Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
November 3, 1999. All rights reserved.
At Age 19, A Violin Veteran
If you want to get close to America’s remarkable
violin sensation Hilary Hahn, try going on tour with her. With the
help of Sony Classical’s website, www.sonyclassical.com, the
articulate young artist of seemingly boundless energy publishes an
ongoing series of virtual "Postcards from the Road" which
she describes as "a diary of sorts of a touring teenage
Writing from Jerusalem and Hamburg, from Australia, Holland, and San
Luis Obispo, Hahn chronicles new sites and sounds and brings them
to life with her own gallery of colorful snapshots. Bringing an old
art form to a young audience, even Elle magazine has observed that
"Hilary Hahn is living proof that not all teenage girls wannabe
Ginger Spice when they grow up."
Hahn, who has been dazzling all comers with her fluency on the violin
since the age of five, opens the 10th anniversary concert series of
the Hightstown-East Windsor Concert Association with a performance
Thursday, November 11, at 8 p.m., in the William Mount-Burke Theater
on the campus of the Peddie School in Hightstown. The program begins
and ends with Brahms sonatas for violin and piano, and includes Bach’s
Sonata No. 2 for solo violin, and a Debussy sonata for violin and
piano. Natalie Zhu participates at the piano.
In a telephone conversation from a hotel in Nashville, Tennessee,
the articulate Hahn offers insights into her performing style.
she reveals an astonishing composure and ability to communicate. She
is a person who knows what she is about, who exudes naturalness and
charm, and who sets limits with a daunting grace. Her initial
that she can spend only 25 minutes leaves an interviewer feeling that
the cup is half full, rather than half empty.
Hahn reveals that she arrived at the overall shape of her Hightstown
concert program by thinking herself into the position of the listener.
"It’s interesting for me to sit in the audience and hear one
play two pieces by the same composer at a single performance. I heard
a program that did that once, with one piece at the beginning, and
one at the end. I heard the composer in a new light when the program
ended with his work."
An unaccompanied Bach work has become Hahn’s performing signature.
"I always include a solo work by Bach," she says. Her first
CD release consisted of three Bach works for unaccompanied violin.
It was a bold move by a 17-year-old, defying the conventional wisdom
that these are forbidding pieces. The Sony recording reveals Hahn
completely in command. She plays the music as if she was romping
a field of yellow flowers.
Hahn has worked with pianist Zhu, who is five years her senior, on
and off since they first appeared together in 1994 in France. The
match was brokered by Curtis director and Zhu’s teacher, Gary
"When I work with Natalie," says Hahn, "we don’t have
to discuss what we’re going to do. We just do it. She’s fun to be
around. She’s fun to perform with. We approach performance the same
Hahn is a cheerful performer. "I just love to perform," she
says. "My first teacher told me that performing is giving a gift
to the audience. Natalie enjoys performing, too. It’s nice to go on
tour together, and discover new things about each other, and discover
new things about pieces." A sunny presence on the telephone, Hahn
relishes not only appearing on stage, but just plain living. The word
"fun" pops up frequently, whatever the subject of
Hahn was born in Virginia, and has lived in Baltimore
since she was three. Her parents enjoy music, but are not professional
musicians. Her mother is a tax accountant at Baltimore Gas and
and her father is his daughter’s assistant and traveling companion.
"My dad has been a librarian and a journalist," Hahn says.
He worked in the Curtis public relations department, and did special
projects for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and Marlboro.
He now does box office, mailings, and has written program notes.
makes sure everything goes well, and sees that I have enough time
to practice. He does laundry and shopping. He’s a kind of personal
assistant, but that sounds very much like business. It’s nice to have
a family member to travel with."
Her father was present when Hahn’s interest in violin surfaced shortly
before she turned four. The two were taking a walk in their Baltimore
neighborhood, when they came across an advertisement for the Peabody
Conservatory’s Suzuki violin program. (The Suzuki method starts
on violin as early as age two, and depends primarily on imitation
rather than cognitive skills.) They looked in on a lesson, and Hilary
started on violin the following week.
When she was five, she switched to Klara Berkovich, a native of
who taught for 25 years in the Leningrad School for the Musically
Gifted. Under Berkovich’s tutelage she gave her first public concert
at age nine.
At age 10 Hahn moved on to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute where her
teacher was Jascha Brodsky, the last surviving student of the Belgian
violinist Eugene Ysaye, born in 1858. She studied with Brodsky until
he died in 1997 at age 89. At the time Hahn was 17. She marvels, she
told Julia Zaustinsky of "Strings" magazine, at the fact that
there is, musically speaking, only one generation between her and
the legendary Belgian violinist of the last century.
Although Hahn completed Curtis’ requirements for graduation by age
16, she stayed on at the Philadelphia center for training
After Brodsky’s death she coached with Jaime Laredo. "I loved
the school so much I couldn’t bring myself to leave," she told
Zaustinsky. "There were a lot of classes that interested me that
I hadn’t taken yet — I took a poetry writing class, a fiction
writing class, several English classes, and continued with German.
In May, 1999, Hahn graduated from Curtis. "I’m not planning to
go back to school," she says. As a new graduate, Hahn changed
the pattern of her summer activities. "This summer I performed
for the first time. Usually, I didn’t perform in the summer. I would
take a German course at Middlebury, or participate in Marlboro. But
now that I’ve graduated, I wanted to see what it would be like to
be on the road, spending time at festivals, and preparing programs
for season. I was at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland, and went
hiking. I did concertos, sonatas, chamber music, and solo Bach."
Hahn’s busy post-graduation summer included performances with the
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s Amadeus Festival, participation in
the Skaneateles, New York, festival, a concert in Virginia, a stop
at the Interlochen, Michigan summer music camp, ("It was really
fun because the high school orchestra was learning the Goldmark
with me. It’s a virtuoso, lyrical piece that’s underplayed.").
One of the high points of the summer was the premiere of a violin
concerto that Hahn commissioned from bassist-composer Edgar Meyer.
After a preview performance of the piece in San Luis Obispo,
the official premiere took place with Hugh Wolff’s St. Paul Chamber
Orchestra. A CD of the piece is to be issued by Sony.
"I chose Edgar Meyer to write the piece," she says,
we performed together at the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society,
and he was a lot of fun. (Listeners to the recent McCarter performance
of "Short Trip Home," the instrumental quartet in which Meyer
participates, will attest to that.) "I liked working with him
so much, I asked if he would write it for me."
Hahn avidly followed the natural history of the commission. "He
started writing in January," she remembers, "and sent me one
page at a time. The whole thing was finished by April, and he sent
me tapes made on a keyboard synthesizer. Then he sent me a score
the different lines, though not which instruments played, because
the piece had not yet been orchestrated. Then the score came in July,
and I saw how my part connected to the rest. I heard the concerto
with a real orchestra for the first time in August. It sounded really
different. Things come out that you don’t expect."
Hahn welcomes the unexpected. She admits to making changes while in
the midst of performing. "Not bowings or fingerings," she
says, "but you get new ideas about details while you’re performing
— notes to highlight in a phrase, what to try louder instead of
softer, or you might just try a different approach. You have to keep
an ear open for what’s going on in the music. With Natalie," she
says of her Hightstown collaborator, "you can try something new,
and she can try something new. That’s an advantage. Sometimes you
will have an idea during a performance that you have not thought of
in practice; you can try it out, and then work it out in
Change, Hahn realizes, is important for preserving a fresh approach.
"Change makes things interesting. You’ve probably noticed that
as a writer. Sometimes you phrase loud in one performance, then soft
in next. It will have the same effect on the audience. It’s fun to
experiment. But I don’t try to do anything too drastic in
Hahn’s appreciation for variety asserts itself again when she is asked
if she remembers a narrow escape in performance. "It didn’t happen
to me," she responds, "but when I was on a recital tour in
Vancouver we were playing a Prokofiev sonata and it had a very
piano part. The pianist used the pedal in order to simulate legato
in some of the difficult passages. In the middle of a tricky quiet
legato section I noticed that she was looking at her foot. The pedal
had come off. The pianist knew that something was wrong. She kept
trying to lift the pedal off floor with her foot. It was interesting
for me, because she made it sound as if the pedal was on. It was also
interesting to think of her thought process as she tried to figure
it out. There’s an advantage to being a violinist," she says.
"I always bring my own violin. Pianists have to use what’s
Hahn puts her powers of observation to good use in her website
"Hilary’s Journal" consists of answers to questions posed
by children from schools Hahn has visited, and the expansive,
entries she calls "Postcards."
"When I’m visiting a place that has a school program, I try to
fit it into my schedule," she says. "I like to see kids’
to what I do, and show them things to which they’re not necessarily
The website was an outgrowth of her visit to a third grade class in
Skaneateles. "The class was studying geography, and they were
asking everyone they knew to send postcards when they traveled. I
though it might be helpful if I sent a postcard from each city I
Later, I thought about how I could incorporate this into a broader
plan and I hit on the website idea. I asked Sony about it, and they
lent me a digital camera. It’s more labor intensive than a lot of
people want to do, but I like to write."
In a "Postcard" of July 10, 1999, Hahn reports
on her tour stop in Princeton. Amidst reflections about travel by
railroad, cheerful references to meeting old friends, and her
to performing her own cadenza in the Mozart concerto with the New
Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Hahn talks about Princeton’s Richardson
Auditorium, and posts photos of the hall.
"The performance in Princeton last night took place in the
Richardson Hall," she writes, "a beautiful dome-shaped theater
with good acoustics and a slightly quaint atmosphere. There were
painted on the wall behind the orchestra, skylights around the domed
ceiling, medieval-style lettering on the exit signs and a charming
overall design that placed the audience all relatively close to the
"My dressing room was a basement office that had been converted
into nothing less than a 1940s-vintage railroad caboose by its daytime
occupant. It was remarkably authentic. Apparently, the man who works
in that room is a big train buff. It looked to me like he’d bought
an old caboose, carefully taken it apart, and reassembled its interior
inside his office, just the way it was when it was still inside of
"He had ancient copies of train magazines, decades-old posters
for vaudeville shows, electric lights that looked like gas lanterns,
photos from the Great Depression, and odds and ends that he must have
collected from train auctions around the country — bells,
lanterns, pressure gauges, coal shovels, chains and locks, etc. He
also had his computer, printer, telephone, and fax machine sitting
in various nooks and crannies, all of which technology looked oddly
incongruent. It was so much fun to warm up in a perfect replica of
an old caboose! It’s the most memorable dressing room I’ve ever had
the chance to use."
That dressing room space is the office of railroad buff Jack Schenck,
Richardson’s production manager. And Hilary Hahn succeeds in depicting
the space as vividly as she depicts the violin masterworks with which
she lives. Her cup seems to be overflowing.
— Elaine Strauss
Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown, 609-490-7550. Brahms, Bach, and
Debussy. Natalie Zhu accompanies on piano. Five concerts, $50; single
admission, $20. Thursday, November 11, 8 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.