There’s a list of legendary violinists, and then there’s a list of the best violinists right now – on that second list, Hilary Hahn is at the very top. I was thrilled to get to see her play alongside the Chicago Symphony last night under the baton of Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor who trained with Bernstein.
Sadly, I am under the weather, and for a split second I even considered not going to the show. I compromised and decided to go and then skip out after intermission – the second half of the program promised Rachmaninov’s very long second symphony. While on a normal day I would relish its beautiful melodic arc, at present an hour ten of my head and lungs not making any gross sounds for my seatmates in the concert hall was a challenge I didn’t feel particularly up to.
But the first half of the show was stunning. The orchestra opened with Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, a jubilant work that incorporates popular German songs and a very large orchestra. About ten players exited the stage for the next work! Brahms is not characterized as a heavy hitter with brass, but in this piece trumpets and even a triangle loom large as the whole symphony builds to a festive finale. Recently I’ve been listening to Brahms’s later works, and unlike the hauntingly beautiful darkness that characterizes most of them, this 1880 Overture is upbeat and triumphant.
The stage was well-set for Hilary Hahn’s concerto, the Sibelius, one of the finest works for violin, composed in 1904. I’ve gone back to listen to several others play the concerto over the past couple of weeks in anticipation of getting to see Hahn’s version, and none compares to what I saw and heard last night (of course she was playing with the Chicago Symphony, and symphonies don’t get much better!). The work itself is masterful – she commands the cadenzas of the first movement with simultaneous grace, passion, and artistry. She draws out the famed double stop theme in glorious but not over-the-top fashion. Her simultaneous delicacy and richness of tone in the harmonics and quieter moments of the second movement are breathtaking. The third movement requires sustained energy, a horse at full gallop, and Hahn brings it home.
Hahn is an extremely proficient technician – I daresay in her early career as a young superstar the artistry of which our instrument is capable was sometimes lost to near excesses of technical perfection. She’s just shy of forty now, and a mother of two. I was almost pleased to hear an error in last night’s first few bars – there’s a way performers have to attack the strings in parts of the Sibelius that, in my view, renders technical perfection less important than interpretation. She nailed it.
The crowd was full of fans – Hilary Hahn has quite a following of young folks, and we saw a tour bus full of high schoolers unloading in front of Symphony Center as we walked up. She actively cultivates her young fan base – her violin case has an Instagram where she posts videos of herself practicing to help inspire others. They have inspired me! She’s currently doing “one hundred days of practice” where her case takes video that frames her head and violin as she reviews intricate passages in hotel rooms and backstage dressing rooms while touring around the world.
Hahn has grammys under her belt, one for a CD of encores, so I bet I was not the only one in the room hoping for a Bach encore. Sadly, we didn’t get one. Nobody plays Bach like Hilary Hahn. But nobody plays Sibelius like Hilary Hahn either.
Thanks for reading.