Feature Article

Interview: Concert Violinist Hilary Hahn's Tonsillectomy

November, 2007

Jason Victor Serinus


Hilary Hahn was not having an easy time of it. On November 12, 2006, just 17 days before our phone conversation, the about to turn 27-year old violinist underwent an emergency tonsillectomy.

Ordered to remain silent by her doctor, her recovery compounded by a severe cold, she was forced to cancel the third performance in her 14-year professional career. Now, finally able to eat, and still getting her voice and energy back, she found herself challenged to think straight as she segued from two non-stop hours of being followed around by German Variety Fair to a half-hour phone conversation with this up-against-a-deadline critic.

Astoundingly, with the same poise and equanimity that she exhibits during performance, she spoke with such unassuming directness and clarity that I couldn't help wondering how articulate she must be when everything is in working order.

In December, 2006, Hahn performed the Korngold Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony and guest conductor David Zinman. A month, she embarked on a 16-day, nine city recital tour. Our conversation included discussions of all the works she was slated to perform.

Less than a week after this interview took place, I had the privilege of attending Hahn's opening night performance of the Korngold Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony. Though I had heard her live once before, seated a distance away in the dry acoustic of Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall as she played Mozart Sonatas with pianist Natalie Zhu, I was unprepared for the sheer size and generosity of her sound. The notes were so big, so full and rounded, and so glowing with health that even the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony were astounded. At the work's conclusion, they did something I had never seen them do before. Instead of "applauding" silently (as is the custom) by waving their bows and instruments up and down in approval, virtually every musician put their bows and instruments aside and clapped loudly with both hands. Hahn's playing was that tremendous.

After the performance, when I went backstage to thank Hilary for her amazing artistry, When she again apologized for her difficulty communicating during our interview, I told her there was no need to do so. For proof of that statement, read on.

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Jason Victor Serinus: How are you? You've just been through this tonsillectomy thing.

Hilary Hahn: Yeah. I had to cancel a week. I'm still recovering, but I'm finally getting my voice back and able to eat and all that. So it's okay. My energy is a little bit weak, but it's much better.

JVS: I was told this was the first concert you've cancelled in your career.

HH: Actually, it's not. I only cancel if I can't move or I can't travel. It's the third concert I've cancelled.

JVS: Emotionally, is it hard for you to cancel?

HH: I'd rather not. But if you're not able to perform well, or you'll run yourself into the ground and not be able to perform for the next few weeks, then you have to balance things out. In this case, it worked out well, because the guy who was replacing me, James Ehnes, was also playing the same piece, the Korngold Violin Concerto. That's rather unusual. He actually had a recording of it that he was probably able to sell at the concert, whereas I don't have a recording of it. So I think it worked out well. And James Ehnes is very, very good.

JVS: I'm wondering if you have plans to record the Korngold. I love the piece, but its Hollywood-ish elements are a trip. What about the piece appeals to you? How does it feel to play it?

HH: It doesn't feel like an extremely long piece, but it feels very solid length one. It's a little bit hard to describe it in words. It has that movie sort of influence to it, but it's also very much a classical concerto. It utilizes the orchestra really well. At the same time, it features the orchestra in ways that would be great for a movie score, but aren't necessarily used in all concertos. That's a nice feature of it.

JVS: Certainly it's right out of Hollywood, in a sense, since he drew many of the concerto's themes from his movie scores. But how do you use the orchestra differently in a movie?

HH: If you were to mike every instrument equally, you don't have the balance issues. That allows a lot of composers to bring out certain elements of the orchestra or feature certain instruments that might not be quite as loud or necessarily project over others. So it's a kind of hall vs. miking situation.

Also, there are a lot of atmospheric things that happen in movie scores. You have to set a mood. That's a nice perspective to have on a concerto. And you can tell by the way he writes. That's a good element of the piece.

It's a lot of fun to play. It feels kind of glitzy and glamorous, but also very intimate and sentimental. It's a really nice combination.

JVS: I had forgotten how moving the middle movement can be because my attention was fixed by the glamour. Then I played Gil Shaham's recording and was really transported.

HH: Yes, it has a lot of emotion in it.

It's been a few years since I've played it. I've worked on it with some really good conductors, and they all have different takes on it, so I'm really looking forward to doing it with David whom I've known for a really long time (in my life at least). It will be nice to work on it together.

The piece seems kind of flashy. As you were saying, when people have a folksy influence in their music, it's not considered high art. Korngold's Concerto suffers because it reminds people of movie music. I think people don't realize how hard it is to write movie music. It takes so much effort to make something really work in ways that support the film and really brings an emotion home right when it needs to.

You really have to understand how people respond emotionally to music in order to write film music and sound tracks. It's nice to have classical music, which is considered somewhat esoteric by some people, that is so emotionally charged.

JVS: Have you heard Renée Fleming's new recital, Homage? She does two Korngold arias, and they're absolutely fabulous. I would think that her recordings would draw attention to him, and let people know that there's a lot to his vocal music beyond the opera Die Tote Stadt. It's a shame that the recording of "Ich ging zu ihm," the main aria from his opera Das Wunder der Heliane, that was made by the role's creator, Lotte Lehmann, was recorded by an engineer who drastically compressed the sound at the climax. Renée really gives it her all, which is what's needed. If you approach it solely as pretty music that requires a great virtuosic display, you miss the beauty that's there.

HH: Absolutely. You really need to bring out the music, and the virtuosity will fit itself in there and enhance the music.

JVS: Do you listen to much opera?

HH: I haven't had a chance to. But I think it would be great to know more about it. I heard a lot of it when I went to Curtis and hung around singers. So I definitely feel an affinity for it, and familiar with it. I'd really like to see it live and not listen to so many recordings of it. But the nights when it's on, I'm usually on too. It's just so great to see people performing opera, because it puts it all together for you. After that, you can listen to the recordings.

I really like vocal music. I wouldn't be able to identify arias from certain operas. But you get familiar to vocal music when you're a violinist, because your model is a singer.

JVS: So, in terms of tone and phrasing, your models were singers?

HH: Yes, or violinists who were greatly influenced by singers.

JVS: It's so interesting. One of the famous quotes about Lotte Lehmann was that she played her voice the way Heifetz played his violin.

HH: Yeah. I always thought that violinists modeled for singers until I talked to singers who said they were told to play like violinists [laughing]. I guess it depends on who you talk to.

JVS: You've recorded the Barber, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky concertos. But in terms of really far out modern music, I don't think you've recorded any.

HH: Did you mention Edgar Meyer's concerto?

JVS: I loved it when I listened to it. But I don't recall it being very harmonically adventurous or pushing the envelope. Maybe I need to listen to it again.

HH: I thought it was pretty modern. It was written for me, and pretty modern for a classical concerto.

I've played a lot of stuff that runs the range of styles. I've done some really contemporary, avant-garde stuff in the chamber realm. But I haven't recorded it or played it in a whole lot of places – music by Friederich Czerha, Jennifer Higdon – she's actually writing me a violin concerto right now – an oboe quintet by Arthur Bliss, which is not that new, Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht which is not that far out but is progressive. My next recording includes the Schoenberg concerto, which is definitely unusual and harmonically progressive. I'm pairing it with Sibelius.

JVS: Wonderful! I was wondering when you were going to record the Sibelius.

I really enjoyed the Meyer Concerto when the recording came out, but a lot of people put it down because he writes in a more familiar sounding idiom. Some people suggest that because his style is closer to the vernacular and the folksy, it's not art. It's hard to break through those kinds of prejudices.

HH: For sure. And it's a shame. I think that a lot of stuff that is really inventive is rooted on long-standing traditions and tweaked into something completely new. Because people have associations with certain traditions or styles, they sometimes have a hard time looking past that to see what's new and different. Also, when a new piece is influenced by older styles, some people who listen to it aren't necessarily familiar with the original styles that influenced it, so they don't realize how new it actually is.

JVS: What do you perform at the Bushnell?

HH: You should probably check the program. I've been working on a LOT lately. Let me focus on this for a second… I've been thinking about the Korngold, because I was practicing it all morning, and we haven't yet started rehearsals for the recital tour. Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, Mozart's Sonata in A major, K. 305 (which I haven't recorded), Janacek's Sonata, Ysa˙e II Obsession with four movements – the one that starts like Bach. I'm leaving one out. I'm sorry. I'm a little tired today. I had a two-hour interview this morning; I was followed around by German Variety Fair and I can't really think straight. Let me check the program on my computer. I've just been working on so much stuff, doing mixed recitals here and there, that I don't want to give you the wrong thing. [Hilary calls her assistant on her cell phone and eventually receives a message that she's also playing Tartini's Devil's Trill].

JVS: You're 26 at this point.

HH: 27. I just had a birthday.

JVS: Congratulations! Are people still looking you as a "young artist," or are they simply looking at you as an artist in her twenties? The whole age thing is such a game.

HH: For me, age has never been an issue. It's other people who are concerned with titles and descriptions. For me, I've always played.

I've always preferred to be judged in absolutes rather than by my age. I think it isn't important. When you work in classical music, you work with people of all different ages. You also get familiar with what it's like to devote your whole career to one avocation, and you see that the long-term goal is about how far you can develop. How good a musician can you be, and how much can you learn from the people around you? Age and country and gender don't really wind up playing a role in the collaboration. What is really crucial is how well you collaborate with the other musicians musically, how well you get along personally, and how well you work together.

JVS: Do you have specific goals you're trying to reach?

HH: I don't really know where I'm going to wind up. I hope I just keep developing. I want to get better and better, as much as I possibly can.

I don't know what else to say. That's a hard one.
That's one thing about age. You don't want age to get in the way of how people are listening to the music. As a younger musician than the people you're working with, you try to put age aside and just focus on the expression that has been laid in front of you to communicate.

JVS: You work wonderfully with your usual recital partner, Natalie Zhu. But I believe you're working with someone else in Hartford.

HH: Yeah. Natalie got married and wanted to take a break and stay home a bit. I'm working with Valentina Lisitsa, who's a fantastic Russian pianist. I'm really looking forward to the tour. I think it's good to have several people that you work really well with, because you can learn from all of them. But I am going to miss working with Natalie.

JVS: What different about working with Valentina?

HH: I've only performed with her once [laughing], so I wouldn't be able to compare them in a tour setting. Valentina is fantastic, because she gives me a lot to react to. She's a different kind of player than Natalie, but I wouldn't be able to define it. It's just different because she's different. I wouldn't say her playing is bigger scale or smaller scale or more or less expressive. Everyone phrases things differently, just as everyone picks different words to describe the same thing.

I don't have a history of working with Valentina. Whatever Natalie did I could tell was coming. With Valentina, when we play together, it's all there. I might not be able to predict what she's going to do as well, but she gives me plenty to respond to, and there's plenty of chemistry and musical connection.

We'll take about a week to rehearse before the performance. I just focus on the recital, put it together, and hit the road on January 5.

JVS: Could you comment on some of the pieces on the program?

HH: Absolutely. Ysa˙e was my teacher's teacher. He's relatively new to me, and it's great to play his music. The piece starts like Bach, and I have so much experience with Bach that it's fun to start with it and then diverge. I've been playing the Ysa˙e's movements separately as encores, and they really work well individually, standing by themselves. I'm looking forward to putting them all together and playing it time after time after time.

The Janacek is new to me – I've never played it before – and the Kreutzer is something I'm coming back to after a long time away.

Of course I've recorded Mozart with Natalie, and we have a way of doing it together. I've played Mozart with Valentina as well, and it was a lot of fun – it was very spirited. I'm looking forward to learning this new Mozart and performing with a different collaborative partner.

I haven't played the Devil's Trill Sonata for 6-8 years, maybe longer. It's a really great piece, a lot of fun to play, and it works well in many different contexts. It's a violinist's violinist piece that all violinists know about – they all somewhat dread it, but also find it amusing. It's a real character piece, very difficult technically. It's also pretty and mischievous. It's fun to try to get a handle on.

JVS: A recent study reported on by the Wall Street Journal says that what most builds audiences for live classical music is when people either sing or play an instrument when they're young. To what extent do you have opportunities to reach out to younger people? Especially with Tower closing, and a lot of the Indie labels running scared, what do you see as the future of classical music?

HH: A lot of people are now getting their education in classical music from the Internet. I think that's fine. I'm not a researcher, but there have to be other ways than playing an instrument to inform oneself about classical music.

I think it's really bad that record stores are closing, but at the same time, if you look at the ranking of classical sales on the Internet, they're actually proportionally much higher up in the charts than in stores. For example, sometimes on iTunes I'll be No. 60 total – one of my albums will be right behind the White Stripes or something like that. That doesn't happen in the regular charts in stores. So I think people are actually exploring classical music online, trying out this, trying out that, finding their niche preferences. People are educating themselves.

Also, classical music doesn't have a lot of the same issues with illegal downloading as do other genres, because the quality of the sound is so important. It's not just about hearing the songs and being able to sing along; it's about hearing the whole performance very, very well. So I don't think the Internet is quite as bad for classical music as some people think it is.

Also. I have friends who run and work with very Indie labels. A lot of their distribution is through the Internet and at concerts. It's really bad to lose stores, but the Internet is opening up options for companies that wouldn't be able to secure a place in stores, let alone pay for advertising.

JVS: What do you want your audience to know most about your playing and why you're there in front of them?

HH: I want them to just listen to the music. I want people to focus on what they're hearing and reach their own conclusions. I don't want them to think that they're supposed to like something because it's by Beethoven or Mozart or what not, or they're not supposed to like something because it's not high art. I want people to let the music have its effect on them without fighting it.

There's something in classical music for everyone. You just have to find it. You can listen to people for recommendations, but you know your own ears and your own prejudices. The great thing about classical music is that you can be at home in it no matter who you are or where you're coming from.

JVS: Cool.

Do you now have a teacher or someone you coach with?

HH: I'm pretty much on my own right now. I try to learn from everyone I work with. It's like having Master Classes and coaching with some of the most experienced, greatest musicians in the business. It's a great advantage. I feel lucky that way.

I do get to play for people on a regular basis if I want to. I have people I can call if they're available. It would be nice to have a regular person to play for, but I do know that I have that in Jaime Laredo. If I want to, I know I can call him. He was my teacher after Jascha Brodsky passed on.

It would be nice to be back in school with all that security, but in many ways I'm very glad to be on my own and have to make my own decisions and have to figure things out for myself. I do have the safety net of knowing that there are people around I can rely on, and I can get input from everyone I work with. It's really the best of all worlds.

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2007 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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