Hilary Hahn Plays Concertos Both Classic And Contemporary : Deceptive Cadence The violinist has been on the fast-track to stardom since she was a child. Her new album features a Pulitzer-winning concerto composed by her former teacher, Jennifer Higdon.
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Hilary Hahn Plays Concertos Both Classic And Contemporary

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Hilary Hahn Plays Concertos Both Classic And Contemporary

Hilary Hahn Plays Concertos Both Classic And Contemporary

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Violinist Hilary Hahn pointed out to me that she is - despite some confusion -30 years old. I'm not sure what confusion she was referring to, but it may be that it's hard to square her youthfulness with a career that included recording the "Beethoven Concerto" back in 1999. As you'll hear, this is a young woman on a fast track. And her latest recording is an interesting study in contrast: a pair of pieces from different centuries; one from the standard repertoire, the other composed especially for her.

First, there's the Tchaikovsky "Violin Concerto."

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: I asked Hilary Hahn about playing a piece that's been performed, even recorded so many times before, and she said that she's learned how much of her own personality and that of the orchestra she can bring to playing it.

Ms. HILARY HAHN (Violinist): It's kind of more like painting landscapes with a certain given set of tools. You might have the same brush and paint and scenery as someone next to you, but you could paint it entirely differently, or it's like acting when you have a script, and no two people say the same sentence in the same way.

Phrasing is the idea of finding sentences and using punctuation in speech. I often look at the score to see what's written in by the composer to see if I can find clues to those directions, like what direction did the composer have in mind, and I try to incorporate those things as much as possible. Sometimes, the smallest detail has a big emotional impact on how a part comes across. So I look for the original bowing markings whether something is supposed to be short or long, whether something is supposed to be a crescendo or decrescendo. So there are just a lot of things to consider, and I just - it's a combination of being prepared and studying and then also just going with the moment.

SIEGEL: You have a very different relationship to the "Higdon Violin Concerto" - Jennifer Higdon. You don't have to go puzzling out the bow marks in this score.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: She was your teacher, and she wrote this piece for you to play it.

Ms. HAHN: It's funny when I call her or if I see her in a rehearsal and I say, well, in this part, what did you mean when you wrote this? Was it supposed to be a short note, or was it supposed to start with a bit of a bite, like, you know, I wasn't supposed to go somewhere, or is it an isolated note? She'll say, gosh, let me look at the score. I don't remember. Let me get back. What was I trying to do when I wrote that? Because she's very busy. She writes a lot of pieces. So it's kind of funny. It's really been enlightening for me to work with composers because I used to think that everything in the music was exactly what the composer meant. Well, it's what the composer meant in that moment when they wrote it.

SIEGEL: The composer might not remember exactly what she meant at that moment is what you're saying?

Ms. HAHN: Right. Or play it another way that the composer didn't think of initially. The composer might like that other way too. So it made me a lot less confident about what's in the score, but at the same time, it's taught me a lot about interpretation and structure and creativity within classical music.

SIEGEL: Jennifer Higdon, the composer of this concerto, which she wrote for you to play. It's a Pulitzer Prize-winning composition. Let's hear some of it...

Ms. HAHN: Okay.

SIEGEL: ...and tell me what's going on here.

(Soundbite of song, Higdon Violin Concerto, 1, "1726")

Ms. HAHN: So this is the opening. I'm playing by myself. These are harmonics. So it's a trick to make the note sound really high when you're not playing in a high position.

(Soundbite of song, Higdon Violin Concerto, 1, "1726")

Ms. HAHN: And that sort of tinkling, ticking noise in the background is played by knitting needles on percussion. So...

SIEGEL: Knitting needles?

Ms. HAHN: Knitting needles. It's been funny, in every rehearsal that we've done for this piece of every new artist I played with when she's been there - and, oh, here you hear the harmonics are continued by the concert master, the first violinist in the orchestra, and I'm playing the sustained notes underneath, so it's kind of this continuity and layering. But every time we start the piece, she has to check with the percussionist that they have the right knitting needles because there's a certain gauge apparently that works.

(Soundbite of song, Higdon Violin Concerto, 1, "1726")

Ms. HAHN: And I find her lines for violin - she's a flute player, so she writes in a way that would also sound good on flute. It's not how people normally write for violin. Often, there is a lot of hidden counterpoints. So there will be counterpoints when you have multiple voices kind of interweaving with each other.

(Soundbite of song, Higdon Violin Concerto, 1, "1726")

Ms. HAHN: You hear how it sounds like a random line, kind of like the notes are kind of going, ooh...

SIEGEL: Yes, yes, it has that.

Ms. HAHN: Actually, all the top notes are melody, and all the bottom notes are melody. And it's kind of staggered.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HAHN: It helps, as a player, to recognize that because you can come up with phrasings that highlight that and highlight the lyricism. Even though something might seem to be quick and jumping around, it could actually be very slow in nature.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you a little bit about yourself.

Ms. HAHN: Yes.

SIEGEL: You're 30 years old.

Ms. HAHN: I am.

SIEGEL: And you finished college and conservatory at Curtis Institute 11 years ago in 1999.

Ms. HAHN: I graduated in '99 after finishing my requirements in '96. Yeah.

SIEGEL: Yeah. So people doing their subtraction right now will figure out...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: ...that you, in effect, finished college when you were...

Ms. HAHN: Sixteen.

SIEGEL: ...16 years old.

Ms. HAHN: Yeah.

SIEGEL: To say you were on the fast track would be an understatement here.

Ms. HAHN: It's just kind of a series of coincidences. It sounds like I had this big plan to be precocious, but it really wasn't like that. I grew up without TV, I grew up listening to radio, I grew up reading. And by the time I - so I started first grade when I was 5. And then by the time I hit fifth grade, I was getting more involved in more hours of practicing and I was taking ballet, I was taking piano. I just didn't have much time for myself. So I started home schooling.

By the time I was 12, I was starting my high school stuff in home schooling. I talked to the dean of the Curtis Institute of Music where I was in school. I had been there for a couple of years taking lessons and doing chamber music. And he said, well, why don't you just take our course and get started with your bachelor's degree requirements? If it doesn't work, you can take a break, go back to the high school stuff and come back and do this later. But it worked really well. And so, therefore, I started my college courses at 12.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Ms. HAHN: So it just kind of happened.


Ms. HAHN: And it was so much fun. They were like a protective family. Everyone looked out for me. I could never understand why I was not invited to the parties. I thought it was because I wasn't popular or people didn't like me, you know, because...

SIEGEL: Didn't have to do with 13 years old, that was...

Ms. HAHN: Exactly.

SIEGEL: They didn't refer to you as the statement...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAHN: It occurred to me when I found out what the parties were like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HAHN: I'm like, oh, grown-up parties. Okay. Okay. Not just cheese and crackers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, Hilary Hahn, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. HAHN: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

SIEGEL: Hilary Hahn, violinist, has recorded the "Higdon & Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos" on her new album. You can hear it in its entirety at our website, nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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