A Conversation with Hilary Hahn at Age 19

At 19, American violinist Hilary Hahn is one of the most impressive and musically compelling artists in the ever-growing galaxy of young virtuosos.

By Julia Zaustinsky

At 19, American violinist Hilary Hahn is one of the most impressive and musically compelling artists in the ever-growing galaxy of young virtuosos. Her virtuosity transcends technical perfection and violinistic wizardry. She is a master musician whose playing is illumined by a love for music and the need to communicate. “Music, for me, is interaction—interaction with the audience and with colleagues,” she says. “I play each piece of music the way I would like to hear it if I were in the audience.”

On stage, Hahn’s intense concentration grips the audience from the moment her bow touches the string. Immediately, she launches her listeners on a spellbinding musical journey. Her playing speaks from the heart with an intelligence, eloquence, and nobility that places her among the great interpreters of our time.

Hahn’s extraordinary musical gifts were apparent at an early age. She made her debut as soloist with the Baltimore Symphony when she was 11. Her 1993 debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra was followed by engagements with the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and other major orchestras in the U.S. and Europe. At 16, she completed the Curtis Institute’s graduation requirements, made her Carnegie Hall debut (again with the Philadelphia Orchestra), and signed an exclusive recording contract with Sony Classical. Her first CD (Sony 62793)—a patrician performance of the last three of Bach’s monumental Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin—received France’s Diapaison d’Or for young talent. In the U.S. it became the Pick of the Month for Stereo Review and a best-seller on the Billboard classical charts.

Hahn’s interest in the violin began shortly before her fourth birthday. She was taking a walk with her father in their Baltimore neighborhood when they passed a branch of the Peabody Conservatory that advertised music lessons for four-year-olds. Looking in on a lesson where a little boy was playing “Twinkle, Twinkle,” Hahn was intrigued. She started taking lessons the next week. “Actually, I didn’t start on the violin,” she remembers. “I started on a book wrapped in wrapping paper with a ruler sticking out of it. I held that under my chin and just stood while a cassette played. I was in a Suzuki class for about a year.”

An engaging young woman, Hahn not only loves to perform but also enjoys talking about her early years and her life as a violinist on the international circuit. In April, when we met and talked after a Lincoln Center concert, I asked Hahn how she trained for her first public performances.

After the Suzuki start, with whom did you study?

When I was five, I started to study with Klara Berkovich. She was a Russian teacher who had just immigrated from St. Petersburg, after teaching for 25 years at the Leningrad School for the Musically Gifted. I studied with her for five years at Peabody Prep. She taught me how to draw my bow, how to play double stops, vibrato, pizzicato—basically everything you need to know to play the violin. She also taught me the basics of phrasing, so I knew what to do with a phrase and how to make something interesting. I did a lot of études with her, especially Wohlfahrt.

When I was about nine, she told me that I had done enough work to give a recital by myself. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could, because I had never heard anyone do that. I went home, looked at my repertoire, and decided that she was right, I probably could. We worked toward this for about eight months. The program included a Handel Sonata, the “Siciliano” and Presto from Bach’s unaccompanied Sonata in G Minor, the Wieniawski Caprice in A Minor, the Vitali Chaconne, Glière Romance, and other short pieces.

Around this time, Mrs. Berkovich told me that she had taught me as much as she felt comfortable teaching me, and it was time for me to look for another teacher. I talked with some of the teachers at the Peabody Conservatory, and one of them told me that she knew a wonderful teacher for me, Jascha Brodsky, who taught at the Curtis Institute. She suggested that I audition for Curtis. I had friends who had auditioned for Curtis and hadn’t gotten in, and they were of college age. But I was entering a competition and wanted to play one of the Viotti Concertos for someone. So I went to the audition entirely for the performance experience, and I didn’t expect much to come of it. But a couple of weeks later, Gary Grafman, the director of Curtis, told me that I had been accepted and that I would be studying with Jascha Brodsky. Since you can’t pick your teachers at Curtis—they pick you—I was extraordinarily lucky.

You were ten then?

Yes, and he was 83. I had a wonderful time studying with him. He told me tons of stories. He had studied with Eugène Ysaye in Paris in the ‘20s, and Ysaye was born in the 1850s, so there is just one generation between me and this great Belgian School. I studied with Brodsky for seven years, until he died, when he was 89 and I was 17. He took what Mrs. Berkovich had taught me and refined and developed it. He took me through the next sequence of études—Kreutzer, Sevcik, Gaviniès, Rode, and the Paganini Caprices. He taught me about 28 concertos, recital programs, and lots of short pieces. He gave me a thorough technical training and, like Mrs. Berkovich, wouldn’t let me go on to the next thing until what I was working on was absolutely right.

He had a kind of musical hierarchy that he wanted me to work through, with Beethoven and Brahms at the end. I wanted to do the Beethoven Concerto a couple of years too soon according to his schedule. I would beg him to allow me to do it, promising to practice really, really hard. His response was always, “No, you must wait until you have studied all the other repertoire. Then you will be completely prepared for it.” So I put a lot of time and effort into the other pieces and moved fairly quickly through the repertoire, because I wanted so badly to be able to work on Beethoven and Brahms.

Did you have to move to Philadelphia to be a Curtis student?

Curtis is very flexible, so the first two years I stayed in Baltimore. I was homeschooled at that point, in order to have time to do everything I wanted to do. During the first two years I did my homework on the road while we commuted twice a week to Philadelphia for my lessons, rehearsals, and coachings.

When I was 12, I started working toward the Curtis bachelor’s degree. The dean suggested that I take college courses to fulfill my high school requirements, so I was able to kill two birds with one stone. Although I was in classes with 18-year-olds who had entered that year, I felt like just like part of the family. I felt like the younger sister without the arguments. It’s a great school because it’s small and we all know each other. I took a lot of literature courses, Western Civ., seven years of German, and all the necessary harmony classes, music history, and counterpoint and keyboard harmony, and completed the Curtis requirements for graduation when I was 16.

But I didn’t graduate. I loved the school so much I couldn’t bring myself to leave. Once you leave you can’t come back, so I decided to stay as long as I could. There were a lot of classes that interested me that I hadn’t taken yet—I took a poetry writing class, a fiction writing class, several English classes, and continued with German. I’ll graduate in May [1999].

Have you continued to study the violin with a teacher?


Yes. After Mr. Brodsky died, Mr. [Jaime] Laredo became my teacher and one of my mentors. The years between 17 and 19 or 20 are transitional—I didn’t feel like studying full-time with anyone, but I also didn’t feel ready to be out on my own yet. When Mr. Laredo was in town, I would play for him. I still do. I don’t see him that much, but it’s nice to know that he is there and that I can go to him for advice when I need to.

Who are some of the other musicians who have been important in your artistic development?

David Zinman, the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, has been my mentor since I was ten. The Symphony was very important in my early development. People there advised me not to do too many things too soon, not to be an overly busy prodigy type, not to go to management too soon, not to record before I was ready, and to stay in school. All of this was very good advice.

Also, Loren Mazel was an important mentor. When I was about 15, I played with him on tour with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Europe, principally in Germany but also in Holland, England, and Scotland. I worked with him on a regular basis.

I’ve learned a lot from working with other musicians. I had a great experience in January when I got to play the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante with [violist] Yuri Bashmet and Josef Suk conducting the Josef Suk Chamber Orchestra. This was like a dream come true; the two are great musicians. I also get to work with a lot of wonderful people at Marlboro, as well as at CMS Two [Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society’s “junior” program]. And playing this week for the first time with Joseph Silverstein as a violinist has been really fun. When I was 13, I played a New Year’s concert in Utah with him conducting. It was my first concert west of the Mississippi.

Who are the historic violinists whose playing has had an influence on you?

When I was really young, I listened a lot to Heifetz and Grumiaux. Later on, I became interested in Elman, Kreisler, and Milstein. I listen to a lot of old recordings. I like the fact that they’re straight performances and haven’t been spliced together. In my own recordings I’ve tried to record large segments, so as to have a whole interpretation.

How did you select the repertoire for your first CDs?

Bach was the composer that immediately came to mind, not only because it’s such great music, but because I’ve played Bach more than any other composer. My father sang in a chorus and I grew up listening to tapes of Bach’s choral music. I started playing the Sonatas and Partitas when I was eight and have played some solo Bach every day since then.

This proved to be a good choice for a first CD because there was time to get everything the way I wanted it. Sometimes we would start recording at six or seven at night and go until five in the morning. We had the freedom to work as late as we wanted every night because there were no union rules or anyone else’s schedule to work around.

For my first orchestral CD, I really wanted to play the Beethoven Concerto because I’ve played it more than any other concerto and I feel most comfortable with it. But this is one of the greatest concertos ever written, and I had to think what to pair with it. As I was taking the train to New York one day, I looked at my list of repertoire. I skimmed past Bernstein a couple of times and then just on a whim thought, what about Beethoven and Bernstein? I almost said it out loud. Instantly it made sense to me. They were both 36 when they wrote their concertos. They were both pianists and conductors, as well as composers. Both pieces are very large-scale, though they are almost complete opposites in form. The Beethoven has standard movements with classic cadenza placement. The Bernstein Serenade is in five movements, two of which are divided, and the cadenza is in the fourth movement. It is based on Plato’s Symposium, with movements named after the great philosophers. It’s a piece of shifting moods—it can be jazzy, or jaunty, or cheeky, but also beautifully lyrical. It’s a perfect complement to the Beethoven.

Do you have a special repertoire you play in certain kinds of settings? For instance, I know you do a lot of outreach to grade-school students.

Yes, and it’s hard to count on there being a good piano available in a school, and I don’t always have colleagues, so I generally play works for unaccompanied violin. I always play Bach, a slow and a fast movement. When I first started doing this, I thought that there was no way that they were going to sit still. But the music casts a spell. They really like it. There’s also an Ernst transcription of the Erlkonig for solo violin that I enjoy playing for kids. I tell them about the great German poet, Goethe, whose work was set to music by a great German composer, Schubert. They find it interesting to listen to the different voices and how they interact in the solo violin version. I also show them harmonics and violinistic tricks that they may never have seen before. There is a Sevcik left-hand pizzicato exercise that I used to do every night that they find very intriguing.

I want to give students an idea of what can be done with the violin. But I also want to give them enough time to make up their own questions and ask them at their own pace. I love meeting the kids because they are really open to what they are hearing. They are curious to know what my life is like, whether I get lonely, whether I like traveling. I think many of them have never heard of anyone playing the violin as a career.

How did you become involved in these musical encounters?

When I was 11, I won a Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia competition. Part of the project involved going to play in the inner-city schools in Philadelphia. Two years ago, I joined the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society Two program. They do a lot of outreach work with schools all over New York and I visited a number of schools with them. There were some really good educators in charge and I learned a lot from them about how to interact with children. Last year I did a program with a third-grade class in upstate New York. I knew the teacher and was staying in her home while I was getting ready for a local recital. She asked me to visit her class, and I really enjoyed it. They were doing a geography project in which they asked everyone they knew who was traveling anywhere to send postcards from the cities they visited, to learn about these places and have some connection with cities around the world. I asked if they would like me to send postcards from every place I went that year, and their response was “Yeah!” So I did, and they wrote me back letters.


What were some of the cities you wrote from that year?

Warsaw, Zurich, Jerusalem, and many others. I loved being in Jerusalem. It’s very interesting to watch cultures that are parallel but don’t mix. There are four quarters—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian. As you walk through the old city, which is actually quite small, you see orthodox Jews walking to the Wailing Wall. The next moment you’re in the middle of an Arab market with Arab music in the street and spices on the side of the road. It’s a really, really fascinating place.

Was this the genesis of “Hilary’s Journal”?

Yes. At the end of the year, the teacher compiled some 30 postcards into a book, and I read through it and decided that I wanted to do this again. The problem was that the teacher was retiring. Then I wondered if this could be carried out on a larger scale, so I talked with Sony and we set up something on my Web site with three schools, two in New York City and one in Los Angeles. Students send me questions and I write the answers and put them on my website. It has my schedule, biography, and “Hilary’s Journal,” which consists of these electronic “postcards” from around the world. Every week or so I try to send a postcard to my Web site. There are some pictures that I take with a digital camera that Sony loaned me, and I send them in by e-mail. The Sony people set them up on my site.

When I was in L.A., I met the students at the Colbert School, one of the three schools. In New York, I visited the students at P.S. 183. We started the session with a little girl playing a piece for me and the class. I really like listening to the kids.

Do you have some advice for kids like these, who are studying the violin?

Yes, practice slowly. It is hard to learn to do this, but it is really important, especially for accurate intonation.

Do you have your own daily routine of scales or technical exercises?

I’ve always done Bach and some kind of technical exercise every day. And right now I’m working on the Ernst Polyphonic Etudes. He wrote six—the “Last Rose” is the last one. I had never heard of the other five. I think that they’re good pieces and I’m working on them as technical studies.

What about scales and arpeggios?

I still do scales and arpeggios on a fairly regular basis, but I mainly try to work on technique in context. Every piece has scales and arpeggios. I play the scale passages slowly, making sure that I have good fingerings and know what I’m doing.


How do you prepare your season?

Usually I schedule eight different concertos in a year, as well as chamber music and a recital with as many new pieces in it as possible. Recitals are generally booked in one long tour. Last season I was on the road playing recitals for five and a half weeks. I played in Italy and Lithuania for the first time, at Wigmore Hall in London, several places in Germany, and throughout the U.S. I try to schedule three new concertos each year, and I try to prepare new material about a year in advance.

What are some of your projects for the coming season?

I’m very excited about the concerts that I’ll be doing with Hugh Wolff and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. We’ll be premiering the Edgar Meyer Violin Concerto that I commissioned. I’ve never done a commission before. I was in the orchestra for the Ned Rorem Concerto for the Left Hand, so I’ve seen how a commission is put together in its final stages. But I’ve never worked from the beginning, getting a few pages at a time, trying to imagine what is going on in the orchestra, and actually finding out how it’s all put together. It has been a very interesting process for me, and an eye-opener. Now I approach the other concertos I’m working on from a different perspective. I hope to commission more new works for violin and orchestra.

What are some of the other concertos that you have scheduled for this season—and from where might we expect to see postcards?

I’ll be playing the Barber Concerto in Cincinnati and in St. Paul; the Meyer in St. Paul and San Luis Obispo; Mozart No. 4 in San Francisco, Cleveland, Toronto, Memphis, and Hartford; Mendelssohn in Helsinki; Shostakovich No. 1 in Berlin, Munich, Brussels, Oslo, Dorset, and Portsmouth; Beethoven in Washington, D.C., Dallas, St. Louis, and Los Angeles; Brahms in Salt Lake City, Stamford, Syracuse, and Baltimore; and the Brahms Double, with [cellist] Peter Wiley, in Prescott.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not playing the violin?

Oh, lots of things. I like movies. I went to see the Marcel Marceau show here in New York and I went to hear [pianist] Garrick Ohlsson’s recital that took place just before mine. I love reading and writing. I enjoy exploring new cities and meeting new people. I take ballet classes whenever I can, I go to the gym, I like to swim and ride my bike. And last summer I did something that was a big departure: I went to Middlebury College, Vermont, for their intensive language program in German. I think I practiced the violin about an hour a day, if that. It was really fun—I had a regular college experience for a little while.

As a young American artist building an international career, how do you view the future of classical music in America?

I think it has a big future. We have a lot of great musicians and there is so much great music. It’s a matter of bringing music to people who ordinarily wouldn’t come to concerts.

Once I visited an inner-city school in Chicago where University of Chicago graduate students talked to kids about music on a regular basis, particularly opera. The kids had memorized the entire plot of Aida. They knew every character, what every character did, and how the opera was put together. One little boy raised his hand and asked me, “Did Verdi write anything for the violin?” It made me aware of the impact professional musicians and music students can have on education, and the importance of getting involved.

This article was originally published in the August/September 1999 issue of Strings magazine.