The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The Jennifer Higdon-Hilary Hahn composer-performer partnership could change music history. Just listen to Hahn’s outstanding new CD of Higdon’s Violin Concerto

October 15, 2010

A REMINDER: A concert version of the opera “Esperanza” — its timely story involves miners — will be presented Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. at Monona Terrace, preceded by a reception at 6 p.m. in honor of the retirement of labor leader David Newby. Admission is free and open to the public, but donations of $20 per person are requested. Tickets are available at the door.

By Jacob Stockinger

Sometimes certain performers and certain composers become deeply identified with each other. The result can be richly productive for each, a synergistic partnership that benefits the public and performers, and even alters music history.

I think of Prokofiev and the pianist Sviatoslav Richter and violinist David Oistrakh; between Shostakovich and the Borodin String Quartet; between Maurice Ravel and pianist Ricardo Vines. There are many more.

Another such fertile partnership may be at hand in the pairing of the American composer Jennifer Higdon (below right) and the violinist Hilary Hahn (below left), who met each other at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where Higdon was a teacher and Hahn as a young student.

It course it is too early to tell if that close partnership will be the case, but the first fruits of it seem very promising.

Hahn commissioned a Violin Concerto from Higdon. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, and now Deutsche Grammophon has released a recording of it by Hahn and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under conductor Vasily Petrenko (below).

I have listened to the CD several times before writing this review. And I say it is no wonder that it has climbed to the top of the Billboard and charts and stayed there. Who says there is no audience for contemporary classical music?

Higdon’s work is thoroughly modern but also accessible – that magical but hard-to-achieve combination. It is actually both enjoyable AND stimulating to listen to. It has spiky moments and percussive moments that Hahn brings off brilliantly; yet it also has songful and tender moments, including a wonderful oboe line in the slow moment.

It is by turns a dramatic and lyrical work, full of feeling – and Hahn, with the help of Petrenko, (below) captures it all convincingly. It is simply one of the best contemporary works I recall hearing. So I predict it will quickly find a permanent place in the repertoire as a standard. I would compare it to the Barber Violin Concerto; it too is somewhat conservative for some contemporary tastes, but ultimately of more lasting value.

Hahn (below) will take the Higdon concerto on tour next year. I sure hopes the Madison Symphony Orchestra books Hahn – who played a great solo recital here at the Wisconsin Union Theater several seasons ago and who will return there for another recital this spring. And if the orchestra does book Hahn, I hope they book her to play the Higdon. She does it superlatively well. You can’t imagine anyone doing it better.

It is clear to me, from the music, performance and from a TV piece I saw about them, that the two women fully understand each other.

Now I would like to see Hahn commission a violin sonata or suite from Higdon (below, with her cat Beau in a photo by Candance DiCarlo) to perform on solo recitals, maybe also a piano trio or solo partita. The Higdon-Hahn partnership could prove a deeply productive one at a time when classical music could use one.

I am also anxious to hear more of Higdon’s music live and recorded by major labels. How about a string quartet or some piano works? I wonder if she would or could work closely with pianist Jeremy Denk?

By the way, it is market smart of Hahn (below) to package a contemporary work with a traditional one, as she often does. In this case, the famed and popular Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is the choice. And she rides that old warhorse well.

I have heard more dramatic, or even melodramatic, and virtuosic readings of the Tchaikovsky. But I have never heard a more musical one. At moments, it almost feels liked a new piece, a fresher piece – which is what a great interpreter does.

For my money, Hahn – only 30, with two Grammys and a “Best Musician of the Year” to her credit  — is already simply the finest performing violinist out there performing. (I am also partial to Vadim Repin, but Hahn gets the edge). Just check out her many videos on YouTube.

Get this CD for yourself and others, and enjoy it even as you help put an end to those who advocate R&D music as the model of contemporary classical music. I say we already have enough research and development; what we need is more beauty – and that is what Higdon, through Hahn, provides.

Here is a link to wonderful TV profile for “The PBS Newshour” done on Higdon and Hahn:

And here is a link to a long live Higdon-Hahn chat done on National Public Radio’s new classical blog “Deceptive Cadence”:

Have you listened to the Jennifer Higdon Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn?

What do you think of the work and the performance?

And of Hahn’s Tchaikovsky?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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