By Inge Kjemtrup | From the November-December 2022 issue of Strings magazine
An eclipse is a transformative event. Daylight changes to moody shadows or vanishes altogether. The landscape turns cold and strange. We feel unsettled by what is happening in the skies above us. But we know light will return, and when it does, we find ourselves with a renewed delight in the ordinary.
Eclipse is also the title of violinist Hilary Hahn’s new album, summing up not only the repertoire but also some of what the violinist has been through in the last few years.
“Artistic evolution is often set in motion by an event that challenges perceptions and shifts the light,” Hahn writes in the album notes. “An eclipse, after all, leads to illumination. The past few years have changed me permanently. I’m happy to have proof of this pivot, this landing, and these musical reconnections, and I’m thankful to be able to share this recording with you.”
When we last spoke, in December 2020, Hahn was coping with the fact that her planned year-long sabbatical, which started in September 2019, had ended abruptly. Her planned return to the stage in fall 2020 wasn’t in the cards because of the pandemic. The lockdown allowed her more time with her young children, but the isolation and the cessation of performance took its toll on this much-admired violinist. It was an unnerving time.
Today Hahn is relaxed, grabbing a cup of coffee as our transatlantic Zoom conversation begins. She smiles as she points to the wall behind her, where a child’s artwork hangs—her daughter’s drawing of a face, with the lower half covered with a mask. “They did self-portraits for their first-grade classroom. So this was her self-portrait for the entire school year.”
Eclipse is also a portrait of the artist at this time of her life.
What came first, I ask, the album’s title or the pieces? “Definitely pieces before title!” she laughs. “And collaboration before that.” The collaborators on Eclipse are the Frankfurt Radio Symphony and its outgoing music director (and Hahn’s good friend), Andrés Orozco-Estrada. The pieces are Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s complex and powerful Violin Concerto, bracketed by Hahn’s warm playing of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto and Sarasate’s flashy Carmen Fantasy.
“Something I find really interesting is that all the composers were between 37 and 47 when they wrote these pieces. I was entering my forties as I recorded the album. Andrés is close to my age and a lot of the orchestra members are as well.
“We’re in the middle of our careers. We’ve had time to define who we are as musicians, but we’re still on a big path. It’s the middle landing point, but it’s a really important landing point because it’s where you start to reassess and define for yourself where you’ve come from and where you’ve arrived.”
The beginning of this stage of her life arrived as the pandemic hit. Hahn is characteristically reflective. “Everyone had such drastically different experiences during the pandemic. I had a close friend who passed away from Covid. My family was all fine. For me, the challenges skewed psychological.
“It was also a time when I realized that one of the reasons that I love to perform is that it’s my only completely pure emotional outlet. To connect through music is such an integral part of my life that I didn’t realize that it was an integral part of my life until it was stopped for so long and so completely. That realization, and the reemergence of the importance of being a musician but for new reasons, was really fundamentally life changing.”
In a non-pandemic year, Hahn would have been able to perform the pieces in concert before a recording session. Instead, she found herself, in March 2021, so anxious that she nearly cancelled the Dvořák recording, scheduled for April and June. Orozco-Estrada persuaded her to come to Frankfurt.
“The few concerts I’d done that season had been for an audience in very restricted conditions. I played two concerts in two weeks in Texas in the fall. And I had just played a week in Paris. So that was it for that entire season until I arrived in Frankfurt.”
While the Dvořák was familiar to her, “I was less familiar with myself when I was doing that because I’d been off the road for so long. I’d been the only musician in the room for more than a year.”
How did she feel once she got to the session? “I was so happy to be back! And the second that we started playing together, I knew that it was all fine.”
After the Dvořák recording, she began preparing the Ginastera and the Sarasate, only to see the scenario repeat: the pre-recording performances were cancelled. Her first performances were in the concert where they were recorded.
The experience pushed her to her limit, Hahn says. “I really had to face my own walls and take them down. The process of that was extremely scary. It’s like you walk around a bunch of things and you are constantly educating yourself as a musician. You’re coming into your own. You’re having all of these experiences that are complete in and of themselves. And then something happens and all of a sudden, all of it just solidifies: Yes, this is who I am. This is what I’m doing. This is why I’m doing it. And this is how I’m going to keep going.”
Ginastera’s Violin Concerto has become an obsession for Hahn. “I don’t know what it is about the Ginastera, but it just really speaks to me on all levels and it’s a genius work. I knew I was going to record it before I even learned the first note of it.”
The Frankfurt Radio Symphony and Orozco-Estrada were the ideal partners. “I really love how they play contemporary music and how [Orozco-Estrada] interprets contemporary music. It’s an incredibly complicated score with a lot of individual solo parts, which you can see in the second movement, which is for 22 soloists.”
Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to mark its first season at the newly built Lincoln Center, the concerto made its debut in October 1963 with the orchestra under Leonard Bernstein with Ruggiero Ricci as soloist. A Time magazine article with the title “Composers: On to Surrealism” quoted Ginastera as saying, “I write as a spiritual necessity, and above all I want my work to be understood. The music must reach the public through an interpreter, and a successful work, I think, must emerge as a virtuoso piece for the players.”
Perhaps because of the technical demands or perhaps because of Ginastera’s departure from his previous nationalist style into something blazingly modern, the concerto has not found a regular place in the repertory. Hahn’s thrilling performance of this concerto may go some way to changing that. “I think of this music as more intuitive than scary,” Hahn says. “More emotional than abrasive.”
The concerto starts with an extended cadenza for the violinist “with things that I’ve never played anywhere else in the repertoire—the technical features, the combinations of techniques. You’re playing more than one instrument, essentially, on the same instrument.”
Hahn continues, “It is technically weird to play, like the ways that you have to approach the instrument in order to express what he writes. Weird hand positions, weird-feeling stuff. If you continue to feel weird when you’re onstage, it feels weird to the audience. I think that is the technical challenge: to get to a point where you’re not navigating the technique because that’s what you’re told to play, but rather you’re playing through the technique because that’s where the music needs to go.”
The concerto’s unusual structure fascinates Hahn. “In the course of that first movement, he has all these different studies. It’s like examining the feature that he’s exploring from all angles. ‘You think you know what a third is? Well, let me show you a study of thirds!’
“In a nutshell, what Ginastera does is he takes what you think you know, and he turns it upside down into something you would never have imagined out of that technique or that interval or that structure,” Hahn says. “He takes building blocks, but then he changes the edges and the shape and builds something entirely different. Also, if you go deep into the piece, there are a lot of references to contemporary musicians.” I caught a telltale Shostakovich reference and toward the end, there’s a snippet of the 24th Paganini caprice, a nod to Ricci, who was well known for his Paganini interpretations.
A better-known piece is Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy. It’s a fixture of the virtuoso violin repertory, but this is Hahn’s first foray into it. “I have always loved and really wanted to inhabit the Carmen Fantasy,” she says. As she studied the Fantasy, she drew upon her earlier collaboration with Antón García Abril, a Spanish composer, from whom she commissioned six solo partitas as well as an encore for her 27 encores project.
“He taught me an immense amount about Spanish music. He basically gave me a crash course in all of the musical forms that he grew up with in Spain.” Sarasate was likewise rooted in his musical heritage. “Bizet borrowed it and Sarasate needed some concert materials and took it back and he made it his own again.”
Hahn has a huge following on Instagram, not least for her 100 Days of Practice project, sharing her thoughts about the art and craft of practicing. She just completed the fifth edition of 100 Days. “It’s just become a part of my life,” she shrugs. “My goal this last time was to not make it about practicing for 100 days, but to make it about what 100 days in the life a practicer look like. Like whether you’re practicing or not, you’re still a person who practices and it’s still one day out of a hundred. So just what is that today? Even if that’s not taking the instrument out of the case.”
Perhaps with the pandemic years in mind, she also stressed kindness and “meeting ourselves where we are.” What students are told about practice is absurd, she suggests. “You’re just in a room by yourself and you’re supposed to fix things in a few days. The reason you don’t know how to do them is you don’t know how to do them. So how are you supposed to fix them by yourself?” She laughs. “You don’t actually see all of the good things. You don’t see it as like an evolution, a lifelong process.”
Early on in our conversation, Hahn makes a passionate defense of the importance of the arts to our lives. “The arts are, in my opinion, the emotional document of history. So you can read the events, you can read the facts, but what does it feel like to be this particular composer or this particular musician, experiencing these things and communicating them through music? All of the things we go through show up in some way in our emotional life. And so the arts are where these things can be in 3-D, really vibrant and internally dimensional as well.”
The arts, especially the performing arts, were pushed to the limit in the pandemic years. “There’s a lot that was developed during the pandemic that shouldn’t be just put to the side to go back to before, when we hadn’t had this global experience and this upheaval. I just kind of hope that what we can take forward from the pandemic is this shared deepening of experience.”