Violinist Hilary Hahn’s incredible range of musical interests was on display in a Saturday night recital at the SFJAZZ Center presented by San Francisco Performances. Mixing in several of the encore pieces she commissioned for a 2013 album project, Hahn ranged from the zen wanderings of John Cage's Six Melodies to works by Bach and Schumann.
The Cage melodies are based on an obscure mathematical game, with the composer yielding control to a preordained process as the intervals and rhythms are composed through a formula. Hahn played the piece without vibrato and a pale tone — a stoic take with many shades of pianissimo.
As Hahn’s recital progressed, the intensity level slowly notched up. David Lang’s Light Moving, one of the encore commissions, is a virtuosic moto perpetuo, sounding like it’s based on the “perfect intervals” — lots of fourths, fifths, and octaves. The absence of thirds that denote the traditional major-minor harmonies gave the piece a transparent feel. The aptness of the title showed in this open harmony combined with the persistent speed and bright clarity in Hahn’s and accompanying pianist Cory Smythe’s execution.
Moto perpetuo was also one of Bach’s favorite genres, and the commonality between Light Moving and the Prelude to Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major was palpable. Hahn is famous for her solo Bach interpretations. She played with calm yet alert poise, emoting without going overboard; though sometimes I wish she would go overboard a little more. Hahn is famous for her solo Bach interpretations. She played with calm yet alert poise, emoting without going overboard; though sometimes I wish she would go overboard a little more.
She gradually allowed vibrato at some cadences, but still it was applied cautiously. The main hall at the SFJAZZ Center gives the performer no help with reverb; it is intimate but dry. Yet even without piano backing, the hand-twisting quadruple-stops of the Bach resonated sweetly in her relaxed and malleable arms.
After intermission, Hahn and Smythe played Debussy’s violin sonata. Hahn opened up not only the vibrato, but also a colorful array of sound effects through various bow techniques. Lera Auerbach’s Speak, Memory is another of Hahn’s personally commissioned miniatures, this one searing in its intensity. Though conceived as encores, Hahn has put her personalized little pieces to good use as palate cleansers in between larger works.
The finale was Schumann's Sonata No. 1 in A Minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 105, in which Hahn’s use of vibrato and deep, dark tone reached its climax. Hahn covered a lot of ground on this recital, showcasing versatility and stamina. She took the audience on a giant crescendo of a journey spanning hundreds of years involving many different characters.
Draped in an elegantly flowing burgundy chiffon shawl over a beige gown, Hahn had the appearance of a musical priestess. Having performed this mammoth program more than a dozen times all over the world this season, interspersed with orchestral concerto appearances and all while pregnant, the superwoman seemed understandably tired. Yet still she managed to come back for another encore, Hilary’s Hoedown by Mark-Anthony Turnage.