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Interview: A Talk with Violinist Hilary Hahn

On September 9, 2003, shortly after her recording of Bach Violin Concertos was released, Hilary Hahn became available for brief telephone interviews. Hahn spoke from the New York office of Universal Classics, the label with which she had just signed.

Hahn was running a good half hour behind schedule when we began our conversation. Twenty minutes later, she had to leave to attend a Tower Records signing. Given how little time was available to us, Iím amazed at how much she was able to share.

What strikes me most as I replay the tape of our conversation is the simplicity with which this gifted 23-year old artist discussed the mysteries of artistic creation. Hahn had no need of airs or phony sophistication. I am what I am, she suggested by her voice and the innocence of her replies.

Readers who have heard the artistís Sony debut recording of Bach Sonatas and Partitas, her Barber/Meyer disc, or her Grammy-winning CD of Brahms and Stravinsky Violin Concertos know that she is capable of music making of the highest order. This impression was further confirmed when I heard Hilary play Bach, Bloch, and Mozart live on February 8, 2004. The solo Bach Partita No. 2 performance was extraordinary, not only for its unquestionable technical proficiency but moreso for its intellectual and emotional coherence. Zhu proved a more than able partner in the Mozart and Bloch, exhibiting equal degrees of care and nuance.

Here is the interview:

Jason Victor Serinus: Do you know the repertoire youíll play at your February 8 Berkeley recital?

Hilary Hahn: Yeah. It will be the Mozart E major Sonata, Bach Partita No. 2, the Bloch Sonata, and the Mozart Sonata in A major.

JVS: Please discuss these pieces and why youíve chosen them.

HH: Weíre going to be recording four Mozart Sonatas over the next few years. I wanted to play two on this next program because I want to play them more often than Iíve played them already.

I chose the Sonatas in E major and A major because theyíre ones that my pianist Natalie and I have always liked reading together. Iíve read through all the Mozart Sonatas with her, and whenever we got to those two, we always really liked them. I thought it might be fun to put some more time in on them and actually learn them.

JVS: What about the Mozart sonatas do you especially like?

HH: Theyíre both very lyrical, theyíre thoughtful, theyíre well written, and they have equal importance in all of the lines. Theyíre very interesting to dissect and put back together again.

JVS: Itís tough to talk about music, because music communicates things that are beyond words. But letís give it a try. Bach has always meant a lot to you. What is your love affair with Bach about?

HH: I like playing it, and itís a lot of fun to work on because thereís always something new to discover in it. Once youíve thought an interpretation through, it usually works pretty well. Anyone can hear what youíre doing and interpret it for themselves as well. Interpretation in Bach does not stop with the player.

Thereís no standard interpretation in Bach, and the traditions that youíre supposed to follow depend on whom you talk to [laughing]. Heís not like some composers who everyone played a certain way and you can only deviate a little bit. With Bach, as long as what you do has logic to it, and as long as you feel it that way yourself, thereís no reason why you canít try it.

JVS: What about the Bloch?

HH: Weíve played it before, and wanted to play it again because itís so much fun to perform. It was the opener for our Carnegie Hall recital in November 2002.

JVS: How long have you and Natalie been working together?

HH: Gosh, ten years on and off. We met at Curtis. She was a student of Gary Graffman and I was studying with Mr. Brodsky. We worked together and it went well. While Mr. Brodsky isnít around anymore, the nice thing is that since she also studied with Claude Franks, every now and then I get a coaching with him or one of her other former teachers.

JVS: Letís talk about interpretation. Two of us writing for an audiophile publication ending up giving you a Golden Ear Award - the greatest honor this publication bestows - for your Brahms/Stravinsky recording.

HH: Thank you.

JVS: I brought the SACD copy of the disc from room to room at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show, and after playing it for three or four minutes in a room -- itís not a venue where you can sit and listen to an entire performance undisturbed -- everyone who heard it ran down to the store and bought a copy. They sold out just like that [snapping my fingers] because everyone found it so beautiful.

HH: Oh, thatís so sweet.

JVS: Thereís something about your interpretation, such as where you transition from the concertoís declamatory, forceful opening passages to its meltingly tender phrases that just does me in. Obviously youíre expressing parts of yourself in your own language.

Were you able to tap into those parts of yourself from an early age? I think your first public performance was at 11.

HH: Actually, my first public performance was at age six. I played a couple of pieces in a small student recital. When I was 11 was my first performance with orchestra. It was a chamber orchestra.

JVS: As youíve gotten older, how have different feelings manifested? Have you found yourself getting deeper into the music?

HH: I think early on you learn a lot from your teacher. I think those feelings are always there; you just have to learn how to bring them out in the music. My teachers always thought that musicality was important as well as technique, so I was taught how to express my feelings through the music. You just canít think it and have it happen [laughing bashfully]. It has to be thought out to some extent. You have to plan out how youíre going to bring across what youíre feeling in the music.

JVS: There are some singers who go right to the heart of the matter. Thatís what I experience in your Brahms. Was accomplishing such open communication always easy for you? Was there difficulty at first opening your heart and baring it onstage?

HH: I think that you try different things at different times. For me, when Iím onstage I canít just forget about everything Iím doing and get lost in the moment, because then I might actually get lost in the music. I have to keep a certain logic going during the concert to keep track of what Iíve done, what Iím going to do, and how this phrase relates to that. I have to make sure that the little details I alter -- the phrasing -- on the spur of the moment actually play out in a way that makes sense later on.

I donít feel like Iím ever not baring my soul, but at the same time I canít entirely forget what Iím doing and delve so deeply into the music that I lose track of everything. Itís in the practice room that I figure out what I want to express and how itís going to be done.

JVS: Do you ever find yourself playing a phrase youíve played many times and all of a sudden saying, ďHmm, Iím going to do that differently?Ē

HH: All the time.

JVS: And then you have to figure out how that fits in with the rest?

HH: Right, right. Once you change one little thing, it changes the whole proportion of the piece. Itís like painting a face; you make the nose a little different and the whole face looks different. Then you have to figure out how thatís going to affect the rest of the painting.

JVS: You studied ballet?

HH: Um hum.

JVS: I see your training in the prepossessed posture I see in all the pictures of you. How many years did you study?

HH: About eight years. Not seriously. I wasnít very good at it [laughing] but I took it.

JVS: When did you stop?

HH: Around 13 or 14, something like that. My body wasnít being trained well enough to do it anyway at that point. I would have had to go to three classes a week and been there all the time to study. I wasnít available to do that, so it didnít quite work out in the end. I was never serious about it, so it wasnít a major decision to stop taking classes. I just did it for fun.

Then, a few years later, I found a place where I could do one class at a time when I was in town, so I started studying again.

JVS: Youíre still doing ballet?

HH: Well, no, I havenít had time lately. But every now and then Iíll take a class. I like to dance, so I just dance for myself.

Iíve been doing sculling for a while, but Iíve been doing it more seriously lately. Itís another hobby I like: rowing in the really long boats with the really long oars. Sculling is when you have two oars per person; rowing is when you have one oar per person.

JVS: Is there any possibility of straining your arms?

HH. No. No. I grew up using a rowing machine every other morning. There was one in the house, and my dad thought it was important to keep the natural strength I had when I was little. I had very strong arms and upper body, and that tied into the music very well. At one point when I was little I could do a one-arm chin up [giggling]. I donít remember that. Actually, I do kind of remember thinking there was nothing to it, but I donít remember when I stopped being able to do it.

Every other morning I would do some rowing on the rowing machine. Then one day, when I was 12 or so, I happened to be at a festival and someone found out that I used a rowing machine. They told me they had some rowing shells -- the shells are the boats -- and invited me to come on down to the lake and try it out. When I said I didnít know how, they said theyíd teach me. So I learned how to do it. It wasnít that hard after using the rowing machine.

In other words, Iíve been using those muscles that way for a long time. Itís not really a strain when you do it right.

But I also like reading and photography, and being creative.

JVS: Do you have time to do all that with your schedule these days?

HH: Writing and photography I get to use for the Journal that Iím starting on my online site soon.

JVS: The one that used to be on the Sony website?

HH: Itís my site now so I have to organize it. I found a web designer and got permission to use photos from my album covers, so hopefully it will be done by the time people read this.

I do writing and photography for the Journal. I read when Iím trying to brush up on my language skills and when Iím on the airplane. I like watching foreign films, especially in languages Iíve learned. I have other hobbies too, but I canít take anything on the road so I tend to just draw when Iím touring.

JVS: The violin you play is from 1864. You fell in love with it when you were 13. Have you tried a Strad or Guarneri? Whatís the difference in sound (not that Iím complaining about your sound) between those different instruments?

HH: The violin I have is a copy of Paganiniís ďCannonĒ Guarneri. Its nickname refers to its big sound. Iíve tried others, but the reason I always wind back up with mine is because Iím so comfortable with my instrument and itís mine. Iíve had it for a while, and I kind of grew up with it. So it adapted to me and I adapted to it.

JVS: When you try other instruments, does a different sound come out? Can you not make them sing in the same way?

HH: No. Itís a matter of the fine details of sound and how it changes a little bit with each playing. It takes awhile to get adjusted to an instrument. I feel Iíve adjusted to my violin; we work well together [giggling].

JVS: I love your Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Last night I was comparing it to the Oistrakh version with Ormandy that I was raised on. I still have the lp that my father played on our ancient Magnavox.

HH: Really!

JVS: Yes. The performance was never transferred to CD. Thereís only skip in it, thank God. Itís in a painful place, but it only skips once, and then no major scratches.

I was comparing Oistrakhís sound to yours. Of course, heís miked differently, and was recorded in an earlier era, so itís so hard to tell whatís really going on.

HH: Right.

JVS: Your sounds and interpretations are very, very different; both strike me as valid.

As you matured, did you hear a sound that you wanted to create on your violin, or was it always a dance between what you could do and what the violin could do?

HH: Iím always changing the way I play or something about my technique a little bit. Thatís how I develop in a lot of different ways.

You always envision what you want to do ahead of time. I guess the violin plays a role because it can do certain things. But itís more the case that when I want to try something and want to get a certain sound, I work until I get it on my violin.

My violin is very flexible so it can do almost anything I want it to do. But it has also gotten used to the way I play -- it sounds weird I know -- so it can respond pretty quickly to what Iím trying to get it to do. I donít think it really influences what I feel I can do because itís often the case that I discover something on my violin that I wasnít aware was possible.

JVS: And thatís an ongoing discovery process for you?

HH: Yes, it always is.

- Jason Victor Serinus -

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