Friday, February 14, 2014

Hilary Hahn in 3 Parts

The American violinist, Hilary Hahn, despite her age (34) is a fully-established, major artist who has been performing professionally for over twenty years. Yes, she began playing the violin just before her fourth birthday and premiered with the Baltimore Symphony when she was twelve. Here is her Wikipedia bio. I first mentioned her on this blog a couple of years ago, without knowing anything of her background. The context was a post on Nigel Kennedy and I merely compared a German television performance of a Bach gigue with others. I liked it, though! Here is the link, though I see I shall have to find another clip as the one I linked to is dead. At the time, I probably thought she was German!

The reason for this post is that this will form the first part of a three-post series on Hilary Hahn's remarkable recording project, The Hilary Hahn Encores: in 27 Pieces. That somewhat enigmatic title is actually a simple description. The idea was to update the traditional violin encore repertoire with some new music. It was violinists like Fritz Kreisler (1875 - 1862) who last put their stamp on this interesting genre with pieces like this one:

Like many of the encores that Kreisler used to play, that was written by him, though some he used to pass off as being by others. That one is titled "Tambourin chinois". Here is an entire album of violin encores by various composers including Kreisler. The Kreisler-style encore came in two main varieties: fast, motoric romps like the one above, and touching, expressive pieces like this one:

They show off two important sides of the violin, the extreme virtuosity that it is capable of, and the profound expressivity that it is also capable of.

So that is the background to the Hilary Hahn encore project. Let me say that it is a brilliant idea, approached with boldness and conviction. Of course, the traditional violin encore is showing its age as most of them date from around the turn of the century--the last century, not this one! Kreisler came to the concert stage before the First World War and the encores he favored, which are still the ones primarily played, date from that idyllic time. If I were possibly the most formidable violinist of my generation, as I think Hilary is, then I would be looking for a way to put my stamp on the repertoire. Reinventing the encore would not be where I would start, but neither did Hilary. She has previously commissioned a concerto from Jennifer Higdon, professor at the Curtis Institute, where Hilary studied. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Not surprisingly, there isn't a good clip of the piece at YouTube, but it was released by Deutsche Gramophon in a pairing with the Tchakovsky concerto here.

But just about every young violinist--well, that's not quite true--let's say quite a number of the more adventurous young violinists, have commissioned and performed new concertos for their instrument. But none have taken on the task of completely reshaping possibly the most ossified part of their repertoire: the encore. It is safe to say that Hilary, in her encore project, has renovated and shaken up the encore genre in a permanent way.

It was my idea to take a closer look at the project as soon as I realized what she had done. Because I realized that in addition to recreating an entire genre, that project would also give us a nice cross-section of what composers are up to these days. These are all recently written pieces, by composers in their early 30s like Nico Muhly from the US, to composers in their mid 80s like Einojuhani Rautavaara from Finland.

Before listening, a number of interesting questions come to mind. First of all, the requirements of the commission were that the pieces be under five minutes long (exceeded in a couple of cases) and be written for acoustic violin and piano. Would they also be recognizable as encores in the traditional sense as well, that is, would they tend to fall into one of the two traditional types, either motoric and virtuosic or slow and expressive?

In my second post on the LP, I will review the actual recording itself but for now I will just put up the cover:

I have already listened to the whole CD, which consists of two discs, each almost an hour long. Hilary does not do things by halves! Instead of commissioning five or ten new encores, she commissioned twenty-six and then there was a contest for a twenty-seventh. A whole lot of new music here, which makes it an excellent survey of the contemporary music scene in microcosm.

So that gives me my structure: this post is just background to the project, the second post will look closely at the recording and music itself (insofar as I can without the scores) and the third one will try to draw some aesthetic conclusions. I might even look at some of the other reviews, of which there are quite a few, but only after doing my own first.

My first impression, as I have, up to now, just listened to it through once, is that there are some good pieces here, some pieces in quite a traditional style, some in a very new style, some that sound like so-so improvisations and some that sound like an improvisation by a crazy person. So, it will be interesting to see how my impressions evolve on further listens...

To whet your appetite, here is Hilary doing an interview with one of the composers, Max Richter:

And here is a link to the CD recording on Amazon where you can listen to little samples of each piece. It is very new, only being released in November and in fact, I don't think it will be available internationally until March.

You know what decided me on purchasing this CD? In January Norman Lebrecht mentioned that the biggest-selling classical disc that week was the Hahn encore CD. With 341 sales! That is both exciting and extremely depressing and I blogged about that here. And immediately decided to order the CD.


Rickard Dahl said...

Sounds like an interesting project, in the sense that it could be seen as a sample of today's classical music. Many composers with many different styles on the same CD. Ofc, it's generalizing (obviously 27 pieces by 27 different composers is far from representative of all contemporary classical music). But it's still interesting, it can in a sense give us a hint of today's state of classical music, using the music itself rather than articles saying that classical music is dead or alive. I think we need more projects like this. I will read your posts and try to listen to the pieces (or at least the samples) when I have time.

Bryan Townsend said...

The reasons you give are pretty much exactly the ones that occurred to me and got me going on this project. This is certainly not a comprehensive look at the current state of affairs in music, but it is a cross-section. A cross-section can tell you a lot more than a half-baked generalization.

Maury said...

As a former high school orchestra violinist (Back row of the first violins)I found this a very interesting set to listen to. First of all, apparently all but a few of these composers have No idea what an Encore piece is. Second, I would say #17 Marc Anthony Turnage was the closest to a reasonable entry. Third, I thought using very lax criteria that additionally #1, 4, 6, 7, 8, 14, 24 were at least likely to not totally frost her audience.

Fourth, it seems pretty clear that these composers think of orchestral violin parts as their model rather than soloist parts. The vast majority were not idiomatic to the instrument and I am not limiting myself to a 18th or 19th C standard. For example one should Never start a soloist violin part with pizzicato and in fact pizzicato should be avoided except possibly for a few strummed double stops or chords.

Bryan Townsend said...

My mother played and I have worked with several violinists, but not being one myself the technical subtleties pass me by. But yes, I think that most of the composers were trying to avoid writing anything like a traditional violin encore.

Maury said...

What I find frustrating is the degree to which these talented composers are shooting themselves and the general classical music biz in the foot and other locations. It is one thing to be self indulgent or self referential when you are doing things that personally interest you. But when a top soloist commissions you to do something, the first second and third requirement is making that soloist look good and only fourth doing something that reflects credit on your own skill.

Bryan Townsend said...

This reflects a broad historical shift. In the late 18th century, composers were still largely at the service of their noble listeners. The aesthetic bargain was something like, yes, we will compose music that will move and delight you on the condition that you have refined musical tastes. As the 19th century progressed the middle-class music-consuming public wanted more flashy and sentimental music. Composers provided this, but also created the Romantic style that gave a prominence to deep, not shallow, feeling. In the 20th century the most prominent composers in the modernist style fell back on relying solely on their internal musical intuition and turned away from simply pleasing the audience. The reasons why this happened are multitudinous and complex!