Hilary Hahn Takes Center Stage With L.A. Chamber Orchestra

Jim Farber on October 2, 2018
Hilary Hahn | Credit: Michael Patrick O'Leary

The big black letters on the marquis of the Alex Theatre — an art deco landmark on Glendale’s Brand Ave. — read “Hilary Hahn Plays Bach.” It also could have mentioned that the evening was the opening concert of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s 51st season.

Hilary Hahn was 23 when she first performed with the musicians of LACO, an association that has continued for 15 years. But as LACO concertmaster Margaret Batjer recalled during the pre-concert talk Saturday, she first heard Hahn perform the Beethoven Violin Concerto when Hahn was a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Instantly aware that she was witnessing a rising star, Batjer arranged for Hahn to make her debut with LACO. Together in 2003 they performed and recorded Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, BWV 1043, with Jeffrey Kahane conducting.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra | Credit: Michael Burke

As a young violinist, Hahn displayed a level maturity well beyond her years. So it was intriguing to hear Batjer observe that since they first performed together, Hahn has matured greatly as a musician. “She was always mature,” she grants. “But now she’s even more sure of herself and willing to take risks.” That caught my attention.

The performance of the Bach double concerto that followed combined the elements of a joyful reunion with an emotionally expressive, high-flying performance during which it became abundantly clear the two musicians were having a lot of fun exchanging riffs, adding flourishes, and playing harmoniously in unison.

Margaret Batjer | Credit: Michael Burke

Batjer performed on the 1716 “Milstein” Stradivarius (Maria Teresa), while Hahn played on her 1864 copy of Paganini’s Il Cannone Guarnerius by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. Of the two, Batjer’s Strad tended toward the softer end of the dynamic spectrum, but as the back-and-forth exchanges in the concerto’s first movement Vivace and third movement Allegro evolved, Batcher made her instrument purr and soar.

Just as Batjer had noted, Hahn’s playing simultaneously projected maturity and a sense of high-wire virtuosity that occasionally pushed the fingering and bowing envelope. The most emotional aspect of the performance, however, came during the expressive, sonorous passages of the second movement Largo ma non tanto.

Hahn then took center stage for a performance of Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in E Major, BWV 1042. Wearing a brightly flowered, voluminous skirt, black sleeveless top, and glittery white slippers, she projected an air that was both elegant and playful. The opening movement Allegro was stately and almost formal in nature, turning aria-like in the second movement Adagio, while Hahn illuminated the third movement Allegro assai with a variety of ornamentations and virtuoso flourishes. A standing ovation that followed elicited an encore: the Gigue from Bach’s Partita No. 3, BWV 1006.

Andrew Norman | Credit: Jessa Anderson

Like many classical music organizations LACO tries to tread a fine line between a desire to perform and commission contemporary works, while also offering their audiences a bounty of familiar examples from the chamber orchestra repertoire, particularly from the Baroque and Classical eras. Sometimes the items on the menu form a tasteful interplay of contrasting flavors. Sometimes, as was the case Saturday, they do not.

Andrew Norman is LACO’s composer-in-residence and artistic advisor. His 2011 composition Try (commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic) is something of a nonstop instrumental free-for-all, as thematic ideas are floated, rejected, constructed, and deconstructed. As an introduction he urged the audience to see the musicians as “a rag-tag comedy troupe trying 1,001 ways to get their act together.”

It is a piece that plays section off section filled with blips and blats, jitters and twitters, like a chamber ensemble version of herding cats. Harmonies are suggested only to vaporize into nothing. In the end, the solo piano (played by Mark Robson) voices its opinion as the last man standing.

Gemma New | Credit: Roy Cox Photography

Oddly, there was a kind of quirky logic that seemed to connect Norman’s ode to chaos and the mathematical precision of Bach. There was, however, no discernable melodic, harmonic, or compositional thread that could connect Franco Donatoni’s 1986 Eco (which opened the second half of the concert) to Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony, except the fact that the symphony’s title reflects Donatoni’s country of birth.

The carefully defined, crystalline instrumental textures and tone colors of Donatoni’s modernism (by way of Darmstadt) proved decidedly jarring after the Bach and a decidedly awkward introduction to the amber-rich tones of the Mendelssohn symphony. Through all its variations, the orchestra was skillfully led by New Zealand conductor, Gemma New.