A lyrical link
ASPEN I don’t pretend to have much honest insight into an artist after spending a few minutes with them on the phone as they put on their best face for the press and push the virtues of their latest project. Reading a Wikipedia entry might give me as much feel for the person as an interview conducted amidst poor cell-phone connections, bites of lunch and demanding bandmates. But I will say, after spending a half-hour on the phone with Hilary Hahn, that I have a grasp on at least one aspect of the violinist’s personality.The woman can talk. Loves to talk. Is prolific. Even very good at it, illuminating subjects in ways I had not considered.You wouldn’t think having an affinity for speaking would be a bad thing for a musician. Words, like music, are meant to communicate something. A musician who likes to talk – and, as is the case with the 27-year-old Hahn, speaks genuinely, with humor, warmth and insight, and especially likes to interact with her fans – couldn’t be a bad thing.Yet Hahn has in the past stirred up some controversy with her penchant for talking.When Hahn was in the early stages of her career, as a 13-year-old phenom, she says she went through a phase where concert presenters, in her words, “denied her the right to talk to the audience.” Specifically, Hahn’s invitation to concertgoers to meet her after the concert for some talk and CD-signings “was way too commercial,” she said, “and way too down-to-earth. There’s this great pressure not to say anything. It made no sense to me. I think it’s nice for an audience not to put the performer on a pedestal.”
Several years ago, Hahn began playing concerts with singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. The two share the stage Friday at Harris Hall in a concert that is part of the Aspen Music Festival’s new Aspen Late series. The ongoing project with the 30-year-old Ritter is partly about the music – Hahn improvises violin accompaniment to several of Ritter’s songs, and Ritter has written songs that connect to compositions by Ernst and Schubert that Hahn performs. But connecting the pair just as much as what gets played during the concert is what happens immediately thereafter. Ritter, says Hahn, shares her fondness for meeting audience members and signing their CDs. And sharing a bill with a singer-songwriter, someone who is expected to interact verbally with the audience even during the performance, meant that Hahn, too, could open her mouth and let loose.”I wanted to find someone who had similar ideals and approaches to the way they make music and perform,” said Hahn, whose Wikipedia entry features a photo of her posing with a fan and the fan’s infant child, with a caption confirming that she often signs autographs. “Because then, even if the music was different, there would be a continuity to the program.”••••Hahn has compiled an impressive résumé in the 14 years since she emerged as that teenage chatterbox. Her 2001 recording of Brahms and Stravinsky concertos earned a Grammy Award for best instrumental soloist performance. That year, she was named America’s best young classical musician by Time magazine. A 1999 recording of works by Beethoven and Bernstein, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Zinman, music director of the Aspen Music Festival, earned a Grammy nomination. She has also recorded and played the world premiere of a concerto composed specifically for her by Edgar Meyer.Over time Hahn has come to view the appropriateness of speaking from the stage differently. She now leans towards saving her words for after a performance, so that the concert focuses on a purely musical language.”I like to play a recital without talking, because it allows me to go into that realm of just music, without words,” said Hahn, who began violin lessons at the age of 4 at the Peabody Institute, in her Baltimore hometown, and entered Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music when she was 10. “It’s such an abstract realm, and I don’t have to pull back from that almost otherworldly realm.”
The setting and the audience expectations also come into play. For Friday’s concert, which will include fans of Ritter’s folk-leaning pop and some musical interplay between the two performers, Hahn will do some talking. (In fact, over the course of these collaborative concerts with Ritter, she has consciously adjusted the content of what she says onstage.) In this context, she wants audiences to experience the concert hall as it once was – not as a silent space, but a dynamic one.”The opera house was a bordello,” she said. “It was rock music. It was the movies. It was all sorts of entertainment.”She also respects that concert music has evolved over a few hundred years, and that rock and movies have their own place to be presented. “For a certain audience, they’ll be asking, ‘Why is this person talking? I came here to hear music,'” said Hahn. “In a recital, talking will become the focus of the concert.”Hahn has found that speaking can also break the continuity for herself. “When it’s really quiet, as a performer you’re tapping into the audience’s reaction. That’s quite a detailed thing to get in touch with,” she said. “You have to concentrate a lot. The fewer distractions there are, the more you’re in touch with the moment. And those kinds of moments – quiet, when no one’s talking – are getting fewer and further between.”Her website has become a repository for Hahn’s communication. Hilaryhahn.com features not only a Journal section packed with entries, but an About Me page (“Things I avoid: … unnecessary technology, horror movies”) and an Itty-Bitty News section (including a 2004 obituary for Psyche, her late pet guinea pig).
••••Hahn was raised in an environment with no television, no video games – and no pop music. None at all. She says she never heard anything that wasn’t classical music – except when she was at the public pool – till she was 15.”I never even noticed that there was something missing,” she said. “There’s such diversity in classical music. There’s no end to what you can listen to.”She had her big awakening at 15, on a trip in Germany. The only TV station in English was MTV. “At first it was, I do not understand this world: ‘What does this outfit have to do with this song?'” she recalled. “It became an anthropological study for myself. I was looked at as a cultural alien.”Hahn systematically began to expose herself to popular culture. But her introduction to Josh Ritter, a 30-year-old, Idaho-born folk-rocker who came to prominence with the 2003 album, “Hello Starling,” was through a random connection. Ritter’s parents are neuroscientists, as is Hahn’s aunt; Ritter’s father was the thesis advisor for Hahn’s aunt. The aunt suggested that Hahn might enjoy Ritter’s music, and she did, enough so that she made a point to see him in concert.”I was happy to see that he was a great performer,” said Hahn. “Performance is a whole different art. He’s very contagious as a performer. People have a good time with him – and not in a trivial way.”
Hahn also found something in Ritter that linked to classical music. Ritter’s ideas, she saw, came from all over. “Josh’s is a very classical style of inspiration,” she said. In their collaboration, that aspect of Ritter came to the fore. For their concerts together, Ritter prepared a cover of the Irish folk song “The Last Rose of Summer”; Hahn follows with Ernst’s variations on the song. Each performer also does a version of Schubert’s “Erlkönig”: Hahn’s is a solo violin piece arranged by Ernst; Ritter’s is an original song titled “The Oak Tree King.” Elsewhere in the concert, Hahn adds her own violin parts to Ritter’s songs.Hahn’s mingling with the nonclassical world doesn’t end with her concerts with Ritter. She has contributed to several albums by the Austin alternative-rock band And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, and played electric violin at the band’s concert last December in San Francisco. She has recorded with singer-songwriter Tom Brosseau, and done a split concert with Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile. Through Edgar Meyer, she is cultivating an interest in bluegrass.Hahn says she hasn’t seen another program in a concert hall in the vein of her performances with Ritter, where the two artists come from different ends of the musical spectrum, do their own things, and also find a way to interweave their music.She should have seen the Harris Hall concert last week, a dual recital featuring jazzman Christian McBride and her friend, Edgar Meyer. The two bassists found common ground between McBride’s jazz and funk and Meyer’s classical and bluegrass, and they also took their own solo turns.And Hahn would have loved how much the two talked.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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