The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Violinist Hilary Hahn to play Bach, Beethoven and Ives this Thursday, and has commissioned 27 short, encore-like pieces.

February 14, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

This Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Wisconsin Union Theater, the young and acclaimed American violinist Hilary Hahn (below) and pianist Valentina Lisitsa will perform a recital.

It promises to be a highlight of the season – perhaps of many seasons. Certainly the last time the same two performers were here, at the same venue, they delivered an unforgettable recital. For me, this is a MUST-HEAR concert.

The eclectic program includes J.S. Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for solo violin; Beethoven’s famous “Spring” Sonata; a work by Tartini arranged by Fritz Kreisler; Charles Ives’ Sonata No. 4; and Antheil’s Sonata No. 1.

Tickets are $20, $42 and $46 with $10 for UW students. Call (608) 262-2201. (A free pre-concert lecture at 6:30 by Isthmus critic and The Ear’s guest blogger John W. Barker is at 6:30 p.m.)

For more information, visit:

Hahn (below) is a very busy musician. She tours globally, records constantly and f gives premieres of works she has commissioned. (Her recording of the Jennifer Higdon Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto, paired with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, has been a bestseller.) On top of that she blogs and wires an e-journal and e-postcards when she is touring.

She recently gave the Ear an e-mail interview about the upcoming Wisconsin Union Theater program:

Was there a turning point – a particular piece or performance or performer  – when you knew or decided you were going to be a professional violinist?

If there was, I don’t recall it. When you start playing an instrument at 4, it’s hard to say when these things happen. I do remember meeting many professional musicians early on, initially through my teacher Klara Berkovich, and listening to old recordings of violinists, and learning about their lives and working pretty hard at violin.

When I started at the Curtis Institute of Music, I was suddenly in an environment where all of my fellow students were aiming towards careers in music and an extremely high percentage of them would go on to become professional musicians. Mr. Brodsky, my teacher from when I was 10 until I was 17, prepared me for that path as well – so I guess one thing led into another, and here I am!

Can you comment on individual pieces on your Madison program and how you build it or on the unity that runs through it?

There’s something to each of these works.

The Tartini/Corelli was a piece I saw performed in a recital when my age was still in the single digits, and I learned it shortly thereafter. I love the recording by Fritz Kreisler (below) of it; I’ve been listening to that for years so it’s gotten into my ear.

The Bach -– well, I’ve been playing Bach for a very long time now, but I haven’t played this sonata in recital in quite a while, so it will be nice to return to it. Its form is unusual, with the movements paired, seemingly in theme and single-variation mode. I once performed it with mandolinist Chris Thile, and we experimented with the possibilities of these “doubles” by first taking turns and then playing both base movement and “double” movement simultaneously. The form opens up a range of interpretive possibilities for me as a solo performer, so I will work on exploring those as this tour progresses.

The sonata by George Antheil (below) is rock-and-roll meets minimalism within a classical form. Antheil wrote a page-turner of an autobiography that I read in my mid-20s, and that made me curious to play one of his sonatas. We’re having fun with this one, though the patterns it contains are a mind-bender to memorize.

(Pianist) Valentina (Lisitsa, below top) and I spent several days last year recording all four sonatas by Ives (below bottom). It was an intense experience to live closely with that music in such a concentrated way. Every time you play it or hear it, something new comes to the fore. That album is in post-production now, and I’m looking forward to touring Ives No. 4 after our studio experience. Delving that deeply into a work changes your perspective on it.

Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata is probably the best-known piece on this program. Although I sight-read it while I was a student, I didn’t learn and perform it until last summer. Its melodies will sound familiar; it is a beautiful piece.

Does the Bach mean you are about to complete your recorded cycle of solo Bach (see below)?

The Bach means that I am continuing to perform the solo sonata/partita cycle, and it is still an active part of my repertoire!

Do you have any comments about Madison or Madison audiences you want to share?

The first time I went to Madison, about half my life ago, it was winter time and I was impressed by the stacks of sweaters and knit hats on tables in the snow. The air was crystal clear. I had also never seen a noodle shop before, so I went a little nuts with noodle soups every day. I loved it. I felt like I was in a fairy tale! I always look forward to returning.

Your success with the concerto by Jennifer Higdon (below, on right with Hahn) ) shows that new music can be accessible, even best-selling. Do you have other commissions and premieres in the making and can you elaborate?

I do -– 27 new short-form pieces are in the works! This project (titled, “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores”) has been more involving than I ever imagined. It is challenging to learn 27 composers’ musical language. But I also feel that I have become closer to a specific world of creativity and artists. I know and work with many performers. Now I’m getting to know composers from all sorts of different backgrounds, and I feel honored for the experience.

You blog and do a lot of interviews and YouTube videos.

I do not consider it blogging, actually; I write postcards for my site and journal entries from the road. To me, blogging is more about the writer, whereas what I put online is focused on the experience of being on the road as a performer – it’s more of a professional travelogue. I try to provide a resource for young musicians and concertgoers who are curious what this lifestyle is like.

How can classical music reach young people better and build younger audiences?

As for building younger audiences, I don’t know what the best approach is. It’s not a particular goal of mine, but then again, I cross paths with young audience members almost every day. I appreciate the first-time concertgoers as well as the ones who have been attending for over 50 years. They all have pretty interesting things to say about what they experience in the concert hall.

What we can do is just encourage performers to do what they enjoy and are good at. My website is one of my creative outlets, I learn a lot from interviewing my colleagues, and I like meeting the audience after concerts. Other musicians organize festivals and educational programs or create Apps or music group websites. Together, I think we can cover nearly everything people are interested in.

What is the role of music education today, especially in tough economic times and with so many other competing art forms?

That’s hard to say. We will not know for sure until kids now are grown up. I think teaching any art encourages creativity, which is a skill useful for grownups in all situations. Providing a range of artistic choices for students means that more will find creative pursuits that speak to them, and more will have constructive ways to communicate their experiences and frustrations and everything else.

I am actually more for broad-spectrum arts education in general than for music education specifically; not everyone finds music to be the most engrossing activity, but it is perfect for some. For others, other performing arts or visual arts or craft might be the magic key.

Posted in Classical music

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