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Exclusive Interview with violinist Hilary Hahn: Feb. 3, 2010

Bach: Violin and Voice
Münchener Kammerorchester, Hilary Hahn

CDs: 1
Tracks: 12

Deutsche Grammophon
Rel. 4 Jan 2010

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On Wednesday, February 3, 2010, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with famed violinist Hilary Hahn – whose new Deutsche Grammophon release Bach: Violin and Voice explores the rich literature of Bach cantatas that also features the solo violin. In this delightful discussion, Ms. Hahn discusses her recent collaboration with soprano Christine Schäfer and baritone Matthias Goerne, and her long-time connection to the music of J.S. Bach. In addition, she discusses the fascinating time she spent working on the violin concerto of Arnold Schoenberg – the recording of which earned her a second Grammy award – as well as upcoming projects, her recent collaborations with non-classical artists, and much more. In each case, Ms. Hahn brings to bear intriguing artistic insight, from one of today's biggest classical music stars. Enjoy!

“One thing that's really challenging as a performer is working not only on Bach, but on all different repertoires – for the music I do is so varied. And in a way, I think the variety is really what keeps me in shape.”

  • Nolan Gasser: Let's start with your most recent Deutsche Grammophon release, Bach: Violin and Voice – which, of course, also features soprano Christine Schäfer and baritone Matthias Goerne. This is a very interesting program, and seems to be part of a creative trend we're witnessing with marquee artists such as yourself: to focus not just on high-level repertory and big works, but to find an interesting and specific theme whereby you can showcase and discover little-known works – in this case, arias and duets from Bach cantatas, that also feature a violin obbligato. Where did this creative idea come from?

  • Hilary Hahn Hilary Hahn: Well, I've always been familiar with the voice, because my teachers have always said that it was something to copy; so I've grown-up listening to recordings of singers, and I really enjoy working with them. But there aren't so many opportunities to do this because singers' schedules are planned rather differently from orchestra schedules. So, you have to form some kind of project together with the singers in order to collaborate – and thus it's not something that happens a lot. But I love these Bach arias and I wanted to work with these two singers [Schäfer and Goerne]; and it all came together really well. It gave me a chance not only to work with them, but also to delve much deeper into the repertoire. I played some of the arias in music festivals, and I heard them from when I was little, but I hadn't played most of them, so it was really good for me to learn them with this project in mind.

  • NG: It's a great collection: you've got some real well-known gems, such as the two arias from the St. Matthew Passion ["Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder" and "Erbarme dich"] and the duet "Wann kommst du, mein Heil" from Cantata 140, but most of the arias are fairly obscure – such as the one from the secular cantata Der zufriedengestellte Äulos, BWV205 ["Angenehmer Zephyrus'] or the duet "Welt, ade, ich bin dein müde" from Cantata 158 – which features not only a great virtuosic violin line, but also an interesting use of the chorale melody in the Soprano. How did you go about making the decision on which arias to chose – did you and the singers pore over every Cantata and Passion to find all the candidates, and whittle down from there?

  • HH: Well, I actually did none of that, because I wanted to the singers to choose; I like the whole repertoire [laughs]. I wanted the selections to be arias that the singers felt close to, and ones that they really wanted to work on. I think this is really a project that highlights the singers, and I wanted to give them the respect of letting them choose the arias they'd be investing their time in. So, they selected a big batch, and then we whittled it down from there – because there was so much, you'd fill more than one album. I really wanted to be more of a supporting role here. Granted, these violin parts are very soloistic and have solo sections – but, they're also supporting lines, and the main body of the arias is conveyed through the singers and the text. At the same time, of course, I have to do my part work, so that the singers can really convey what they want to; it's an interesting balance between supporting and solo roles.

  • NG: Okay, so the singers came in with a big list and then, collectively, you whittled it down from there; that really makes a lot of sense – they are cantatas [works to be sung], after all.

  • HH: I don't normally like to excerpt things, in general, and for this project I would have gladly done all of the cantatas and passions that these arias are from, but there wouldn't have been enough space.

  • NG: Yes, that would have made for a big disc [laughs].

  • HH: Right, so we picked out things that made sense for the collaboration.

  • NG: Well, we'd all love to hear these works in their entirety, but, again, by focusing on this particular theme, you've highlighted a great repertoire that we wouldn't otherwise get a chance to focus in on: the melding of wonderful violin and vocal melodies in Bach arias – a blend clearly important to the composer, who was himself also a violinist.

    So staying on J.S. Bach a bit – you've stated that his music has always been sort of a touchstone for you – keeping your playing honest – and that for many years you were playing Bach's music every day. Is this still generally true? And have you gained any new insights on what playing Bach does for you as an artist and as a performer?

  • Hilary Hahn HH: Yes, in fact, I still do play it most every day. It's never been part of a "religious" ritual, or anything; it was more that I perform Bach's music so much that I'm always practicing it. When I was a student, I was always preparing it for my lessons because my teachers liked me to work on it constantly – mostly the solo violin repertoire in that case. And now, I play a lot of Bach encores for my concerts – that is, movements from the solo sonatas and partitas, following orchestra performances. I like to use those particular movements as well for things like school visits; I've played them at weddings and memorial services... it seems to work in all contexts – though granted, you have to tailor what you're playing to the occasion. Plus I've played them on TV and radio... So, there's always some occasion for which I'm preparing Bach.

    It's great to have the goal of performance be the reason to work on something everyday. It makes you really push yourself instead of just doing it as a kind of a hobby; it really makes me focus my efforts to try to figure this stuff out. I think that the "touchstone" part of it has a lot to do with the solo repertoire, because it takes a lot of technical precision, but it can never sound technically difficult. The musical part of it is really challenging: to balance all the lines at once, and to do that within the confines of the technical writing. So, you can't skimp with the sonatas and partitas at all, in any way; you really have to have done everything there is to do with your preparation in order to make it work – you can't fake your way through it. Of course, I try not to fake my way through anything, but with Bach it's particularly obvious if it's not coming together on a particular day.

  • NG: It certainly forces you to be honest with yourself, as well as your audience, to get beyond those technical issues – and to arrive at what makes Bach's music so magical, the beauty and the inspiration contained within the music.

  • HH: Yes, and I have to say too, that one thing that's really challenging as a performer is working not only on Bach, but on all different repertoires – for the music I do is so varied. In a way, I think the variety is really what keeps me in shape. Because, just as I start to settle into one way of playing, or one composer's repertoire, then I go straight into another's. For example, I've been playing Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto, and now I'm playing the Prokofiev 1st [Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19] and the Sibelius [Violin Concerto in D-, Op.37] on the same tour. And, from the extensions of the hand positions and the kind of agility required in the Higdon concerto, to the compressed hand positions in the Prokofiev, to the really dark, drawing quality of the Sibelius – at first I think that I know what I'm doing, but then I start another piece that I already know and I think, "Gosh, where's my playing? I thought I was doing alright last week, what's going on?" [laughs] And, it's just this constant challenge of playing these composers with different musical languages, from different eras, with different influences, and all of that. And so I keep coming back to Bach – again, because I play his music so often – and it's kind of a constant in all that variety, and it keeps my playing more honest than if I were to only play Bach all the time.

  • NG: That certainly makes sense – Bach's music becomes almost like a foundation of calisthenics to ground yourself in. Now, I do want to discuss some of the other repertoire that you're doing, but before leaving Bach – you've obviously recorded quite a bit of his music: three of the six solo violin works [Sonata No.3 in C, BWV1005, Partitas No.2 in D-, BWV1004, and Partita No.3 in E, BWV1006] and the violin concertos, and now these "violin arias", if we can coin the term. So, what's missing from the recorded repertoire for you – is obviously the first, 1st and 2nd Sonatas [BWV1001, 1003]; and – one of my favorite sets – the six accompanied violin sonatas [BWV1014-1019]. Any plans to round out the Bach repertoire with these works.

  • HH: Believe it or not, I haven't played any of the accompanied sonatas.

  • NG: Really?

  • Hilary Hahn HH: No, I haven't played them at all, though it's not out of lack of interest. It's just hard to program something like that in the middle of other things. And also, I would really have to make a decision about the keyboard part – whether I'd want it played on the piano, in a modern style, or in a more historically informed manner on the harpsichord – but I'm not really trained that way. When you perform solo violin repertory, or work with other string players, you can kind of mix and match your styles – you can do a little bit of this, a little bit of that. But when you're playing with keyboard, you have to make a choice. And I think if you're playing with piano, then you have to have a pianist who's really well trained in the structure of Bach and the style of the harpsichord, for example, so that they can get some of that idea across. Now, I just haven't really had a situation in which I studied these pieces; my teachers didn't teach me those works, and I haven't really had an occasion to learn them. But, I could always just learn them... I just haven't gotten around to it; but yeah ... that's kind of the next frontier for me with Bach. I have done one of the movements in one of his flute sonatas as an encore quite frequently, so I'm kind of getting there [laughs].

  • NG: Well, I would certainly be one of those to lobby for you to consider it; I know that you would make them sing. I think they're among the most exquisite works that Bach wrote – just my opinion.

  • HH: Yes, they're beautiful.

  • NG: Okay, let's skip a few centuries and talk about your previous disc for Deutsche Grammophon, which was, of course, dedicated to the concertos of Schoenberg [Violin Concerto, Op.36] and Sibelius, and which garnered you your second Grammy – congratulations on that. It must be quite gratifying that the disc did so well; it seemed that you took a personal interest in demonstrating to your audience the power, beauty, the humor of Schoenberg's concerto – did its success take you by surprise?

  • HH: Ah ... well you don't know what's going to happen when you put something out, but I really hoped that it would achieve that kind of success, but you never know. There have been albums in the past where I've thought, "Certainly, this is going to catch on like wildfire," and it does well, but the idea doesn't really catch, you know? And with that disc in particular, I felt so strongly about the Schoenberg, and I really wanted for it to come across in a certain way. And it was really nice when people started immediately hearing it the way I wanted it to come across. So, that was really exciting. But, from the times I'd performed it in concert beforehand, and the reaction it received, I knew that this was a possible outcome. So, yes ... it was very exciting. Not expected, but not un-hoped for either.

  • NG: It's a wonderful recording, which I think also benefited from a great pairing with the Sibelius...

  • HH: I really have to give Deutsche Grammophon credit for that, because they also stood by the album; and they put the Schoenberg first in the pairing, which was really good of them to do.

  • NG: Yes, since it is taking a risk – for Schoenberg's music, especially his twelve-tone music [such as the Violin Concerto] can be cause for concern among executives at a major record label.

  • HH: Yes, but the folks at DG got it, and it worked out well.

  • NG: Indeed, it did. I also got a kick out of the tributes you did to Schoenberg on his birthday on your YouTube station – where you took questions from your fans. It really seems like you lived in Schoenberg's world for a while, as you discussed looking at his paintings, and so forth. Did you in fact listen to a lot of his music, read his prose, and get into his world – and that of the Second Viennese school – while you were recording the concerto; and if so, is this typical for you as you're preparing a work – to sort of "live" in the moment of the composer?

  • HH: Well, I find it interesting, but in truth when I'm working on a piece, I really try to go first in-depth with the music itself, and generally don't get too much into the world of the composer. I try not to read too much into the music until I know what I want to do with it musically. And then I might confirm or research my hunches by reading about the composer – or reading something he wrote. With Schoenberg, I got his theory book [Theory of Harmony] and read some of that. I also wound up meeting some of his relatives after I did the recording ...

  • NG: Yes, I saw that.

  • HH: Yes, that was great. And, in fact, I did become very interested in how he thought, and what he liked to do; for example, he did these little craft hobbies, and I found that really interesting. I also find it interesting that Schoenberg has been given these labels of being difficult to work with, or kind of ornery and academic, and all of that – when, really, he had quite a sense of humor. And, I think I became interested in him, not in order to understand the piece better, but because I just had a few hunches about why I liked it, and I was curious about the personality that created that music. I don't think it changed my interpretation of the concerto at all, but it did make me a bit more interested in the person than I might previously have been. But I make a point of not researching into the background until I know what I hear in the music; and sometimes that takes a long time. Sometimes I don't feel like I am ready to learn about those other factors for quite a while – until after I've been performing the piece for a while; sometimes, even up to the recording time.

  • NG: So, it's really all about the music for you.

  • HH: Yes, it really is. And I think that this works for me. It may not work for other people, but it really helps me to not second-guess my interpretations. Because, with my recordings, I would really like people to just listen to my work first, and then reach their own conclusions. Or, what I mean to say is that I've always believed that music speaks for itself, and interpretations speak for themselves, and if it's not working for you, you don't need to go in and research how you're "supposed" to listen to it, or how it's "supposed" to work, or something. I think that if you don't like it, you don't have to convince yourself that you need to like it, and if you like it, you don't need to justify it to yourself. If you like something and you're curious to learn more about it – or if you didn't like it, and you're curious why you didn't like it, and you're trying to define it for yourself – that's great, and fine. But, I think, primarily, the music or the interpretation should speak for itself, and anything else should be kept a bit separate. We really don't know why people do what they do artistically; you can think, "This composer was this kind of person, and therefore he made these kinds of choices," but sometimes it's totally the opposite. I know a lot of artists, and their art doesn't always reflect their personality at all; in fact, there might be something that they want to express that they can't express in their personality, an aspect you would never guess or know about; but they know, and it's there in their work. So, I like to treat things with that respect ... you know, just to give the work the chance to speak for itself, and then, personally, if I'm curious, then I'll look it up.

  • NG: Well, that's a very solid aesthetic position; and certainly, not associating the art with the artist is a very old idea going back to at least Aristotle. As you say, knowing the background of a composer or a work can enliven it, but regardless, the music either touches you or it doesn't.

  • HH: Exactly. I know people who are not musicians, who don't really know much about classical music in the academic sense, and they really like finding out about the composer's life. They feel like it ties them better to the music they're listening to. So, it could just be a matter of context; I have a certain context that I work from, and other people may have a different context they work from; or maybe they like to gather a lot of information to sort through when they're listening to music. I think it just depends on how you go about it – it's very interesting.

  • NG: Well, it certainly involves human nature; it's why we're so fascinated with the private lives of movie stars: if we like somebody, or if we don't like somebody, in the limelight or the public sphere, we are often curious about them. It doesn't necessarily impact how we view their art – for example, I've always gotten a kick out of the fact that Schoenberg and George Gershwin were good friends in Los Angeles in the 1930s; they played tennis together, and painted together; though, I doubt this friendship had any bearing on their respective musical output.

    So, you mentioned how you met some of the Schoenbergs – which I also saw on YouTube. I especially enjoyed the questions that Schoenberg's grandson asked you [see attached video] – actually, questions that Schoenberg himself had posed to Louis Krasner, the violinist who premiered the concerto in 1940.

  • HH: Yes, that was really neat.

  • NG: And it was very interesting: it showed almost a lack of self confidence, or a certain lack of clarity, in Schoenberg's own mind, about whether the audience got the piece; whether the violin spoke well in relationship to the orchestra, and so forth. And I thought it was interesting that when you were asked a question by one of your fans about what you'd say to Schoenberg if you had the chance, you replied, "Well, I'd just want to listen to him talk, and tell him ‘thank you.'" But, in fact, by way of his grandson, you did kind have a conversation with Schoenberg – and one in which he was the one asking you questions!

  • HH: Yes, it was interesting to see what questions Schoenberg had. To me, the whole thing about a composer's past: I like being surprised by things after I think I'm familiar with them [laughs]. I like finding out these little things. It was fun, then, to meet the family, because I don't really know how much we've read about Schoenberg is true, and how much is just the telling of a story. If it's not straight from the composer's mouth, I tend to discredit it just a bit as somewhat sensational. It's like the game of telephone – you know, you say one thing and by the time you get back around the circle, what was said five minutes ago is completely changed. And so, it was really nice to be able to talk with the family, who are just about as close to the composer as you can get, and then to have heard his questions in his own words. Especially when the composer has done some writing himself.

  • NG: Well, indeed, Schoenberg was a great intellect and a great writer as well.

    I'm also curious if, having now lived a bit in this world, and playing the Schoenberg concerto, if you have taking any interest in tackling the same form written by his talented pupil, Alban Berg – whose violin concerto is surely one of the great masterworks of the 20th century?

  • HH: Yes, you know, I've thought about it, but I have such a large number of things I'm trying to learn now [laughs], and there's so much I want to get to... I try to spread it out, and not to learn one thing after another in the same style or era. I try to vary it because I find when I infuse variety, that's when I discover the most. So, I tend to jump around when I'm going to learn something new, and I put a lot of time into the Schoenberg; it took me a long time to learn it, and then do the recording; and I continue to perform it from time to time. So I'm still kind of with that piece, and I'm not quite ready to dive into the next concerto in that same time frame; but it's a very well known piece compared to the Schoenberg, so I'm sure I'll get to it at one point.

  • NG: I'm sure you will, and we'll look forward to that.

    Now, I see that your next DG release, in fall of this year, will feature the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, as well as the brand new concerto written for you by Jennifer Higdon.

  • HH: Yes, those have been recorded, and are currently in production. I recorded them with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and conductor Vasily Petrenko, it was recorded last season – in the spring and summer.

  • NG: I'm looking forward to the hearing the Higdon concerto – I've read a few nice reviews. I also heard that you studied with her at Curtis [School of Music, in Philadelphia].

  • HH: Yes, she was my 20th century music history teacher; and she was really pivotal in my having a feel for the variety of the 20th century repertoire – and that was back in the 20th century so, it still applies [laughs]. Yes, she was really one of my best music academic teachers.

  • NG: Well, that must have been a thrill then to work with her in this creative manner; I've read how she really listened to your playing and tailored the work to you to a large extent.

  • HH: Yes, it was really nice to work with her. And for me, it was also the closing of a circle, because we had talked about working together for a long time, but hadn't quite put the project together until quite recently. It was really nice to work on something written for me; and especially something written by the person who had really helped me to understand the scope of the 20th century.

  • NG: Right – and now the beginning of the 21st century... I'm also curious about something: I've read that the opening movement of the Higdon concerto is titled "1726", and there's some sort of a contest to identify what that signifies. I don't know if that's been revealed yet...

  • HH: Yes, it has: it's the street address of Curtis.

  • NG: Oh, ok. I was thinking that it might relate to a year, perhaps of one of Bach's works; I looked at the year of the Partitas and Sonatas, but it wasn't 1726.

  • HH: I have to post the results; we do have some winners. It was really interesting because there were some people who were really elaborate with their whole scheme for why it was 1726. And then a couple people were like, "Oh yeah – it's the address of Curtis" [laughs].

  • NG: So, one last question for you: you've obviously taken a very big interest in collaboration with non-classical artists. I know this is a great source of interest among a number of your fans. So, I'm wondering what's the genesis of this? Were you a big Pop and Rock fan as a kid? And also, with the success of your Josh Ritter tour – are you planning any other interesting collaboration with someone of the Pop world, and maybe doing any writing yourself, or maybe any singing? I've heard you sing on YouTube...

  • HH: Ah, I don't sing very well... [laughs]. No, I wasn't a big Pop or Rock fan as a kid. I don't remember hearing much except for car trips – the oldies stations. I don't remember hearing much non-classical stuff at all. We listened to classical radio, and NPR, and all that, and we had classical recordings, and I pretty much lived in that world.

    And then, I started to get to know people outside of the classical music world, and I realized that everyone who does something creative is tied together by the creative process – though, of course, it's different for everyone. Everyone comes up with their own way of getting around their personal hurdles, and playing up their strengths, and challenging themselves. For singer/songwriters, it's writing and performing their own music, and trying to break through with something they've written – when so many other people are writing as well. And for us performers of classical music, it's interpretation. For filmmakers it's a different process; for writers it's different; for visual artists it's different, and so forth. I've just gotten to know people in different realms of art, and I find it really interesting to work with them or spend some good conversational time with them; just trying to figure out how they approach everything. It's interesting in a creative profession to talk with other people who are doing very different things from the same angle, from the same starting point.

    And, just in the course of that I realized: hey, you know what? I'll probably learn a lot by working with some of these non-classical musicians, and that'll be really fun. I'd be totally out of my element, but that's okay – I'll learn more if I am. So I started going into that a little bit more.

    But, it's always just been projects that were really organic – people I already knew, or friends, or people who asked me to participate; and in the course of that you find where you might have a really good collaboration, and you try to develop that. But I do so little non-classical stuff. Really, when it comes down to it – I can count the people I've worked with outside of classical music on one hand, and I work with hundreds of classical musicians every season. So, it's a little diversion, not because I get bored, but rather, because it helps me to come back. It's the same thing as switching repertoire. It helps me to come back to something that I know from a different perspective; and that makes me restart, and really appreciate what I do.

    The environment in which we work as classical musicians – we have a really good set up. We have "real jobs" in music; we have, you know, careers! A lot of orchestras have health insurance, although that's changing. We have concert halls, nice dressing rooms, decent facilities, a fair amount of security – you know, lots of things that we take for granted – until you play in a club or you jump into someone else's musical realm, and then you realize it's really hard out there; it's really, really hard. It's so rare that someone outside of classical music, as a musician, finds success, and if they find success it's really astronomical; but it seems like there's very little in between.

    So, we're really lucky that we have these long-term careers and we can build on things, and we don't have to just do everything that comes along immediately, or we lose all our chances. It's really nice to also have that shot in the arm as to what the actual reality is, and that we really are quite well off as classical musicians. We're really lucky.

  • NG: Right. It's a good career if you can get it.

  • HH: Yes, there are a lot of people who are in classical music, though not exactly in the line that they originally intended to be in; but they're still in their field. A lot of non-classical musicians and artists can't even work within their field, so they just have to do their music within their spare time, and it's really a hard life that way. So, we're lucky that we have options as classical musicians, and that it's a whole community, and we all know each other pretty well, and it's pretty supportive... So, it's really good.

  • NG: Certainly, Josh [Ritter] has joked about some of the big difference between the things he's used to – the difficulties of club life, and then traveling with you, with the nice hotels and concert halls... And, of course you're both building bridges between your audiences, and keeping a younger generation aware of classical music; and that's very important in our society with so many things coming to people. So, I certainly commend you for doing these collaborations. Any plans for other collaborations that we can tempt our readers with?

  • HH: Well, there is one thing in the works, but I'm just keeping it quiet for now. I'll let people know when stuff is coming out.

  • NG: I get it, no problem. Well, it's nice to know that there's something to look forward to from you in that realm as well – to go along with your upcoming classical releases.

    Thank you so much Hilary; have a wonderful tour, and enjoy the snow in Glasgow!

  • HH: I will. Thank you very much.

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