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The Emotional Release of Hilary Hahn's "Eclipse"

Hilary Hahn
Dana van Leeuwen
Hilary Hahn

When Hilary Hahn was just eight years old, she made a surprisingly mature promise to herself. She vowed that if she were to become a famous performer, she would never be ungrateful or dismissive toward an audience member. She'd seen renowned musicians behaving that way. And she hated it.

Now Hilary is a star, with dozens of recordings, three Grammy awards, a wildly busy schedule, and throngs of devoted fans. And the prestigious magazine Musical America has just named her Artist of the Year.

Through it all, she’s kept her promise. In fact, it turns out that her relationship with her fans is as crucial and instructive for her as it is for them.

She practices with them (#100daysofpractice), she collects their artwork, she's created Bring Your Own Baby concerts, and you’ll always find her signing autographs after a concert.

It was inspiring to talk to Hilary Hahn about her newest recording, Eclipse, which came out earlier this month. Especially since it's a recording that almost didn’t happen. She had struggled within the stifling cocoon of the pandemic, and when it came time to record, the many concerts leading up to the recording sessions had been canceled. She had never brought the intense and relentlessly difficult Violin Concerto by Alberto Ginastera onto a stage with her. Nor had she ever performed Pablo de Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy.

Sharing with an audience gives breath to music, and the magic of experience can make all the difference. Time without audiences had dragged on, and she'd fought through a crisis of confidence. She’d lost her sense of self, and her trust in her own playing. She decided not to try.

It was with the help of friends, like conductor Andrés Orazco-Estrada, her collaborator on Eclipse, that she found the determination to say yes to the mics. And she couldn’t be happier with her decision.

You can hear our conversation, with music from the CD, by clicking on the player above. And you can read a transcript below.

Cathy Fuller Well, it's a happy day when I get to meet up with Hilary Hahn here in our studios! I'm Cathy Fuller. Hilary, welcome back.

Hilary Hahn Thank you. I'm so happy to be here.

Cathy Fuller I am thrilled by this new recording and I've been getting goosebumps and shivers and the whole thing. But, you know, you have called this album many things. You've called it a transition into your forties. You said you have found a real authenticity in the voices on this album. But you also said the album almost didn't happen. Can you tell that story?

Hilary Hahn Well, I think we all remember the lockdown phase of concerts a few years ago. And the situation actually was more for me than just logistical. I hadn't ever done the Ginastera or the Sarasate in performance. They were new to me and I had a lot of performances of those booked before the recording sessions, which I was really excited about. The recording was a pinnacle moment in my season that I was really working towards. And as it turned out, I had a year of sabbatical in the middle of which the pandemic began, and then the next season was also largely affected. And the end of the season was this recording. So I found myself doing a lot of work on my own. I did a couple rounds of Hundred Days of Practice and all of that, but I was mostly preparing on my own and I didn't quite know what I had as a musician at that particular moment – when it came clear that the recording could happen, but nothing in the preparation could happen.

Cathy Fuller No concerts.

Hilary Hahn No concerts. Just walk in and do these pieces. The Dvorak, the Ginastera, the Sarasate. I just didn't know if that was the point at which to make a recording. When you don't know what you have and who you are, you kind of need to play it out a little bit to see where you've landed after all that evolution time. But I ultimately decided to go for it. I realized I had colleagues that I trusted, and that's why I was doing the recording with them in the first place and that it would be super exciting. And why not have the mics on? Let's just leave them running and see what happens. So in that moment when the mics were running, and we were playing the concerts that were recorded. That's when a lot of things suddenly came clear for me, and I'm really glad that we did capture all of that.

Cathy Fuller So these were essentially concerts without an audience.

Hilary Hahn The first, the Dvorak was the first to be recorded, and that was a live stream with no audience. [MUSIC] And it wasn't in the main hall, it was in the radio hall. And then in June that year, we finally got into the main hall, the Alte Oper in Frankfurt. And it was for an audience. We wound up splitting the concert into two because at the last minute there was a restriction on how many people could be there. So we moved it from one concert to two concerts, but with audience. And it was Andres Orozco-Estrada, the conductor, it was his final big concert as music director. And so for him to finally be able to be in there and the orchestra in there, it was really great to share that space and that concert together.

Cathy Fuller Well, so on this recording is Dvorak Violin Concerto, which must be an old friend, right? And then this Ginastera Violin Concerto. That is a new friend, right? And then the Sarasate Carmen Variations, which are enough to just raise the hair all over. But this Ginastera piece, you know, when I hear, just to be a little abstract here, sometimes I hear a composer like that or Schoenberg even... It's so strange and unusual. And yet there's this weird kind of familiarity about the way it sounds. It's almost like they found some blueprint of the way the emotional mind works or something, and only they have access to it and they put it down in music. It strikes you in this really haunting way. Tell me about how you feel when you play. It starts with a cadenza with you alone doing these mad, wild, incredible gestures. [MUSIC] How does it feel to play that piece?

Hilary Hahn It's really interesting to hear you say that because I haven't heard anyone articulate it that way. But that is what I feel, what I keep trying to say about the Ginastera. And I also in my mind tie it with Schoenberg for the concerto, Schoenberg Violin Concerto, and Ginastera. And I think that that's a positive thing because for me, I recorded the Schoenberg years ago and I was very, like, it grabbed me, I was obsessed by it and I knew I had to do it. And I knew how I wanted to play it. It was very clear to me even before I learned it, and then I proceeded to try to learn it. And that was a whole other phase. And it was the same exact thing with the Ginastera. That was the second time it's happened to me where there is a concerto that's not played very often, that is often thought of as unplayable, thorny. But I heard something else in it, and I really believed that there's so much humanity in this piece. And I knew how I wanted to play, and I knew I needed to get it out there because this vision I have of it feels really, really connective. So I feel like through this music you can actually connect with a lot of the experiences of the audience.

The thing I believe about music that is a little weird, challenging, different, unexpected, is that the composers who succeed in writing that music with line and with layering and with complexity, they are some of the greatest composers. They know everything about writing and nothing is an accident. And what they're doing is they're confronting some of the, some of the emotions that are not often confronted in music. So they're confronting them and drawing them out. They're presenting them in a way where you can actually engage with them deliberately as an audience member. But then they move you through them into the resolution. And so often we carry a lot of experiences inside of ourselves that don't have resolution that get shoved under the rug. I think the past few years everyone's had some kind of experience that they're trying to incorporate into their life now, and we're often left to sort of process all of that or transform it on our own, in our own way, by ourselves. And when you go into a concert hall, you're sitting there with all these people who have all these different life experiences, who relate in some way to that emotion that the music is presenting. And you go through that all together and you arrive all together at some other place. So it's really, really crucial.

I believe that music and the arts are the emotional document of history. You can read the facts, but how do you feel what it's like to be there? How do you translate a certain time into the present day? And I think, you know, part of interpreting history, part of reading and understanding what people have been through that have led us to the present moment is feeling it and making it your own. How do you relate to it? How do you put yourself in other people's shoes? So at the same time that it's historic, it's also about compassion, empathy, the human experience and the connectiveness of the musical world. So for me, the Ginastera encompasses all of that, and when I play it, I feel that and I feel that that's a mission of this particular piece.

The thing you say about familiarity is, with the Ginastera at least, I notice that he takes these foundational elements of classical music, what we consider to be classical music, and he reinvents them. Like, for example, there's a part of the first movement that's about thirds, you know, just a little variation, a little study in thirds. [MUSIC] It sounds meandering, dissonant, a little twisted, like a funhouse, but also charming and graceful. And you're like, What is that interval? And you look at it and you realize it's – I'm just playing thirds the whole time. It's minor thirds. It's, you know, Paganini did Caprices based on thirds, thirds are one of the building blocks of any chord, any tonality in almost every musical culture. Yet for millennia, you know, we've been hearing thirds. But Ginastera takes it in the 1960s and says, I'm going to connect these in a way that makes you doubt that what you're hearing is this straightforward, foundational element of music. And then he moves out of it into the next thing. It's just like, no big deal. But there are instances of that kind of thing all through this piece, and it just never ceases to amaze me.

Cathy Fuller It is amazing, all the things that you say. But I want to say one thing to you, and that is that all of that complexity, all of that visceral reaction, all of the good stuff that comes from experiencing a piece like this, it requires that the artist is trusted by the audience. Do you know what I'm saying? And so you have gained through all kinds of means, but mainly through your authenticity and your brilliance, this incredible trust. And I'm wondering, you must feel that.

Hilary Hahn I do. I work really hard to connect. I always have since my first concerts. I work really hard to connect in a positive way with the audience. I was given that opportunity when I was a kid, going to concerts, being introduced to musicians after the concert by friends who were in the orchestra. And I saw many different ways of interacting with the audience and a couple of negative ones that I saw, I said to myself, even at eight, I was like, If I ever get the chance, I'm never going to be like that. And I saw...

Cathy Fuller Like what? What did you see?

Hilary Hahn I think there was just a sense of disconnect or a sense of entitlement. And also, you know, someone being just too busy, which is actually a very valid thing. You can be too busy and you can have boundaries. But the way the boundaries are communicated and the reason for them, you have to just remember that the people you're looking at are people and not part of your landscape. It's not your landscape. You're just walking through the world and so is everyone else. And I think that the community that I've realized has gathered around, I guess, the work that I do, but the larger field of classical music, is one that wants to be connected. It's one that cares about the art form and could also, by extension, care about each other. So I really try to build that. I've noticed in my Instagram and online communities that the Practice project, how people commented on I00 Days of Practice and engaged with it, I learned a lot about who they are and how they want to connect, and it's something that I really value. And so I definitely see in the post-concert signings, in the comments. I also try to create a safe space in the comments and make sure that people are being respected and that the things that are coming across my feed and coming to them are, you know, about people and about the experience of being people. So yeah, I really appreciate it when they show up and they're so nice and warm and welcoming, it's just really food for the soul.

Cathy Fuller Yeah, I can imagine. And that you have the time to curate all that. And you have fun, too.

Hilary Hahn I love it.

Cathy Fuller There's a fantastic video of you opening up the fan box version of the LP of of this recording. It's beautiful. And the thing is just gorgeous. There's all kinds of good stuff inside, but you're sitting on the couch with your guinea pig … and you're letting your guinea pig be your timer as he starts eating your sequins! And that means it is time to move on! But it's a really nice dip into what's in that beautiful, beautiful box, this beautiful LP with with a gorgeous art print of, I think it's the cadenza of the Ginastera, is that what that is?

Hilary Hah Yeah, yeah.

Cathy Fuller And just beautiful pictures of you and it's just a lovely thing. But you have fun and we love that about you, Hilary, is that you're having fun. Is it true you never played the Carmen Fantasy before?

Hilary Hahn That's right.

Cathy Fuller What?

Hilary Hahn I do now! [MUSIC] 

Cathy Fuller What are you doing there? Are you becoming her, or do you have time?

Hilary Hahn Well, fortunately, the building process for that interpretation was with these colleagues on the album. So that that's really us together building this version that we, that we recorded. And to be able to do that with colleagues that I've worked with for decades and who are familiar with the opera, who think about music from a similar philosophical perspective – to me, I, I just really loved that. And I felt like I knew what I wanted to convey and we all got there together. So basically what I wanted to do was, the Carmen Fantasy, by Sarasate, is such a virtuoso piece. And starting from childhood, when I've heard it, I've heard it played as a virtuoso violin piece. There's also a very literal quotation of parts of the opera. It's really extracting Carmen from the opera and interpreting her in violin form. So you have the famous arias that Carmen sings. You have some of the orchestral interludes which are actually not just intervening bits, but really core emotional pillars of the opera. And when I played it, I wanted to make sure that, although Sarasate writes for the violin, not the violin imitating voice, there's so much of the spirit of Carmen in there and the words are in there. So I wanted to make sure to start with the opera, start with the tempi of the opera, start with the pacing of these arias so you can imagine the words if you love the opera. [MUSIC] And that really gave us a sort of a different approach to this piece, and one that's very much in line with how Bizet initially interpreted the Spanish dances that Sarasate grew up with and reclaimed in this piece.

Cathy Fuller So you're thinking about her.

Hilary Hahn Yes.

Cathy Fuller I mean, there are opera singers who spend their lives trying to figure out Carmen, right?

Hilary Hahn Yes.

Cathy Fuller But she's a complicated woman.

Hilary Hahn Yes, she's a complete person.

Cathy Fuller Yes. She is a whole person. And it is a phenomenal recording. And he is, this conductor, who is, you know, obviously dear to you. He's amazing.

Hilary Hahn He is. He's actually here for his debut next week in Boston. But, yeah, he's he's fantastic. He's, I've worked with him with Houston, with Frankfurt, as a guest conductor. We recently worked together in Paris. But we, we've worked around the world. He's Colombian. I've worked with him on a cultural exchange between the Bogota Orchestra and the Houston Symphony. We've performed in Colombia together and worked with students there. And. And so it's just, when you have a colleague who understands you and challenges you and you can do the same back...

Cathy Fuller Wow.

Hilary Hahn It's really amazing.

Cathy Fuller He is Andrés Orozco-Estrada.

Hilary Hahn Yes.

Cathy Fuller And boy, he's a joy to watch. On top of everything else, he's just a joyful presence on the podium.

Hilary Hahn He's a very positive person. He always leaves everything on the stage when he performs. When he works, he gives everything to the music and he loves the details in the music, but he's able to do extremely complicated contemporary repertoire as well as the expressive, connective music like Dvorak that is just, you know, one melody after another, but with all of these underpinnings. He lives in Vienna and he's very European in many ways. But he also is a global presence. And I think that's nice, in music, that you have people who bring different approaches to different combinations of repertoire, and that becomes who they are as musicians.

Cathy Fuller I know that you have always, there's always been a part of you that wants to immerse young people in this music because, you know, the sooner you start, the happier they can be within it. Right? Has becoming a mother, do you hear the music from their point of view more? Do they and do they react to – like, how do they feel about the Ginastera? Have they heard that?

Hilary Hahn Yeah. My kids are not a good barometer for how people absorb music because they couldn't care less. They basically tell me I'm too loud or...

Cathy Fuller Mommy's too loud

Hilary Hahn Or I'm like too busy for, like if I'm practicing while they would like to spend time with me, I would actually rather spend time with them. So I try to practice other times. Sometimes it is coincidental that everything is happening at once. Um, but they, I think they hear music in a way that's really natural to them because they've heard it for so long.

Cathy Fuller Yeah.

Hilary Hahn But I have to say, my guinea pigs are actually a good barometer. When I'm playing something a little dissonant, they kind of start like twitching a little because their ears pick up the overtones and stuff. And then when I play lively music, they dance around. And then when I'm playing complex music, they eventually get tired, fall asleep. It's kind of interesting. It's really predictable how animals absorb music and humans are animals.

Cathy Fuller Yeah!

Hilary Hahn But one thing that really, I think the biggest way that changed my way of hearing music was when I had my first sabbatical when I was turning 30, I had six months. I gave myself six months break and I cleared the decks. I had nothing going on. I just said, okay, I'm going to pick up the violin when I'm ready to pick it up again. I'm going to, from day one of the sabbatical, start making the plans that I want to make during my vacation time, and I'm going to turn the radio on when I'm ready. And it was four months before I, well three months before I could even look at a suitcase. I had thought that I would probably go backpacking and, you know, I'd probably go backpacking in South America or Europe or something like that. I couldn't even look at a suitcase. I couldn't even pack. I just, what I needed was to stay put.

And then also for music, what I needed was to not listen to any classical music. I took a road trip at one point and I listened to the top 40 pop songs and just had the windows down. And then one day I needed to hear classical radio again, and I grew up with it. So I turn it on in the middle of Saint-Saens Organ Symphony and my ears were just assailed by magic! I was like, What is this series of sounds?! This is amazing! I pulled over. I was in the car, I pulled over. I texted everyone I knew: There's this amazing piece, you have to turn on the radio! And I just, I could then finally, I somehow managed to turn off my lifelong analytical ear, where everything I heard became a score unfolding in front of me. And I was listening for how people played and what they were doing and what I would do differently. And do I like this piece? Would I program it? All of these things, analyzing what I was hearing. And I could hear as a listener with a swath of sounds. And that was such a revelation. And at that moment, I understood how music can get inside you in these mysterious ways and really move you. And I think that was a huge turning point because now I can switch that on whenever I need it. I can turn off my analytical mind, go to a concert, and just be amazed by the sounds that I'm hearing and really feel it for what it's conveying in the moment.

Cathy Fuller Wow. That is a lesson I think lots of musicians need to hear – how to wash them, sort of clean themselves, wash all those hours out of their hair and hear things again.

Hilary Hahn You've done all the work, but do you know how to really listen? Like someone who really just wants to absorb the music for what it feels like? That's a hard thing to do. You can't force it. You just have to be aware that maybe the way you're listening is not the way the music actually is intended to hit.

Cathy Fuller Wow. Hilary Hahn. It has been a joy. I could talk to you all day.

Hilary Hahn Me, too, with you. This has been wonderful.

Cathy Fuller It's been great. Thank you for your revelations and for bringing so many people to this music. That is a gift. Thank you so much. And we hope to see you soon here in Boston again.

Hilary Hahn Yes. Yes.

Cathy Fuller Thank you.

Hilary Hahn Thank you.

Cathy Fuller is a Host and Producer for CRB.