At 32, violinist Hilary Hahn is well established as one of America’s leading classical musicians.
Many big debuts are behind her – with major orchestras in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Tokyo and other cities. And she already has about 20 CDs to her name.
As well, most critics agree that she has something special to offer. The Wall Street Journal has praised her “warm tone, stunning technique and flawless intonation.” And the Times of London recently declared, “Hilary Hahn is carving out an increasingly distinctive voice for herself in a world currently overcrowded with exceptional young violinists.”
It’s been two decades since Hahn first made a big splash in the musical world – yet she has retained her youthful intensity: On stage, her performances are high-minded, tightly focused and dramatic, all at the same time.
However, when she’s off stage, this Lexington, Va., native has another side. Just as some people undergo a personality change when they get behind the wheel of a car, so, too, does a different Hahn emerge on the Internet. Online, she can be quirky and whimsical.
On Twitter, she tweets about her life - as observed by her violin case. “I think we might be going somewhere soon,” the case recently tweeted. “I see major suitcase activity.”
And she has a YouTube channel on which she answers questions from fans, offers advice to young violinists or plays reporter, interviewing other musicians. There’s even one YouTube clip in which she interviews a fish in a fishbowl, asking it questions like “Do you have any advice for people who would like to become fish someday?”
This sounds suspiciously like a jab at the boiler-plate questions Hahn must sometimes get from journalists. Yet she was quick to deny any sarcasm was intended.
“People have read that into it,” she protests, “but it was really just a little practice break for me.”
While many classical musicians have cautiously warmed to the Internet – anxious about crafting just the right image online – Hahn has taken to it like a fish to water.
“I live a lot of my mental life online,” she admits. “I enjoy speaking with my colleagues and interviewing them. That’s the excuse for my YouTube channel. I’m trying to make what I do a little more personal, for my audience – and the Internet is an interesting way to put ideas out there.”
One idea Hahn recently put “out there” was a competition for composers to write her a short encore piece. On her website, she invited composers around the world to write pieces for violin and piano, less than five minutes in length. A winner, chosen by Hahn, will be announced in June – and she’ll play the piece during her recitals next season.
It’s just the sort of idea that would occur to Hahn: a little offbeat and overlooked by everyone else. Since the announcement was made in November, she’s been deluged by about 200 entries. Submissions closed on March 15, and she’s currently plowing through a big stack of scores to pick a winner.
“What I’m tying to do,” she explains, “is to expand the contemporary encore repertoire. I wanted to make sure that new, original encores would be created. It’s exciting that so many composers are contributing to this project.”
The contest is culmination of a larger encore project. During the past three years, she has commissioned 26 short pieces from composers around the world. At the root of her interest in encores is the belief the final thing an audience hears before it exits the hall should leave a lasting impression.
“With an encore, you’re trying to wrap up the experience,” she says, “and send people away with a particular mood, or with a little treat that they didn’t expect. So I think it’s important to have a piece that speaks immediately – that has a certain character or personality that’s identifiable.”
Her next offbeat project will be a collaboration with the composer-pianist “Hauschka” (aka Volker Bertelmann). This German musician specializes in the “prepared” piano: a piano with objects inserted in the strings to alter the tone and pitch. He and Hahn have recorded a new CD, “Silfra,” to be released in May. And this spring they’ll perform together in Seattle and Los Angeles.
Looking further into the future, Hahn keeps a wish list of works she’d like to record. Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1 is on the list – but she’s not sure when or where it will happen.
Demand for the violinist keeps her in a perpetual state of motion – with engagements in 2012 taking her from San Francisco to Salzburg, Austria. Nominally, she lives in New York, but she’s rarely at home. And on her website, she notes that she’s already given 1,356 concerts in 283 cities on five continents. She also estimates she’s stayed in at least 736 hotel rooms.
Are these statistics just more of her quirky online musings – or are they a cry for help? Is her schedule of travel and concerts becoming oppressive?
“I think travel is interesting,” she insists. “It doesn’t feel like I’m living a series of numbers, but the numbers point to some of the exciting things that I’m doing. I’ve always enjoyed travel – to be in an amazing city every week is kind of cool. I enjoy that a lot.”
© Colin Eatock 2012
PS: Last fall, I posted a blog about Hahn’s fish interview on YouTube, in which I wrote some dialogue for the fish. (You can find it here.) When I mentioned this in my phone conversation with Hahn, she replied, “Was that you? I loved it!”