Q&A: Grammy-winning violinist Hilary Hahn to perform with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

Classic Arts Features   Q&A: Grammy-winning violinist Hilary Hahn to perform with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
An interview with Hilary Hahn. The talented violinist will perform Brahms’ Violin concerto with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in an exciting program March 13-16 in Newark, Princeton and Morristown, New Jersey.

From March 13-16, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra will present a program comprised of Brahms’ Violin concerto (with Hilary Han), Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite (1945) and Salonen’s Giro. The Brahms work is considered to be one of the most important violin concertos ever written. Yan Pascal Tortelier will conduct the weekend performances.

Why is Brahms’ Violin Concerto such an important work in the repertoire?

This concerto rewards numerous performers and concertgoers alike‹both when they first discover it and when they revisit it time and time again. I’m not sure it’s possible to quantify exactly why it resonates with so many people. If you love it, you love it.

For me, playing this music, I really appreciate the way Brahms went all-in with his writing. When the orchestra takes over, it is dramatic, and when the solo violin is featured, its melodies as well as its harmonies are simple yet complex. What seems like a single line can be interpreted as multiple voices simultaneously; that gives me a lot to work with. Another thing that I like is that this concerto is solidly rooted in the Romantic style. I immerse myself in a lot of different eras of music, and it’s fun to wind up smack in the middle of a particular aesthetic. Pieces like the Brahms are landmarks of their times. What is your history with the concerto, and how do you approach it?

I learned the Brahms in my early teens as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music. At that time, I had heard it so much, on record and live, that I couldn’t wait to begin working on it myself. My approach to the piece has of course evolved over the years. As a student, you learn from your elders and internalize their musical values. As a professional, you pick up ideas from your colleagues and the orchestras you work with, while coming up with mutual interpretations in very short periods of time. Everyone winds up adapting in one way or another. But you also have to define to yourself what you want to communicate in the piece.

My first teacher, Klara Berkovich, advised practicing a familiar piece as if it’s the first time you’re seeing it. That effort is particularly helpful in a piece you’ve played for decades, because while it could be easy to go on auto-pilot, it is uninspiring to do so. With Brahms, the big arc is really important. There should be some sense of catharsis on stage at the end of the performance. Pacing, variety, suspense, and release are therefore vital. Out in the hall, the interpretation should be open enough that every member of the audience can have his or her own personal experience when listening to the piece.

You first performed with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in the 2004–05 season, playing Barber’s Violin Concerto. What do you remember about that experience, and what are you looking forward to most as you return to NJSO stages?

I remember having a great time! The musicians were working at a very high level, they were dedicated to the music, and the audience was welcoming. I’m excited to play the Brahms here. I feel like that piece is a really good fit for all of us together.

You will play four concerts with the NJSO in three different cities across the state. What is unique about performing the same work with the same orchestra in different spaces?

We will learn a lot about each other, for sure. Live, adrenaline-fueled performance brings out a lot of ideas that don’t tend to show themselves in rehearsal. Onstage, there is constant observation, invention, interaction, and spontaneity. Everything the sheet music tells us is relative: approximately how much longer and louder this note is than that one, the basic feel of a section, quicker vs slower in tempo, higher vs lower in pitch. Those are a lot of variables, and the details are up for interpretation. It is crucial to rehearse as much as possible in advance; the better we know each other’s playing, and the closer we can align our musical goals, the more freedom we can have in performance.

Playing the same piece with the same colleagues in varied settings adds to that flexibility. Each stage highlights different instruments; each hall gives different feedback; each trip brings different energy. We have to listen even closer to each other and react even quicker. It’s fun to be part of an evolving interpretation.

Have you worked with conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier in the past? How do you collaborate with conductors to shape the interpretation of a concerto?

We have indeed worked together, on various repertoire. I feel like every time I experience a fresh piece with the same conductor, our understanding of each other’s musicality evolves. We know better what to expect, and we are more of a team, which makes it easier to connect immediately with the orchestra.

It’s nearly impossible to describe collaborations in general, because each concerto has its own set of demands, and every orchestra and conductor approaches the working process differently.

What thoughts go through your mind right before you step on stage for a performance?

Is my dress zipped up? Do I have anything in my teeth? Are my arms cooperating? Do I know how I want to start the first phrase?

What kind of music did you listen to growing up, and how did those artists affect your career interests?

I listened to a ton of classical music, often in the form of historic recordings by Heifetz, Milstein, Kreisler, Elman, Grumiaux, and my teacher Jascha Brodsky (first violinist of the Curtis String Quartet for many decades). There was also a near-constant soundtrack of classical radio, when I wasn’t practicing or listening to pieces I was studying. The aesthetics you idealize as a kid stay with you, so those musical experiences were very formative for me. My career direction has probably been guided as much by curiosity and my personality as by my early influences. I have a lot of interests. I daydreamed about various career options growing up; the one I’m in is the first one that worked out, and I love it, so I feel very lucky.


Performances take place on Thursday, March 13, (1:30 pm) and Saturday, March 15, (8 pm) at NJPAC in Newark; Friday, March 14, (8 pm) at the Richardson Auditorium in Princeton and Sunday, March 16, (3 pm) at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown. Tickets start at $20 and are available for purchase online at www.njsymphony.org or by phone at 1.800.ALLEGRO (255.3476).

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