David Daniels, of the exotic countertenor breed, and Hilary Hahn, the former violin prodigy‹both might well have remained undeveloped musical curiosities who burned brightly for a season or two, then fizzled out. Instead, they have emerged as two of the most arresting artists of recent years. This fall, they both make their Carnegie Hall solo-recital debuts. On Saturday, November 23, Daniels performs a program featuring works of Handel, Mozart, Britten, and American composer Theodore Morrison, with pianist Martin Katz as Daniels' collaborator. Three days later, violinist Hilary Hahn is heard in an evening of Bloch, Schubert, Bach, and Debussy, accompanied by pianist Natalie Zhu.
At 36, Daniels admits that the daredevil streak of his early years has given way to an ever-growing musical discipline and curiosity. Eight years ago, he dazzled audiences at Glimmerglass Opera with his virtuoso portrayal of Nerone in Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea. "I was really just starting out, and I could do anything at that point," he says. "It was an unabashed, here-it-is-guys attitude. At this point, obviously, I have put Nerone to sleep. It's a tessitura I just don't fit anymore. That being said, as an artist, I feel I have much more to offer now than I did at age 25."
The possibilities for countertenors have expanded to a degree that would have been unimaginable in the glory days of Russell Oberlin and Paul Esswood. Daniels has made his mark, not only in the operas of Monteverdi and Handel, but in the less traditional routes of song repertory; not long ago, he undertook Berlioz' Les Nuits d'été, long the province of mezzos and sopranos. Unlike some of his colleagues, he draws the line at taking on female opera roles, such as Stravinsky's Baba the Turk; he views this practice as a kind of high-camp stunt that undermines the seriousness of the work.
Even an artist of Daniels' stature finds that certain corners of the music industry still close ranks against countertenors. "My recital career is much larger in the U.S. than in Europe," he says. "In the U.S., they are willing to accept countertenors singing 19th- and 20th-century art songs. In Europe, they still have a problem with it. I can't get into Italy at all. Italy doesn't really love the countertenor voice."
Partnering Daniels at the piano for his Carnegie Hall recital is his longtime collaborator, Martin Katz. The two have known each other since Daniels' graduate student days at the University of Michigan, where Katz continues to serve on the music faculty. But Daniels admits that he put off meeting him at first. "He taught a song literature class that every graduate student had to take," the singer explains. "And I was so insecure about my voice‹I was singing tenor then. And knowing that Martin tells the truth, whether you want to hear it or not, I waited until he went on sabbatical until I took the class. I never met him until I graduated in May of 1992. Two months earlier, I had started to sing as a countertenor full-time. That's when we got together. I sang a couple of arias for him, and he introduced me to Marilyn Horne, who came to my audition at Columbia Artists Management. And that's how it all started."
Daniels continues to add to his growing discography. Recently, on Virgin Classics, he released a collection of Handel's English oratorio arias. Unfortunately, there are no complete opera recordings on the horizon. "It's one of the things that really frustrate me in the business," says Daniels. "The classical recording industry is not at its strongest, to say the least, and of the few Baroque operas being recorded, I'm not doing them. It would be nice, since I'm singing all the operas onstage, to record a couple of them."
Following Daniels' recital by a few days will be another starry Carnegie Hall debut. At 21, Hilary Hahn already has some remarkable accomplishments behind her, including a concert debut with the Baltimore Symphony (age 11), a European telecast of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Lorin Maazel and the Bavarian Radio Symphony (age 15), and an impressive recording contract with Sony Classical. (She recently signed a new, exclusive agreement with Deutsche Grammophon.) It's a packed-in résumé for someone who's barely of drinking age, but all this activity doesn't seem to have fazed her. Because she began so early, she claims not to have suffered any marked degree of performance anxiety. Her first teacher, Klara Berkovich, told her that "performing is like throwing a party and giving a gift to the audience. You invite them in and give them a gift of your music, and they thank you with their applause." Hahn started performing with that image in mind.
Born in Lexington, Virginia, Hahn grew up in Baltimore, where she began her violin studies shortly before she turned four. Baltimore is with her still. "When I read Anne Tyler's novels," she says, "she takes me right there. Those quirky characters, the feel of the place, and the street names are so familiar." Her studies with Berkovich allowed her to develop a vision of performing as a viable career: "Mrs. Berkovich introduced all of her students to a community of Russian musicians in Baltimore for whom music was a highly honorable and esteemed profession. I learned a lot from those musicians; I realized performing was something people do in all shapes and forms." At ten, she was accepted as a pupil by the venerable Jascha Brodsky of Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, who guided her for the next seven years. "Apparently he was feisty before," she laughs, "but he was quite gentlemanly by the time I got to him. He didn't have a certain method he wanted everyone to play with. He had an idea of what was right for each student, and worked with each technique and tried to make it better."
In conversation, Hahn is clearly more interested in discussing the works she performs than in her own career trajectory. One of her favorite challenges of recent years was the Barber concerto. She says that she wasn't thrown by the work's daunting final movement: "It has almost Stravinskyesque dimensions, as far as the orchestra part goes. It's not perpetual motion at all. Interesting rhythms, and something going on besides the fast motion of the violin. I never thought of it in strictly violinistic terms‹more as a violin playing a part in the whole canvas of the piece."
Hahn has also distinguished herself as a champion of contemporary music: The violin concerto she commissioned from Edgar Meyer has met with considerable success, first in her Sony recording, and subsequently in her frequent stage performances. At the moment, she has no plans to commission another work. "What I wanted to do with the Meyer," she says, "was to record it and then perform it as soon as I could after the recording was released. I wanted to make sure that orchestras programming it would know what was expected. This season, I'm playing it in Seattle and Boston. I haven't focused on another new piece because I want to give the Meyer a full chance. If you commission a piece, I think you have a responsibility to make sure it enters the repertory. If you stop playing it, and no one else picks it up, I think you've failed in that responsibility."
Brian Kellow is the co-author of Can't Help Singing: The Life of Eileen Farrell. His second book, The Bennetts: An Acting Family, a biography of film stars Constance and Joan Bennett, will be published in late 2003.