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The Rest Is Noise

From Schoenberg to . . . the Trail of Dead, it's all classical music to Hilary Hahn

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 6/3/2009

Hilary Hahn and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Violin Concerto by Jennifer Higdon. June 4, 5, and 7 at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

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The first time Hilary Hahn performed in public with a non-classical musician, she more or less stumbled into it. In 2005, she was in Canada to play a violin concerto with the Montreal Symphony and her pal, alt-pop singer/songwriter Josh Ritter, was in town for a club gig.

"When I'm traveling, it's not often I get to be in the same town as a friend, so we made plans to get together," she says. "We were having tea, and I said, 'If you ever need a violin player, let me know.' He said, 'What about playing with us at the show tonight?' I said, 'OK,' without thinking about it. Then I went back to the hotel and it dawned on me what I had gotten myself into. I quickly worked out these violin parts to his songs, but when I went to rehearsal, he was playing the songs in different keys, so all the violin parts went out the window. 

"I decided I would just play the harmonic progressions. I kept asking them to run through the chord changes so I could get them straight in my head, so I would always know where I was. At first I didn't diverge from the roots of the chords, but as I got more comfortable, I started playing thirds and suspensions, then moving around in the chords or anticipating changes. When we did the encore, we were sitting on the edge of the stage and everyone was singing along. It was so much fun, and I'd never experienced that before."

Hahn is only 29, but the longtime Baltimore resident is already one of the top classical violinists in the world. This past September, she won the Classic FM Gramophone Award as Artist of the Year. Her most recent Deutsche Grammophon album, Schoenberg/Sibelius Violin Concertos, not only debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard classical chart, but also became the first Schoenberg recording ever to appear on the chart at all. In February, she won her second Grammy Award for the disc.

But she is 29, and as much as she staunchly defends the music of Sibelius, Bach, and Mozart, she also wants to play the music of her own time. She's not interested in becoming a pop or folk musician; she's interested in applying her classical technique and sensibility to new situations. By digging into new music, she is reminded that much of classical music's history has yet to be written.

That's why she ventured into the unfamiliar territory of improvising with Ritter. That's why she recorded with the rock acts Tom Brosseau and . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. That's why she agreed to be the soloist for the Oscar-nominated soundtrack to M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. And that's why she seeks out opportunities to present brand new classical pieces. This week she joins the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto, a piece Hahn premiered in Indianapolis earlier this year.

Tall and thin, with a bundle of brown, corkscrew curls framing her long neck and porcelain face, Hahn looks even younger than she is. But every time she has taken the Meyerhoff stage, she has planted her feet as wide as her shoulders and dug her bow into the strings with a forcefulness that suggests impatience with fusty ideas about classical music. She looks determined to make her violin part as visceral as the best pop music and as resonant as the best literature. 

And she loves a challenge. In the essay that she wrote for her latest album, Hahn confesses that she was mystified by the sudden mood shifts in the Jean Sibelius concerto when she first listened to it on a tape recorder between innings at a Baltimore Orioles game. Later on, she was equally puzzled by the unfamiliar, unorthodox fingerings required by the Arnold Schoenberg concerto when she finally tracked down the hard-to-find score.

Her interest was stoked rather than dampened by these confounding aspects of the music. By the time she finally recorded the two pieces, she had not only conquered the technical demands, but had also tapped into the emotional currents of Schoenberg's anxiety-ridden modernism and Sibelius' folk-fueled romanticism.

A similar sense of challenge compelled her to do a short tour with Ritter last year. Though they haven't released any recordings, audio from their 2008 show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has been posted by National Public Radio and YouTube has several numbers from the duo's collaboration at the 2007 Verbier Festival in Switzerland. At the latter, Hahn is all elegance with her hair pinned back over a strapless purple top and floor-length white skirt. Ritter wears a dark suit, but with his unshaven jaw, loosened tie, and tousled red hair, he looks as rough around the edges as his music.

When he sings his Nick Drake-like composition, "Bone of Song," Hahn backs his repeating guitar arpeggios and shaggy vocal with violin lines that add a second melody to the composition; she then spins countless variations on her own counterpoint. While her sympathetic accompaniment boosts the song considerably, it never sounds like she's playing folk or bluegrass fiddle any more than Ritter sounds as if he's suddenly become an opera singer. She always sounds like a classical violinist.

"I don't consider the stuff I do with Josh non-classical because it all comes from classical music for me," she says. "When I improvise, it's different from what I usually do, but I inevitably bring everything I've done before along with me. I'm still playing classical music--I can't get away from it. I don't go out and try to do jazz or bluegrass, because I don't want to pretend I can do it when I can't. I just go out there, do what I do, and try to not mess up too much."

This is a crucial point. When Hahn collaborates on stage with Ritter, on Brosseau's John Doe-produced Grand Forks or on The Village soundtrack, she is convinced that she's still playing classical music; she is just trying to shake the genre awake by dragging it into new contexts.

This may be a neglected approach, but it's anything but new. "Classical music has always borrowed from folk and popular and contemporary culture," Hahn says. "That's what not only makes it relevant for its time, but also keeps it alive for the future. When I'm collaborating with a symphony orchestra, I don't come in saying, 'This is the way I'm going to do it--adjust to me.' I try to adjust to them and they try to adjust to me. That's the only way you get anywhere. And the way I interact with these pop musicians is a continuation of that."

Hahn is convinced that these forays into unfamiliar territory provide new tools for working on classical repertoire. By improvising over chord changes, she says, she has a better understanding of how classical composers think. By playing behind a songwriter's words or a filmmaker's images, she has a better handle on the emotional elements in purely instrumental art music. And by playing a new piece, such as Higdon's concerto, Hahn can apply those lessons to classical music without the distractions of precedent.

Before she became one of America's busiest living composers, Higdon taught 20th-century music at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music for a few years. In 1994, one of her students was a 15-year-old Hahn, already a college student and orchestral soloist when most of her peers were high school sophomores. Higdon opened Hahn's ears to the stereotype-defying diversity of modern art music. The teacher and student bonded, so when Hahn wanted to commission a new violin concerto, she naturally turned to her mentor.

"I haven't had Jennifer's piece very long and it's always changing for me," Hahn confesses. "It runs a broad range of emotional states and sometimes the changes are very quick. It can go from very impactful to very inward in 10 seconds--it almost takes your breath away. There are certain parts that are quick and kinetic, and there are parts that just seem to watch the time pass. It's hard to write things that are so still and calm and yet communicate a sense of searching at the same time. She pushes a lot of boundaries, but she brings the audience right along with her.

"You'd think talking to the composer would be really helpful, but I find that their views are always fluctuating, because they're so affected by how the musicians are playing. Sometimes, it'd be nice if you could get a definitive answer about how to interpret something. Usually, they have an idea in mind, but they're open to alternatives. You might say, 'This version or that version?' and the composer might say, 'I like them both--do what you want.' But that's the risk a composer takes when he or she puts the work into the world--it's going to be played with the musician's interpretation."

Hahn lived in Philadelphia for several years after she graduated from Curtis, but as her school friends began scattering to the far corners of the world, she had less reason to stay. She tried several other cities, but several years ago she realized that Baltimore was where she wanted to be. She grew up in Towson, but it was at Peabody Prep and then at the Meyerhoff, with the encouragement of then-artistic director David Zinman, that she first blossomed as a musician. She still considers the BSO "my hometown band" and still uses the Meyerhoff rehearsal rooms whenever she's off the road.

"Baltimore is so small I don't feel pulled in so many different directions," she says. "But it's not too small, so there's a lot to do. I have a history here that I appreciate. And people are nice. When I wasn't living here and I'd come back, I'd be surprised when people would smile at me in the grocery store. I wondered if there was something wrong with me, if there was something on my face. Then I realized that people were just being nice."

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