By Inge Kjemtrup | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Wearing a light blue coat with the hood up, Hilary Hahn trudges through a chilly late-November landscape. She is filming herself as she walks, making an update to her many fans via social media. “I’m doing my best to keep working in my own way,” she says. “I remain optimistic about when things will begin again.”
Days after she filmed this wintry wander, Hahn turned 41. The birthday was marked in quarantine, following her return from a carefully planned live performance in Texas—the first since her sabbatical ended in September. When I spoke with Hahn via Zoom in early December, she shared her thoughts on her sabbatical and her new projects. She has many reflections, too, about the changes that the pandemic has wrought on the world, the musical world in particular.
Hahn has been in the spotlight since she was a teenager. The violinist is admired for her gorgeous tone, flawless technique, and unparalleled ability to bring along her audience as she pushes the boundaries of what and where a world-class violinist is allowed to do and go (that includes expertly hula-hooping while playing violin along with internet stars TwoSet Violin).
She marks her return with a new CD, Paris, recorded with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under its music director, Mikko Franck. The album “shows pretty much the landscape of who I am as a musician: emotionally, historically within my career, forward-looking. It’s important for me to be always thinking to the future, but I’m grounded in tradition,” she says.
That future includes a new music and artificial-intelligence project. And then there’s “Hahn Solo.” More about that later.
The sabbatical had been long planned. “The way I approach my career, I’ve always built in, I wouldn’t say down time, but sort of re-centering time,” she explains. “I’ve always tried to either take summers off or take chunks of time.” Hahn took a six-month sabbatical at age 30. With children aged two-and-a-half-months and five-years old, she took off the entire 2019/20 season.
“The purpose of the sabbatical is to learn about who I really am and what my priorities really are in order to be the best person and musician I can be going forward. It’s good to reassess those things intentionally from time to time, whether it’s for an hour or for a year. That actually wound up being amplified in the course of figuring out how to live in this new landscape [of the pandemic].”
She returned in September to a musical environment filled with shuttered concert halls, canceled seasons, underemployed musicians, and recordings out of the question.
Still, there were a few opportunities to collaborate, and, so, after careful thought, Hahn traveled to Dallas for a women-in-music symposium, where she was given an award. While in Texas she played a COVID-safe performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with longtime musical partners the Houston Symphony and conductor Marin Alsop. (This concert was also livestreamed.)
The concert marked the end of the longest span Hahn has spent away from performing in public since early childhood. The experience of playing, and in such challenging circumstances, was life-affirming, she says. “When the performance energy is there, I am really completely in my element. It was great to be in that element again, feel that energy, know it’s there.
“It was there so immediately for everyone that I don’t doubt that when everything resumes on a more normal schedule, things will kick back into place. There will be logistical challenges. There will be financial challenges. There will be things to sort out, but the musical impetus and the appreciation for working together will be very strong.”
During her sabbatical, Hahn—whose #100daysofpractice posts on social media helped jumpstart many routines—didn’t let up on the practicing. She also launched a solo project “Hahn Solo.” I figured the project must have been conceived during quarantine? She laughs at the suggestion. “No, it started before the pandemic.”
“It’s a great name,” I say to cover my cluelessness.
“I credit the fans with that,” she replies. “They’ve been trying to make Hahn Solo happen for a really long time. And I was like, let’s do it! But the idea of the project was mine.”
The idea was sparked at a post-concert event at a club in Lyon, France, with conductor Leonard Slatkin. But what would a conductor do without the orchestra in a performance, in a club? The answer was that Slatkin conducted the audience. “One half of the audience was doing one rhythm and the other was doing another part while I was playing the solo and he was conducting them. It was really fun!
“I have always been curious what it would be like for an audience to hear the solo part [on its own].” As a soloist learning a part, she says, you can see the genius of a composer’s writing for the solo voice. So to perform the part on its own “is very exposed. You have to be pretty confident, but as part of the musical experience, it brings the audience into the practice room, in a sense.”
You can find the Hahn Solo posts, including the Sibelius Violin Concerto, Op. 47, recorded one hour before she stepped in front of an orchestra to play the same piece, on Hahn’s YouTube channel. There’s a Mozart Concerto No. 5, too. Other Hahn Solo adventures “will happen as they happen,” she says.
Hahn’s new album, Paris, was recorded during her 2018/19 season residency with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.
The mood of the CD is, like her winter walk, reflective, and the liner notes describe Hahn’s joyous connection to Paris, which began when she was on tour in the city in her teens. At the heart of the CD is the late Einojuhani Rautavaara’s poignant final work, Deux Sérénades, dedicated to Hahn. The serenades nearly didn’t see the light of day. Hahn admired Rautavaara’s music and had commissioned him for her encore album, In 27 Pieces. She also performed his mysterious, swirling Violin Concerto. Could music director Franck, a long-time Rautavaara champion, persuade him write another violin concerto?
Rautavaara turned down the concerto idea but told Franck he would love to write some serenades. There was no further news until the great Finnish composer, who had been ailing for some time, died in 2016. Hahn figured that was that.
But not so. “At the wake, Rautavaara’s widow took Mikko into the study and showed him this score,” Hahn says. “Mikko knew immediately it was our piece.” The violin parts were completed and the orchestration nearly so (Rautavaara’s student Kalevi Aho finished the orchestration). The serenades, “Pour la vie” and “Pour mon amour,” are in Rautavaara’s characteristic dark and lyrical language. Hahn sees similarities to the sound world of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Op. 14.
With the Philharmonique and Franck, Hahn gave the world premiere in February 2019. “Mikko held the score up to the heavens when we finished. That was the acknowledgement to the composer. It was a really big moment. We were completing a catalog and we were completing someone’s life work.”
The Rautavaara is bookended on the CD by Chausson’s Poème and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Hahn had wanted to record the Prokofiev for a long time but hadn’t quite found the right musical forces. “It’s a very important piece to me—it’s one of my calling-card pieces and I’ve been playing it since I was a teenager. There’s a vibrancy to the color in this piece that requires a combination of brutality and finesse.” In the Philharmonique, she found the ideal collaborators.
She sees the Prokofiev concerto, premiered when the Russian was living in Paris, as an essentially French piece. “To me, it is him, but him and France.” This cross-cultural quality was well captured by the Philharmonique. “One thing I appreciate about their playing is they sound French in their variety of tone color and their comfort navigating the nuances of expression, but they play very straightforwardly.”
Written in 1896, Chausson’s Poème was given its Paris premiere in April 1897 by the Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe, the work’s dedicatee. “I love Chausson’s Poème,” Hahn says. “When I thought about playing Chausson with [the Philharmonique], I could hear it in my head. I knew what that would be and I knew I couldn’t go another year without doing it. I have to do this with this orchestra and this conductor.”
Our conversation moves from the new CD to Hahn’s role with Deepmusic.ai, an organization formed to explore artificial intelligence (AI) and the arts. She is the co-founder (and VP of artistic partnerships), along with tech entrepreneur Carol Reiley. The company’s mission statement describes its goal: “to use music as a lens on how humans and AI can co-create something special together.”
“We’re trying to figure out what’s the state-of-the-art, what are the issues?” Hahn says. “AI is here. So it’s not like, do we want to engage with it or not? It’s like, are we going to have our voices heard? Are we going to take a place at the table? Are we going to be influential as artists? Or are we just going to let other fields determine what art is going to be in the future? We need to find ways to fill those gaps and also get the two areas talking to each other, finding our commonalities, identifying the challenges, finding things that aren’t working, providing tutorials on using the AI software that currently exists.”
Deepmusic.ai launched in December 2020 with an event featuring three composers working with AI software. Composer David Lang wrote “out of body” for Hahn. Lang says, “I’m proud to say I did not cheat at all in that I laid all the computer notes into my original piece in the order it was generated. It is true, however, that the AI generated many options, and I chose only the one that was most aesthetically pleasing to me. I never asked myself which option was aesthetically pleasing to it.”
Shifting gears from the digital to fully human, Hahn and I talk about her occasional concerts for babies and their caregivers at major concert venues. She loves it. “You see the cultural patterns of parenting and dressing up the babies and how people interact with their children, how they interact with each other. It’s really fascinating, culturally. In Paris, one kid army-crawled to the front, looking up at me, and saw the entire performance from two feet away. And I was like, ‘Wow, this kid loves music. This kid might become a violinist!’”
As the world enters its second year of the pandemic, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel with the arrival of the vaccines. Yet for musicians the world over, big questions remain: When will they and their audiences safely return to normal? What will “normal” even look like? Hahn has given this some thought.
“There have been a lot of statements that art is necessary or crucial to the human condition. I think everyone in this time has developed their own certainty about what they need out of art. We’ve all gone through these tests of our commitment.
“I turned 40 during my sabbatical. I just turned 41. I’m very aware that I’m in my prime as a performer. As an artist, I’m gaining more and more respect and I have more and more choice. I get to choose my priorities a little bit more with every year that I perform.
“And it happens with a lot of people that the older you get, the more you understand yourself, the more you understand your art, and the more other people understand you in that context. So I’m really thinking a lot about that: What is it we need to create for the next generation so that things are better and so that they can continue making things better for everyone who has a beautiful voice that should be heard in the arts?” And as her musings wander into a hopeful future, we end our talk.
This post contains affiliate links, meaning Strings will earn a small commission (at no cost to you) when you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for your support!
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Violin or Viola series from Strings magazine gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.