INTERVIEW: Hilary Hahn
Benaroya Hall, Seattle
Benaroya Hall, Seattle
This season, Seattle audiences are being treated to performances by some of the world’s greatest musical artists. Among them is three-time Grammy Award-winning virtuoso violinist Hilary Hahn, named “America’s Best Young Classical Musician” by Time magazine in 2001, who in her impressive career track thus far has garnered the highest praise from audiences and critics alike.
On Sun., Oct. 30, Hahn will join with brilliant pianist Robert Levin for a solo violin and piano recital at Benaroya Hall. The diverse program, which includes iconic works by J.S. Bach, Mozart and Schubert, also features the Seattle premiere of Solo Violin Partita No. 4 (“Art”) by contemporary Spanish composer Antón García Abril, as well as a solo piano turn by Levin in Hans Peter Türk’s Träume, dedicated by the composer to Levin.
Not only is Hahn an extraordinary artist, she is also an astonishingly perceptive young woman, as I discovered in the interview below.
EM: You started studying Suzuki violin at age 3. Where did you grow up, and what do you remember about your first lessons at that incredibly young age?
HH: I grew up in Baltimore. There was a branch of Peabody Prep just down the street from where we were living at the time. They had a sign up advertising the Suzuki program. That’s how I started [Laughs). I also had lessons on campus there. I remember the practice rooms. I think one time I went to my teacher’s house and she had a cat that wandered through the room [Laughs]. I don’t know why I remember that. But I loved the group classes. How familiar are you with Suzuki?
EM: I never studied it, but I’m quite familiar. I remember reading and hearing about it when it started to become popular.
HH: For me what was really great about it was that I had private and group lessons every week. I really looked forward to the group classes. The private lessons made it possible to not get lost in a group. I think it’s really a good combination of things. I listened to the tapes as I went to sleep at night, so I got the music in my head. I would go to the group class and hear other kids play the pieces and I would play the ones I’d learned, and you sit and watch or listen to other kids playing the pieces that are coming up for you. It’s a really good way of positively motivating people, but also making sure they have the individual guidance they need. I did that for about a year and a half. I actually met my teacher, Klara Berkovich, at a Suzuki day program in the summer. She was giving a master class. She wasn’t a particularly Suzuki method teacher, but had taught for 25 years in St. Petersburg, had just emigrated to the States and was teaching and giving master classes at Peabody Prep. We continued with the Suzuki books for a bit to stay on track with the repertoire I was looking forward to. She introduced pieces she’d taught in Russia and gradually we phased out of the Suzuki books and on to her more typical curriculum as a teacher of young violinists.
EM: As a young violinist, which violinists did you most look up to?
HH: Of course I had the great old recordings to refer to. Berkovich encouraged me to listen to Heifetz, Oistrakh, and her heroes - the Russian violinists. I don’t remember who gave me most of these - it could have been her - but for as long as I can remember, certain recordings have been in my life. I don’t remember where they came from, they were just there [Laughs]. Grumiaux, Milstein. Szeryng, his Bach recordings - all the classic old recordings. Those are the things I grew up on. I had a soft spot for those. There are great contemporary recordings as well, but those are the ones I’m sentimentally attached to as well as knowing the influences those players had on my teachers and on me. When I started studying with Jascha Brodsky at Curtis, I listened to a lot of Kreisler and Elman. Mr. Brodsky would tell me stories about his colleagues - he was born in 1907, so his colleagues of a generation higher, or his age or a little bit younger were those recording artists. So I felt more of a personal connection to them as well.
EM: I can relate to that. My parents came from Russia and my father was my first violin teacher.
HH: Oh my goodness!
EM: Those recordings were just always there, especially Heifetz and Oistrakh. I remember thinking, “If I could grow up and play one note like Oistrakh I’d be happy.”
HH: [Laughs.] Yes. When you have a teacher who is part of a tradition, the other people in that tradition are such stars. You just look at them like pop stars. It’s really cool to be able to listen to those recordings that were made so long ago.
EM: They kind of live forever.
HH: They do!
EM: You’re not only talented on the violin, you’re multitalented in so many ways. You play piano, speak German and French impeccably and are a gifted writer, among other things. How do you balance the many aspects of your artistic life?
HH: Not all of them are at one time [Laughs]. If you’re curious about stuff, you like to learn, you start taking classes, you go to the summer program and practice and prepare for your next lesson or whatever. If you do enough of that you acquire things along the way. I think everyone has a collection of things that makes them who they are. That may be stuff they’ve spent a lot of time on, or just good at. Everyone has interests. I think if you look carefully enough you see people are quite multitalented and accomplished. I actually didn’t like writing as a kid, but then I had a couple of classes at the Curtis Institute of Music where I got to do creative writing. It wasn’t all about essays or tests, the sort of dry writing that I’d thought of as writing. It was more like a poetry workshop, a fiction workshop. It was really great because the teachers were professional writers, so I got to see what it’s like to be a creative writer, how I think about things. Curtis is small, so those were also very small classes and electives. It was really a great way to be exposed to those subjects. As a result, I wound up really enjoying writing. It’s a creative outlet for me.
EM: Creative writing is really the best.
HH: You can do what you want to do with it. You’re not bound by other people’s expectations.
EM: I’ve been reading your blogs, and I’m very impressed, but on top of that you’ve played almost 1600 concerts in 43 countries. Oh my goodness.
HH: [Laughs] It just adds up. One after the other, before you know it. It’s funny. I bet if you counted up the number of times you went to the grocery store you’d be astounded. You don’t think, “Oh, the 300th time I’m at the grocery store.” But if you actually counted them up you’d be pretty impressed with yourself. [Laughs].
EM: Hilary, you’re incredibly modest. It’s not quite the same. On the subject of food, I read that you cook your own soup in your hotel rooms.
HH: I haven’t done that lately. My luggage was getting voluminous. I had to minimize a bit. When you’re on the road you have to find solutions to challenges, especially in an intense orchestral tour. They’re probably the busiest ones, because when you’re touring with an orchestra as a guest soloist the concerts are almost every day and you travel basically on their schedule, so you travel during the day. So logistically you arrive at a time when, for example in Europe, the kitchens are closed because it’s the middle of the afternoon and that’s when you eat lunch because you arrive at 1 and get to the hotel at 2. You need to nap somehow and you need to practice and you’re going to be at the hall for sound check when the restaurants open again. So what are you going to eat - because you didn’t have time to bring stuff with you in your carry-on. I found it pretty convenient to just have a little rice cooker that I make soup in. It has an automatic shutoff, you just put in whatever you like and it keeps it warm for you! Noodles, rice, vegetables. And it turns out pretty well.
EM: I’m impressed that you’re able to think of those things. With the kind of schedule you have it must be very important to maintain your health in order to sustain your active artistic lifestyle? Do you feel that’s an aspect people don’t always address?
HH: It’s very challenging. There just isn’t enough time in the day to do everything that would be ideal. I think it’s the case for everyone with any career, finding the time to do your exercise, eat right, sleep enough, do the life stuff that comes up, do your work, have time with your friends and family - all of that, and other things along the way, too. You can’t do them everyday, you just do your best. I think it’s the same on the road. For me I’ve managed to figure out a way to combine things that I like and am very fortunate that my career enables me to determine what parts of my career I go into more deeply. So my interests are usually reflected in the activities I’m engaging in. I have an outlet for writing if I want, I get to play music, to travel [Laughs]. I work with people and with friends, I wind up traveling to places where my cousins, aunts and uncles live. Sometimes we have a little family reunion because I’m going to places where a couple of them are going to be for a concert, and everyone is like, “Hey, you’re all going to be there so we’ll come and visit.” It actually makes possible a lot of the things I enjoy. I’m very fortunate.
EM: And they’re very fortunate to be part of your family. Let’s talk about the very ambitious program you’ve chosen for your recital this week.
EM: We’re all so excited to hear you. How do you choose your repertoire for your solo concerts, as opposed to which concertos you’re going to play with orchestra?
HH: This is a duo concert. When I do a concert with someone else I do try to consider the collaboration and their interests and their favorite repertoire. Also things I want to do that I haven’t done yet, or stuff I’d like to try again. So I start with a big range of things and gradually narrow it down. Sometimes there’s a piece or pieces I really want to do for several seasons in a row but it just never quite fit into the program, so I keep it on the back burner for another season. You can’t do everything in one program [Laughs].
EM: If anyone could, you could.
HH: [Laughs] Oh no, I have my limits. I have to consider the audience of course. So there’s a lot of consideration involved. I try to keep the program as consistent as possible throughout, so I’m not coming up with a lot of different programs to juggle over the course of a season.
EM: As is often traditional for a violin recital, you will begin with Bach. Violinist to violinist, could you speak to the importance of his music to a violinist’s development?
HH: Sure. This is actually the first Bach duo sonata I’ve ever worked on. I’m really grateful for this collaboration with Robert Levin because I think he has so much knowledge of Bach and Mozart and everything he’s studied. I wanted to learn more about these duo works, so I’m so glad to be able to explore that with him. Bach in general was so good with the violin. He just finds the genius way around his music on the instrument. When you think about the fact that the instrument has changed significantly since he wrote for it and his music still really works, it’s brilliant. He was definitely ahead of his time. There’s something so satisfying about his music. It’s beautifully organized and emotional at the same time. I find it highly exciting [Laughs]. You’re not guessing what you’re supposed to be thinking when you’re listening to it, you’re not trying to figure it out. You’re just in the music. That enables the music to speak more directly to the listener. As a player you realize how progressive his music is because it changes harmonically and melodically in ways that you don’t expect when you’re looking at the page for the first time. Your job as a player is to find those turns of phrase and harmony and make them more put-together, but also use them to bring more color to your own playing. He created a lot of those artistic opportunities.
EM: Yes, most violinists relate to that.
HH: The solo works are so definitive. There is a small violinistic tradition of a set of six, as you know - Bach, Ysaÿe. I asked Antón García Abril to write a set of six solo polyphonic works for me, my first solo commission, also my first commission of a set of pieces from the same composer. I started premiering the first three last season and this season I’m doing the second three. I’m doing the 4th one on this program.
EM: How did you first become interested in García Abril’s music?
HH: It was when I was in Spain that I heard and saw his music for the first time. He’s written a lot for singers and is very aware of what an instrument can do, especially the colors. He’s very impressionistic, abstract, very intuitive emotionally as a composer. The interpretation is incredibly free. You look at the page and it’s really only a starting point. Everything else is emotion, and a great deal of freedom and impulse. I find these pieces in particular, because they’re solo, have endless possibilities for interpretation.
EM: And written for you, uniquely based on different aspects of your persona.
HH: Yes, he wrote an acrostic of the titles out of my first name. “Heart, Immensity, Love, Art, Reflective and You.” Especially the one titled “You” is for me [Laughs] but it’s also the general “You” of the audience. I didn’t think about that when I commissioned him to write a set of six, that my first name had six letters. But he’s very sweet and thoughtful, so I guess he just wanted to make that gesture, which is really kind.
EM: I’ve noticed you seem to have a keenness for contemporary music in general, having commissioned concertos by Jennifer Higdon and Edgar Meyer, not to mention being a rock band aficionado. Where did your interest originate?
HH: Edgar Meyer’s violin concerto was the first piece of contemporary music I worked on in any depth. I was 18 or 19. My teacher, Jascha Brodsky, played Prokofiev #1 in Paris as the final round of a competition and Prokofiev was in the front row. The piece had just been written. For him the music was very much alive that he had a personal connection to. For me it’s probably more than the idea that, “Oh, we need something new.” For me it’s not about “new,” it’s about the continuum of classical music. If there’s a gap in what’s being written right now there’s going to be a gap in history when we’re looking back. I think it’s really important to play the range of eras and of style. If there’s a project you would like to do as an active artist today, I think it should be encouraged, because it’s something you can offer to the span of classical music if your idea comes to life.
EM: What are you looking forward to in the near future?
HH: I’ve started doing artist residencies. I have one in Seattle this season, and one in Lyon. I’m looking forward to developing with those locations and the presenters, local activities as well as the planned concerts connected to them. I started with my first residency last season at the Konzerthaus in Vienna. It was really great to work with an organization more in depth than just for my visit. That’s really exciting for me [Laughs]. I’ve got these partitas that I’m completing the premieres of this season. That’s very satisfying. I feel it’s indescribable when you have a commission in your hands. You have this new music that exists now that didn’t before, and it’s out there in the world, and it’s alive. It’s really quite an extraordinary feeling.
EM: It is, and you’re making history. Hilary, thank you for all your insights. This has been so much fun.
HH: Yes!! Thank you so much.
Hilary Hahn in Recital - Hilary Hahn, violin, Robert Levin, piano: Sunday, October 30, 2 pm, at Benaroya Hall
Photo credits: Michael Patrick O’Leary
Erica can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org