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Out of the Box: Hilary Hahn's "Paris"

Image of Violinist Hilary Hahn, standing in profile with her violin, surrounded by bright, color flowers
OJ Slaughter
Violinist Hilary Hahn

The Virginia-born violinist talks candidly about her newest release, a beautiful reflection of love and life, and of music old and new.  

Hilary Hahn’s newest album Paris might just as easily have been called “Love and Life”, after the movement titles of the star piece on the album, Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Two Serenades for Violin and Orchestra.

"If you think about the composer writing this through an illness, very aware that this would be his final work, it’s all so poignant… that Rautavaara would symbolically end his repertoire on a serenade for life, [especially] since that was the one that was incomplete." - Hilary Hahn

Not that Paris isn’t the focal point of the album. It was, after all, recorded with the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom Hahn has a long-standing relationship, performing with the organization pretty much exclusively when she is in Paris. And the works that join the Rautavaara serenades on Paris – Ernest Chausson’s Poème for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 25, and Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 19 – have deep connections to the city. As does Hilary Hahn herself, who has been performing in the city since she was thirteen, taking part in a festival as young prodigy studying at Curtis Institute of Music.

But the Rautavaara steals the show. Not only is it a stunningly beautiful work to listen to, but it comes with a poignant, breathtaking story.

In our conversation, we talk about that story, and about how the titles of the two serenades – "Love" and "Life" – are an unambiguous reflection on a life dedicated to music.

Also in the interview, we discuss Hahn’s sabbatical from the concert world, which (perhaps fortuitously) she undertook just a few short months before the pandemic forced concert halls around to world to close indefinitely. We also discuss the impact she hopes to have with her "100 Days of Practice" campaign, in which she shares her journey back to a full performance schedule on social media. And, in one of my favorite parts of the interview, we talk about her work with the Boston-based photograher OJ Slaughter, whom Hilary Hahn sought out for the album's incredible cover art. 

Listen to Chris Voss's conversation with violinist Hilary Hahn about her newest album, Paris. (Transcript below)


Interview Transcript:

Chris Voss [00:00:00] I'm Chris Voss and this is Out of the Box from WCRB, and I'm joined today by violinist Hilary Hahn, whose newest album, "Paris," is out now everywhere. Hilary Hahn, I cannot begin to express how excited I am to have you here. And thank you. Thank you for taking a moment to talk to me.

Hilary Hahn [00:00:20] It's nice to talk with you.

CV [00:00:21] So this album, "Paris," it is with the Radio France Philharmonic, and it was recorded in a whole different world than we're in right now, recorded in February 2019, not only before the pandemic, but before your sabbatical. And we're going to get to all of that in a bit. But I wanted to start talking about the city of Paris. Tell me about Paris. What does it mean to you? How has it factored into your life and how does it factor into this album?

HH [00:00:53] I've been going to Paris since I was a teenager. One of my first international appearances was at a little festival in Sully-sur-Loire, right outside of Paris in the Loire Valley. And I had an extra day at the end. So it was my first chance to see Paris. The festival director drove us to Paris, and we just saw everything that we possibly could. And I think I was, maybe, 13. It was a school-festival connection. I went to the Curtis Institute of Music, and they had a festival that they would do a little exchange with. And so I got to go. And it was a very rainy day going in and out of the metro, trying to see the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, walking all over Paris, trying to figure out how do you get a quick meal in Paris. And it left such an impression on me because it's such a beautiful, huge city and there's so much art inherent in just a walk down the street.

So, when I had the chance to work there for the first time, I was still in my teens. The orchestra that I started working with when I did orchestral appearances in Paris was the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. And it's an interesting thing with the Parisian exclusivities. They're notorious. If you work with one orchestra in Paris for a concert season at any point, you cannot work with another orchestra that year, because there's so much happening in Paris, there's so much to do. So they want to make sure that every concert has a sort of unique purpose to it. So then, I really liked working with the Philharmonique, and I kept going back to them, and I kept not working with the other orchestras. And I just built this really long relationship with them, going and working with them at least every other year for the past probably twenty-five years. And it's been really fantastic for me to see that orchestra evolve.

I wouldn't say grow because it's just, people change, the orchestra members switch over and the orchestra itself has its own character that stays steady. But there are, like, differences, and different Music Directors change the feel of the orchestra. So I saw all of that happen. And I was also evolving as a musician, and they saw me evolve. So it's really this great relationship that I have with that group. It is its own type of music making because we've done so many pieces together. We've worked with many different conductors together. They can read me and I can read them. So it's really cool.

Additionally, Mikko Franck, the Music Director now, I had worked with him already in other situations, and then I have been working with him at Radio France as well. So, that, for this record was also a key thing that all of us together could work together.

But as far as Paris itself, you know, I think the great thing about being a touring musician is that for a few days you're both a tourist and a part of the cultural fabric of the city. You get to work with people who live there. You get to, you know, you just go and grab food near wherever you're working, you get an espresso on the way. You meet up with someone who's working there at the same time, you hang out with your friends, you have your little haunts. Often with Radio France. It's in its own section of Paris. It's not close to other halls in particular. And so it's sort of its own insulated neighborhood for any artist who's working there. It's a great experience and I've actually stayed in all kinds of areas of Paris, I have stayed in AirBnB's all over the city.

I used to stay near Notre Dame, and then I got in the habit of staying in a Montmartre and just feeling fancy and going to Sacré-Coeur, whatever, I had free time. But the commute was a little intense from Montmatre to Radio France. So then I just decided to stay in the Radio France area for the residency. So it really is a chance to be a citizen in all of these exotic circumstances.

CV [00:05:21] Well, and I think what's interesting as well is that you, as a touring musician, you know, you're here two days, then on to the next place for a couple of days, maybe showing up for just one rehearsal, and then you have to be on stage for the performance. I imagine that it's really nice to have a group to go back to that is sort of your group, your place. And I love that you were talking about how you've been working with them forever, because I think that comes out in the music on this album, in particular, in the sound that you guys make together. It's really wonderful.

I want to talk about some of the music on "Paris." And in particular, I want to focus on the Rautavaara, Two Serenades, sort of the headline piece on this album. The music is incredible. The story behind it even more so. And I wonder if you wouldn't just just tell me that story from beginning to end.

HH [00:06:13] It's a long story of relays and surprises.

We - being Mikko and I - worked on the Violin Concerto together for a prior performance at Radio France. I actually learned it for that occasion because Mikko and [Finnish composer Einojuhani] Rautavaara were extremely close friends, colleagues, Mikko played [and] conducted everything that he could possibly conduct by Rautavaara. They had a lot of conversations about life and philosophy, to the extent that there's a book of them having these conversations that's been translated into many different languages. And Mikko and Rautavaara were from very different generations. But Mikko is, essentially, I think, the prime ambassador of performers for Rautavaara's music, intentions, interpretations. There are a lot of people who know Rautavaara's music, but Mikko, because of that friendship, is really special in that particular arena.

And when I had the chance to play the Violin Concerto with him, I had already commissioned Rautavaara and premiered and recorded this encore for my Twenty-Seven Encores project called "Whispering." So I knew Rautavaara's music, I knew the Violin Concerto by ear. When we had our first rehearsal, where I actually played it with Mikko and with the Philharmonique, I was thinking, you know, it'd be really great if there were one more concerto. Let's see if we can maybe make it happen. And so I talked to Mikko about that. He said, well, the composer is not feeling very good. He's in ill health, and it's not a good time to bring it up. But I'll see him in a few months, and if he's feeling better, I'll bring it up. And if not... So then I didn't hear back and I assumed it was that the conversation was not meant to happen.

In the meantime, Mikko had visited Rautavaara, they had talked about it, and Rautavaara said he was interested in writing not another violin concerto, but a set of serenades for violin and orchestra that we could do as a premiere in the artist residency that I was going to be doing. And then Mikko was like, great, yes, please, and went back and started working on the logistics of a commission. And then, you know, the next news was that Rautavaara had passed away. And it was devastating for the Finnish musical community, it was devastating for Mikko as a friend, and this piece didn't exist either. So all the conversations... I didn't know anything was happening. Mikko thought the piece was just never going to exist.

And after the funeral, Mikko went with Rautavaara's widow back to the study where Rautavaara had been composing, and she showed him a manuscript that was almost complete. It was fully written, except it was all sketched out. It was fully written, except the orchestration hadn't entirely been completed for the the last part. And it was titled Two Serenades. It was in French and Finnish for the titling, as opposed to his typical English and Finnish titling. And it was for violin with orchestra. So it was very clear that this was the piece. Mikko was bowled over, like he was very moved because he said it was a very typical kind of thing of Rautavaara to get the last word and leave something to be discovered. And so, Mikko recognized that it was pretty much done and then all that needed to be done was the orchestration to be completed. So he commissioned a great Finnish composer, Kalevi Aho, who was a student of Rautavaara's as well, to complete the score. So, when we premiered it, usually at a premiere, the composer takes a bow at the end. But the composer was distinctly not there. But it felt really significant because this was the final work. So in a way, you know, any ambiguity about his creative output was closed out. And there would be no more. I think it's a bigger moment than I realized,when you realize there is going to be nothing else, this is it. And at the end, Mikko raised the score to the heavens and gave the composer the acknowledgment during the applause. And, you know, ultimately it felt like a beginning. It felt like an end and a beginning at the same time, because now Rautavaara's life's work is complete and is out in the world and does exist and can be played. When something isn't played that's been written, it just always waits in a state of suspense. It's in limbo. So in this case, it's out of limbo and it's living its own life out there in the world.

CV [00:11:31] Well, it's such a beautiful story. And it's hard not to think of other composers whose final works, maybe not completely finished works, were then given life by students of theirs and by lovers of their music. The Mozart Requiem in particular comes to mind. And what a cool thing to be able to be part of bringing a piece to life like that. What draws you to Rautavaara and his music? What is it about the sound world? And in particular, why did you want him to write another piece for violin?

HH [00:12:11] The way he writes for violin, it flows and it sings at the same time. It has a very natural way of speaking on the instrument, when you listen to it. [laughs] And then you try to play it and you're like, wow, he's doing things with the technique of expression that are different from what you hear, that enable what you hear to actually flow the way it does. It's hard to describe what those details are, but it's almost like with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. It sounds simple in a way. It sounds like it just is lyrical and it must be sort of light to play. But it's incredibly awkward to play that piece until you get your relationship with it. And I think with Rautavaara's music, with the violin lines that he writes, they are long lines. So to find how you relate to those long lines, where you going to change your bow? Where does the music breathe? Where do you find the arc and find the peak and then take it down again. And one thing I learned, particularly in the serenades, working with Mikko, is that these serenades quote extensively from an opera that Rautavaara wrote. He would quote himself and he would rework aspects of his prior writing, and it was a sort of a way of evolving as a composer, but also staying true to himself. So at one point he was quoting from an aria between two sisters. And the story is that they were of - it was a true story - they were of Russian nobility, they were exiled to Finland, they lived in destitution in Finland for the rest of their lives, waiting for their moment to come, when they could go back and reclaim their standing. And it never came. And Rautavaara generally liked dark themes. He was pretty spiritual in his writing and his approach, but he liked darker themes.

CV [00:14:14] It is a long, long winter up there.

HH [00:14:18] Yeah. [laughs] You have to get through it somehow. You have to find your balance. But the fact that he was quoting these stories and labeling the serenades as "pour mon amour" and "pour la vie," "for my love," "for life," the "love" was definitely his wife. And then for "life" Mikko said it was unusual that he would pick these big sort of overarching, generally positive themes, like when you say those words, sort of positive ideas come to mind, although all of life is encompassed, you know, the positive and the negative in those themes. But it was an interesting contrast because, for me to play the violin part for the serenades and for the orchestral musicians to play their parts in the serenades, we had to play kind of against what we would assume from another composer is in the music. So the music is very detailed, very expressive. There's a lot you can do with it. You can just sing it out. You can project, you can make it really small, really big, very dramatic. And Mikko said that's not actually what the music is. He would not have wanted that. And also, in the part of the music that he quotes in the serenades from the opera, the feelings are inside. They're there under the surface.

[00:15:47] [MUSIC]

[00:16:10] So we have to figure out a way to stay in a hypnotic state of expression where the music could breathe, but we are not pushing ourselves on the music or trying to push it out to the audience in any particular kind of dramatized way.

And only then can the music really be about these themes. Only then can the music really exist in the moment to moment way in which he would have wanted the expression to communicate.

[00:16:51] [MUSIC]

[00:16:51] If you think about the composer also writing this through an illness and very aware that this would be at least one of his final works, if not his final work, it's also poignant. Mikko said, that although they had discussed the idea of a suite of serenades, he feels that it was meant to be these two, that Rautavaara would symbolically end his repertoire on a serenade "for life."

It was just an unusual kind of title, an unusual kind of approach. And the fact that that was the one that was incomplete - there's a moment in the score where the violin part continues, the orchestration just stops, like a vertical stop in the orchestra part, and there's like a little tie over from one of the lines over a bar line or something like that as he was continuing his thought. And then he just didn't finish that part of it. It is interesting to stay in the moment with the pieces and not project, not over project yourself into what it would have been, and let the music just speak for itself.

But I also had to learn about Finnish pronunciation, because when you have an aria that's being quoted, you have to make sure you're not putting the wrong accent on things. So for example, Mikko's name, it has two K's, so it's like "MEEK-koh." And then Rautavaara has two A's in the second to last syllable. It's not "Rau-ta-vah-rah," it's "Rau-tah-vah-ah-rah." Accent on the first, and then you extend the syllable that has the double. And it's interesting to learn that, look at the score for the opera, look at your phrasing in the violin part, and you're like, OK, so I have to just stay in the moment. But all of these things are important. And I think, as far as how Rautavaara wrote for violin, that is very telling. He knew how to walk that line. And that is one thing that's really beautiful about how he writes for violin and how you hear his violin music as a listener.

CV [00:19:01] Well, may we be also lucky to have such a poetic way of being remembered by those who follow us, to really come to the end of our lives and put this wonderful final piece out into the world. What a great thing and a beautiful story.

We're going to do a little bit of a gear shift here, if you don't mind, and talk about you. I want to talk about your sabbatical in particular, if you don't mind. You took a year off. Talk about what that was like and what it's like now, especially as you promote an album that was recorded when you were in peak form back in twenty nineteen. At the same time, right now you're trying to get back into peak form with those "100 days of Practice." I know there's a lot there, but talk to me a little bit about what this last year has been like for you.

HH [00:19:53] Yeah, I mean, I took an intentional sabbatical for the 19-20 season, which means that I didn't really have any plans. And I did have some work that carried over, like the post-production on this album was something I would have done remotely anyway. And it was nice to have the space to think about it and not be fitting it into like between flights and stuff like that. But I also co-founded a community for A.I. and music to have conversations with each other, it's called, and that I could also do during that time. But there was really no deadline to anything.

And in the middle of the sabbatical, right as I got into the swing of going to concerts, going to the ballet, going to museums, you know, I had my places I would go for coffee, and I would hang out and I would work in the coffee shop, write a little bit or something. I was taking some classes. I was taking a watercolor class. I was starting to take a drawing class and all of that stopped. So as an audience member, I experienced the first six months of the lockdown. And I think it's given me a really balanced perspective on the impact of the removal of in-person arts from a lifestyle where you might actually be prioritizing that otherwise.

And it's helped me really think about what I want to do in this time, in the sort of in-between time to connect with people. What did I miss? What can I provide that meets some of those needs for people like me or musicians who are not in the same space as each other?

I had two weeks of work in November. Texas was doing some really well regulated performance situations. And so I spent two weeks in Dallas and Houston and those were my weeks of performing during the pandemic. So that was pretty much it. I was glad that both of them were with Marin Alsop. So I had one season, one calendar year where I played only with a woman on the podium. It took a year where it was just two weeks for that to happen, but I was really proud of that. That was really food for thought.

And, you know, during the second half of my sabbatical, starting in about April, I kind of put all my practicing that I'd been ramping up on hold because I realized that I wanted to do better with issues of inclusion and equity and stuff in my projects. And I was trying to figure out what do I need to know to create safe spaces and to bring people in and make space for people and to have all the voices that I can include be heard in ways that are valuable to everyone, especially the people who are speaking. And so I did a lot of research, and I learned a lot and I just dedicated a lot of time to that.

So I realized when September came around that my season would not be starting back like I had expected. And that's when I started thinking, how do I return to playing? Because there wasn't the urgency of a steady tour happening. But at the same time, I had some virtual performances. So I got in individual performance shape, which was very much focused around the pieces, making sure I could have the endurance to play whatever that piece required of me all the way through and really deliver the performances.

But then I realized at the end of it that I didn't-- I had been building a foundation, but I didn't really build it. I didn't really build it back after that much time away. I had not been practicing for about a year, which is fine with me. But you have to be careful. If you imagine being an elite athlete or something like that, an Olympic athlete, and you're starting back after not training, you have to be careful and you have to make sure that you make it even better when you come back than it was when you started your break. And that's when I decided, OK, I think starting January I'm going to do "100 Days of Practice" for the fourth time.

And I have been thinking a lot about the nature of practice. And I've also noticed when I did "100 Days of Practice" before that the audience, the fans who were on social media, in the community that we have, especially Instagram -- Twitter had not been a place where it really seemed to land very well. But it turned out this time Twitter was also a place where people wanted to connect and so, you know, I'd found in previous iterations that people really appreciated the idea of sharing practice and that practice is this communal experience.

This time around, I started sharing a little bit more of my experience because I know a lot of people are having individual experiences in the world right now and everyone's life looks different and everyone's life is different from what it was a year ago. And what are we still able to do together? We can practice individually and we can connect through that fact that we are all going through this process in one way or another. So by now there are like five hundred thousand something posts under the hashtag that I created for the project a few years ago. And people have been really participating. It's been really nice for me. That is my version of making music for and with people at the moment because I don't have concerts. I don't know when the next thing will be, but I'm really, I'm really actually finding that doing one hundred days is helping me build that foundation with some regularity.

I always practice a little and then I record whatever I'm practicing. And then I am working on uploading the video, what I'm working at, whatever it takes a while. So I'm practicing during that process, having just watched the video multiple times. And then I post it and I check it and then I take a break and then I do another practice session and then I take a break. And the next day I remember, I check the video again and I can remember what I could do differently. So something about this process has turned into a very, very good practice situation for me. And people are enjoying it. So that's that's what I'm up to right now. That's my steadiest thing I'm doing. And then thinking a lot about the record.

Also, that idea that you mentioned that I was in peak shape, like, I know when things come back, I can play a concert, but I know when things come back, it's going to be like all at once. It's going to be emotionally overwhelming, because it'll be something that people have been wanting and appreciating for so long, and I think it's going to be really all in. So I know that that's coming, I just don't know exactly when. And my goal is like, my goal is just to be ready for that emotional... like, I want to catch that emotional energy and be able to put it into my playing and give it back in the performance. That cycle is going to be super intense and it also has an impact on the physicality of playing. So I really want to get to where I have everything at my disposal in my playing again, from the moment that I step back into it.

That's a long answer. But it's a long process.

CV [00:27:32] Well, I love it. I love the "100 Days of Practice." And just hearing you talk about it, I think one of the things that is great about that is that in the concert world, when we go to concerts and and see you perform, there is this distance there, right? Even though we want to know what the process is and maybe we can read about it in an interview, or something like that, but we can't necessarily see it. But with this, what you're doing now is allowing people, especially people either who have been in the arts or who are trying to make that as their lifestyle, to peek behind the curtain, to see what it's like, and say, "OK, this is what it takes to do what I do at this high level, and to bring joy to it. And it's a lot of hard work. Come along with me, and I'll show you the ropes a little bit." It's very cool. And so thank you for doing it.

HH [00:28:24] That summary makes me very satisfied because I never started out with this project to have an impact, but it has had its own impact of its own momentum. And it's, you know, practicing as a student was a thing I didn't quite have a relationship to, and so the idea that now, that can be part of people's practicing landscape, is a big honor for me.

CV [00:28:54] Well, I know our time is short, but if you don't mind, can we take a moment and talk about the artist you hired for the album art for "Paris"? Because it is just great, and it's a Boston based photographer as well. Talk to me about them just a little bit.

HH [00:29:11] Yeah, I was thinking when I return from sabbatical, when I have this first orchestral album, that I haven't, I haven't done a concerto album in a while. So when I have this sort of reentry, who is going to interpret me as a photographer? Because a photograph is a collaboration. It's the person in the photograph, the subject, being in a certain space with an artist, who's a photographer, who is seeing them in a certain way and giving them the space to be a certain way. And that dynamic affects the way the subject relates to the camera, and it also affects the way the photographer relates to the subject.

And I was thinking a lot about this, and I had been looking around on social media about things that were happening in the Boston area, but also really looking to make sure that I was seeing the artists that were working now, like, who is really interpreting the world right now, and who has a really special relationship to the people they're photographing? Where, like, who is taking pictures where you see the person in the photograph being themselves and being comfortable? Because there are a lot of pictures where you see that the person in the photograph is guarded or there may be the photographers work, it doesn't show different characters out of the people they're photographing. There's a sort of consistency, and then you know that that's the photographer's signature.

And I came across the work of OJ Slaughter, who is a fine art and protest photographer in the Boston area. And they're a nonbinary, BIPOC artist, and I just had, I reached out to them and had a conversation with them, and I felt such an instant connection artistically. I really wanted to work with them. And they had so many ideas immediately. They thought about Boston Pollen, which is a florist, and so Boston Pollen did the flowers for the set. And we did the shoot at Windy Studios, which is down by the harbor, and that studio is run by an artist of color. And the whole room had this wonderful creative energy in it. And of course it was socially distanced. I was the only person without a mask. But one thing that really jumped out at me in my discussions with OJ was that I was telling them, like, I was give them some disclaimers about how I am in photo shoots.

I was like, "Oh, you know, like, I'm not a model. And I sometimes don't know what to do with my face, and sometimes it's awkward, like, the violin doesn't change shape, and like, what do you do with the violin?"

And they said, "Oh, just stop. My job is to make sure that you feel seen and heard for who you are."

And the immediacy of that statement just hit me. It was so moving to hear someone say that, because I think that's not vocabulary that's said a lot in the art world somehow, just that, like, making space and holding space for each other as we are. We talk a lot about the art. We talk a lot about the role of an artist, but like to be part of the art in that way, it was really like a shock, but like in all the best ways. And the fact that by having all the voices that you can possibly have in a project, you get to the essence of what art is.

Hearing the humans that are in the world and showing the humans that are in the world in so many beautiful iterations, I think, is what art should be about. It should be about humans connecting with other humans and hearing different perspectives and allowing perspectives to mingle and enhance each other, and it was such a beautiful experience to be part of that. And OJ has had some exhibits and stuff around the Boston area, so if anyone has a chance to check out their work, it's pretty wide-ranging. And I'm just really glad that we had that opportunity to work together.

CV [00:34:02] Well, Hilary Hahn, I cannot begin to tell you what an absolute pleasure it has been to to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining me. Hilary Hahn's newest album is called "Paris." It's with the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, and it is out now everywhere.

I'm Chris Voss. This is Out of the Box.

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.