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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,, 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

the train.

"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

Hilary Hahn , HEW Concert Association, Mount-Burke

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.

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