Hilary Hahn: A Portrait of a Portrait

When Hilary Hahn was 25 years old, back in 2005, she was already a big enough deal to warrant a biographical sketch on film – in Hilary Hahn: A Portrait, the tireless performer pulls back the curtain on her whirlwind lifestyle.  Hahn never stops – one fact the prodigious violinist shares in the film is that she’s “home” about 5 days per month.

Viewers get to go to London, Philadelphia, Hong Kong, Berlin, and Dresden with Hilary, all in the course of just over an hour.  Philadelphia holds a special place for the artist – its Curtis Institute is where she studied with the great Jascha Brodsky beginning at age 10 – Brodsky was an eminent force in violin music for much of the 20th century.  Hahn speaks with nostalgia of his cigarette smoking as if were a part of the man – she would wonder, as a child watching him, when the ash of his neglected cigarette would drop to the floor, onto the violin, or onto his pants.  According to Hahn he was a taskmaster, and he was kind.

Of the venues viewers visit, Hilary Hahn is clearly most at home at Curtis, where, as of 2005, she still had an inbox (she reported that she rarely received anything there anymore).  She points to photos of old masters that she clearly sees as a part of her own family history.  The current headmaster of the school reports what we all know, “She is as gifted as one can be” on the violin.

Her fascination with Bach is discussed around a performance at the Yellow Lounge in Berlin. While Hahn was apparently somewhat reluctant to give a concert at this venue – a nightclub that features classical music acts – Hahn says that everyone loves Bach.  While other Orange Lounge performances might feature audiences who prefer to chat over mojitos with music in the background, not any pre-eminent performer’s first choice, her selection of a Bach partita for the performance meant that all eyes were indeed on Hilary – when she’s in the room playing a Bach Partita how could anyone pay attention to anything else?

One of my favorite discoveries from the film is the Korngold Concerto for Violin in D Major – Hahn tells us that the composer was famous for his work in the motion picture industry, which, early on, earned him some detractors in the classical music world.  But Hahn is a big fan – she says that scoring films is very tough work to do well.  She posits that the fact that so few names are responsible for so many films means that it’s a true art form not to be disparaged.

The Korngold Concerto is beautiful.  Immediately upon finishing the film, I watched the concert performance in its entirety, which is also included on the DVD as a special feature – one of the venues featured in the film is Abbey Road Studio, where Hahn is recording the Korngold with the London Symphony Orchestra.  Also included in the special features is a mesmerizing Mozart Sonata for Piano and Violin, K301, for which Hahn is joined by pianist Natalie Zhu.  Speaking of what she likes in a long term collaborator (Hahn has been playing with Zhu for quite a while), she says, more or less, that she’s not interested in a chatterbox.  Obviously you’re going to need to be pretty serious and studious to make it work with one of the best violinists in the world!

Other random points of interest:  The violin goes in the overhead.  Hahn is not above vending machine refreshments.  She can captivate children with slow music (as long as it’s Bach).  She likes Asian people.  She donates clothes to the Salvation Army, dragging them in herself.  She truly loves her fans.

I’m grateful to my mom and dad who sent me this DVD for my birthday, and to my niece who mentioned “something violin” as a great b-day gift choice.  I look forward to giving the disc another spin soon!

One final Hilary Hahn tidbit – she’s currently expecting her first baby and is due sometime this summer.  Best wishes to her and her husband!

Thanks for reading.



  1. Julie Libel · · Reply

    So glad you enjoyed it!

  2. I like solist violin Hilaty Hahn
    Pham Manh Chi
    Ho Chi Minh City
    Viet nam

    1. Thanks Pham – I think she’s terrific too!

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