5 Minutes With Hilary Hahn

On how she handles the balancing act between old and new works
by Greg Cahill

“Emboldened Orchestras Are Embracing the New” trumpeted the headline in the arts section of the New York Times in a December 9 article by veteran music critic Anthony Tommasini. The cause of the excitement was an impromptu audience poll in which those gathered to hear the Budapest Festival Orchestra selected Bartok over Schubert.

But, hey, it was the Budapest Festival Orchestra—Bartok’s home team, so to speak.

Still, Tommasini took the results of the poll as a sign that new music has come into its own. “I was surprised and delighted,” he wrote. “It seemed an indicator, albeit fanciful, that the battle for contemporary music had been won.”

I wondered about that and decided to ask the violinist Hilary Hahn—who has embraced new music, most recently on her contemporary music project In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, but who has lamented in the past over the difficulty of programming contemporary works—just how she handles the balancing act between the old and the new.

Why is it important for you to advocate for contemporary composers?

I learn a lot from them in terms of creativity, and they help me to understand music that came before them. Also, they write music to be played, so I’m excited to be part of that process! But most of all, it’s enjoyable. Through this latest Encores project, I’ve come to find that the composition community is extraordinarily diverse, not just in the music that is written—which I expected—but in the types of people who are writing and the ways they approach their creative output and art in general. It’s fascinating and really fun to work with them.


Assuming that concert audiences want the warhorses, what can you do as a performer to introduce new music without it feeling like a token gesture?

I think audiences like a mix. No performer wants to present any piece as simply a token gesture—there needs to be conviction. So I think, “warhorse” or relatively obscure or contemporary warhorse—as long as the performer believes in the piece for expressive reasons, then that’s half the battle. The other half is how the audience chooses to approach the music, which is largely influenced by how they are approached about the music.

Maybe the typical concert programming mix of two warhorses combined with a single contemporary piece should be flipped, so that the standards are there to inform the modern works but not dominate the repertoire?

Again, a range is what I enjoy. When I’m programming recitals, which is when I get to pick the whole evening’s contents, I try to incorporate as many different composers as make sense in the context of the overall concept. That can be three or 17 or any other number. Some people like to specialize, some people don’t. As long as we don’t say “should” or “should not” to anyone’s ideas, programming as its own artistic genre will stay varied and interesting.

So is it wrong to assume that programming is mutually exclusive, that it’s all about either standards or contemporary works?

Depends on the artist and/or the presenter. Programming is personal, no matter how big the performing group may be.


Still, there’s a sense that the classical music world is trapped in the past. How do you feel about the role of standards overall?

I think the pieces we call standards are extremely important. The word standards itself is unfortunate. Those great, time-tested works are anything but standard, when you listen to them.

One thing that is unique, that we need to honor, is the sheer length of time this genre of music has been around. To look down on masterpieces that are one, two, three, or even four centuries old is to be short sighted. We have this amazing, rich tradition that continues to inform music being written today. In my opinion, without that reference readily available, we won’t have much ahead of us to look forward to.

In terms of repertoire, how do you envision programming 25 years from now?


Hard to say! I have no idea what will have been written 25 years from now or how various pieces we take for granted will age with time. Who knows what is a trend and what will stick? That’s one very interesting thing about classical music: it’s been around for quite a while, yet we haven’t yet managed to map what makes for longevity in repertoire. We think we know, but we can still be surprised. I love that.

Why was it important to include your audience through an online contest in the selection of the 27th encore piece in your current project?

Because I know I must have missed some great composers in my research for the 26 commissioned works; because many people write and don’t get an opportunity to be heard; because I wanted to encourage nonprofessional composers to get out their pen and paper; and because in the end, more encores will have been written for this project than will be officially included in my final set, and that can only be a good thing, since those pieces will exist and I hope their composers will find colleagues or friends to play those pieces someday as well.

One of my goals for the project was to extend the contemporary reach and focus of the encore genre.

Opening up the final encore to the public is, in its own way, directly in line with that goal. I’m so curious to see what shows up.