3, 2013 at 12:02 pm

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