Violinist Hilary Hahn: Taking It All In

Marianne Lipanovich on May 22, 2012
Hilary Hahn
Hilary Hahn
Photo by Peter Miller

Violinist Hilary Hahn returns to the Bay Area to perform with the San Francisco Symphony from Thursday through Sunday of this week. She’s a Bay Area favorite, and a quick search on her website can lead you to a number of interviews and reviews that highlight both her prodigious talent and her diversity of interests.

That diversity also means that something new and something exciting is always going on in Hahn’s life. Her 2011 release of a recording of Charles Ives’ four sonatas and her ambitious 27 Encores commissions are top of the list, as is the just-released collaboration with modern German composer Hauschka, Silfra. Add in her Postcards project, her YouTube channel in which she does the interviews, and her hectic touring schedule, and, to really catch up with her and her work, your best bet is constantly checking her website.

Still, she did give SFCV some of her time and a few of her thoughts before taking off to catch her next plane. What’s clear, as she talks about her upcoming performance and current projects, is that, as she says, music for her is always varied. “There’s a sense of discovery.” She brings that sense of discovery with her, whether she’s performing familiar pieces or introducing an audience to something new and completely different.

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You’re an old hand at these interviews, so I’ll try not to ask questions you’ve already answered. But first, welcome back. You’re always a popular performer here.

Thank you. I’ve been touring with my Encores project, and a lot of the sponsors from that project are in the San Francisco area. I like the audience and love working with the [San Francisco Symphony] orchestra.

What excites you about this upcoming program?

I’m doing Prokofiev [Violin Concerto No. 1]. It’s something my teacher loved. He had learned it when the piece was very new. It’s beautiful and vibrant.

This is reasonably well-known, but you often do pieces that aren’t familiar to classical audiences. Does the reaction vary from when you perform a well-known piece?

I’m not sure. A lot depends on how the audience reacts. Even with a well-known piece, you still have to reach out to them. With something new, it’s fresh, and you can enjoy each new note as a surprise. In a way, it might remind them of something they know.

[With any piece] every one is different. I try for a freshness.

How did your interest in more-unusual or less-played pieces begin?

I think it’s more me being curious with what’s around me. I grew up with a lot of the works. Some pieces are violin/violinist pieces you don’t hear a lot, like the Ives sonatas. That was utter curiosity that turned into a recital project. Sometimes you get into a project with a certain flow and it makes sense to take it into the studio. You can’t do that with everything, but there are things that make sense to do.

Your latest project is Silfra, with Hauschka [the alias of Düsseldorf-based pianist/composer Volker Bertelmann], released May 22.

That began as a three-year experiment. A friend introduced us and we went to three of each other’s performances. We wanted to work together and had ideas. So it began as a rehearsal experiment. Next, we wanted to take this musical language we were developing into the studio. It feels fresh. We’re coming at things from a different direction.

There’s also your Encores project. There was a competition contest for the last piece that was announced on your website.

That’s going well! There are 400-something entries. I’m going over them now.

One of my points in doing this was to increase focus on the encore renewing itself. There are classic encores, but we need to keep having new ones created, new pieces that will be classics in 200 years. It has to be a spectrum and capture something in its essence of the music being created today.

I can’t play all 400 pieces, but the composers can take the pieces to others, and we still have 400 new pieces created over a two- to three-year span. It’s part of the openness of the classical genre.

Even with a well-known piece, you still have to reach out to the audience.

So people are sending you actual compositions?

Yes. There’s all this new talent! It’s been fun. It’s anonymous. Every time I open a file, I have no idea what I’m going to see. Before, when I commission a work from a composer, there’s an expectation based on the composer’s work, even if what you get surprises you.

One contemporary composer you’ve worked with is Jennifer Higdon, who is delightful [their collaboration won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize]. She was also a teacher of yours. What is it like working with her as a colleague?

It’s very similar to her as a teacher. She taught the fourth year of music history, the 20th century. She would give people’s questions her energy and time, and answer them thoroughly. She didn’t just lecture.

With her own music, she’s very open. Don’t get me wrong; She’s very authoritative. She knows what she wants and is very specific in her reasoning, which helps you understand. Some composers are more effect-based, but she has a reason for each note.

It must be nice at times to be able to know what the composer is trying for by actually asking them. You can’t really do that with Bach.

It’s an added bonus, but at the same time, there’s still a lot open to interpretation. I like asking composers a couple of years later about their work. Sometimes they know exactly what they wanted, sometimes they look at notes, sometimes they leave it open. I’m curious, so I just ask people things. It’s interesting to hear what people think about their work.

You’re known for being very adept with social media. I love your Postcards project.

Thanks. I’ve been mainly focusing on my YouTube channel, but I need to get back to that.

There’s all this new talent! It’s been fun.

What I find most interesting are the tweets from your violin case. Is it he, she, it?

I’m not sure either [said thoughtfully].

How else would I know that you were booked on a flight that doesn’t exist?


And I’m thinking that the recommendation for a dark-cocoa nail polish might be my summer color.

It’s great for evenings and also casual.

But, for me, the most exciting part of the tweets is that the violin case was “watching” the Giro d’Italia. Is it still watching?

Well, I was in Europe, where you can watch all these sports. Here in the U.S., there isn’t the coverage. The great thing about being in Europe for the Olympics is that it’s not so many stories, and more coverage of all these sports. You can watch all the rowing or all the races at the velodrome.

You started the violin at age 4 and did your first performance at age 6. What do you remember about that? Any stage fright?

I remember being superexcited and supernervous, but when I got out there, I loved it. I wanted to do it again.

I know there are people who suffer from stage fright. I find them very heroic.

I like sitting in one place and watching things that happen. I like reading.

There’s also the energy of having other people on stage. During a performance, you’re more aware of each other. That always changes from rehearsal.

Are there any other instruments you play or want to play?

I took piano for five or six years, and I liked it, but it wasn’t the right instrument for me. I kind of collect instruments. I like the different timbres. I have a mandolin, banjo, harmonica.… I end up strumming a note or two, then don’t know what to do.

There’s often a piano in my dressing room. I don’t remember what I learned, but if there’s a book of beginning piano pieces, I’ll play them. Slowly.

You’re touring so much, I wonder if you actually have spare time, but what do you do to relax?

I like taking videos when I’m out and about. I like sitting in one place and watching things that happen. I like reading. I’m reading the newest Anne Tyler, and [John Steinbeck’s] Winter of Our Discontent. I like to take books on the road, either paper or electronic. I like to write.

I like to keep it simple, and make the most of my time.