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Tag Archives: Hilary Hahn

There are a few albums going on right now at NPR’s First Listen that are worth mentioning, even if briefly. The first is Hilary Hahn’s impending album, on which she recorded Jennifer Higdon’s excellent new violin concerto, coupled with a new recording of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto (one of my absolute favorites). The jury is out for me on her interpretation of Tchaikovsky, since my very first impressions take some tempos a bit more liberally that I prefer, but her execution is impeccable, of course.

Another album that will be quickly released comes from the ever-soulful John Legend and The Roots. The album, entitled Wake Up, takes old soul tracks and gives them a bit of a modern spin. I’ve always loved John Legend’s voice while mostly loathing the songs he chooses to record, save room for a couple. The Roots are similar in this regard for me: I’ve wanted to like them for a long time, since Phrenology and a live album of theirs, but I’ve found them to be a bit hard to listen to. But when you take both of these artists together, with the excellent choice of material, you get Wake Up, which is wonderful collaboration, exactly what I want from these artists, and ultimately an important album.

Finally, I’m listening to Aloe Blacc, an artist whom I don’t know, on his new album Good Things. I’ve just queued this up, but this right here is what I like. It reminds me immediately of a modern Bill Withers. That can’t be a bad thing.

I was fortunate to have another chance to see the final performance featuring Hilary Hahn at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Again, they played three pieces from Albéniz, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade Symphonic Suite, Op. 35. I was very excited to hear this program again from my second balcony seat, because it was fantastic from top to bottom last week. I admit that I enjoy these pieces quite a bit, especially the Albéniz selections.

Flutist Elizabeth Rowe once again breathed life into the Granada from Suite Española, and from the second balcony I could feel the air being guided effortlessly throughout the hall. The lilting beauty of the melody dips momentarily into melancholy before being resolved. Something welcoming, almost akin to a church bell, rings overhead. It’s a peaceful, hopeful tune, being lifted up by the strings. Of course, the BSO performed with their usual gracefulness.

Hilary adorned the stage tonight for the second piece, the Prokofiev. She had no sheet music once again, and she proceeded to express the pensiveness that opens the piece. Slowly, as if to gain assurance, the violin climbs high onto the E string, and Hahn navigated this beautifully. In certain places early on in this movement, something I noticed on the previous performance as well, she used quite a bit of vibrato on certain notes that might not have needed as much embellishment, to my ears. About a third of the way into the first movement, the solo stirs about, and one can almost sense an explosion that manifests itself in short, technical progressions of runs. After a particularly harrowing attack on double stops, during her rests she pulled off the remnants of her broken bow hair, which occurred at exactly the same place in the music as the previous concert. The melody in parts is ghost-like, and the violin in its upper registers was reminiscent of the haunting sounds of the theremin. While her attack seemed nearly flawless on the previous evening, there seemed to be a few spots during the Scherzo in which a few notes were unwittingly muddied together, in the incredibly difficult passages that feature a blinding host of accidentals and potentially high positions on low strings, with slurred bowing. While the specific passages in question already blend together, I felt like I heard these notes more clearly on Thursday.

On recordings, Hahn sounds particularly amazing, and as I’ve mentioned before, she is supremely well recorded. Her recordings all portray a musician with a confident, full tone, and in the two concerts, I was surprised that I did not get a sense of that. It is difficult to tell to what extent it is player, instrument/bow, piece, or a combination of those and other factors mitigating this impression. This is in contrast to other soloists whom I have heard on this stage, whose instruments appeared to convey sound effortlessly. It was the completely absolving quality of her solo encore that convinces me that the sound is largely piece-bound in this case. The true treat for me in these performances was, by far, Hahn’s interpretations of Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3. I am not completely confident, but I think that tonight’s encore was the seventh movement, the Gigue, from that piece. I cannot help but think that (if this is in fact the piece I think it is) Hahn chose the Gigue as the final movement of the final partita as a fitting tribute to the end of her time here in Boston for this trip. Albeit shorter than the Loure she played on Thursday, to have heard her perform two movements from that piece on our stage is special. It was all too short and makes me wonder if she played other movements of the piece in the Friday and Saturday concerts that I was unable to attend. If only I had known she would play different movements of the Bach!

Our concertmaster, Malcolm Lowe, also performed outstanding solos tonight, throughout the Rimsky-Korsakov. Lowe achieves a tonal warmth and particularly a smoothness that carries throughout the hall, even as his bow arm appears weightless upon the strings. It could be in part that Lowe, in his home performance space, understands how to maximize his effect here. While I was happy to hear the Scheherazade once again, the repetitiveness of the main themes makes for a catchy tune (that the stage managers were whistling as they broke down the stage tonight!) but not among my favorite overall arcs of music in a symphonic form.

The BSO under de Burgos were wonderful for the two nights I attended, and I’m very much looking forward to the next series of performances that start this Thursday, which de Burgos will be conducting once again.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) have been on hiatus somewhat, as other groups have been performing at Symphony Hall. They returned this evening to their home field, playing in front of what appeared to be close to a sell-out crowd, and they featured Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducting Albéniz, Prokofiev, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Playing the Prokofiev Violin Concerto was Hilary Hahn, the young American woman who is quickly becoming the icon of classical music.

No matter where one grows up, there is a distinct local culture that shapes one’s perspective and experiences. In no way am I Hispanic, but today at a Mexican restaurant, I connected with a song that I had not heard in quite a long time, “Cielito Lindo.” I admit I do not know the Spanish words to the song outside of the refrain, “Aye, aye, aye, aye,” but I know the tune very well, though I cannot recall really why. It gives me a great sense of connection to something, which is pretty odd since I don’t have the slightest clue to what. Nevertheless, I suspect that this connection is related to having heard the song for years and years in Southeast Texas. Now there is absolutely no good reason aside from sweeping generalizations and possible intimations of race bias that would lead me to believe that de Burgos might have been a perfect fit for the Issac Albéniz pieces that the BSO performed this evening. There is a distinct style associated with Spanish classical music that evades proper characterization in words, simply because I am not trained in music theory. But I recognize that quality that is unmistakably Spanish, and no, it’s not the castanets. They performed the Córdoba from Cantos de España, Granada from Suite Española, and El Corpus En Sevilla from Iberia. This is my first listen of all of these pieces, yet that familiar quality reminded me of an arrangement of Corelli’s La Folia variation that my violin teacher had marked as a Spanish Dance. For a long time, I have loved music from many Hispanic cultures, especially Cuban in jazz and Argentine via Fito Paez, and hearing Albéniz reawakened that love once again. Tonight’s music was all passionate, emotional music, and there is great difficulty in projecting whisper quiet tones evenly, and of course it helps that the Symphony Hall is more than up to the task. But principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe handled this elegantly, something that I had noted in these pieces. While there are a lot of recorded piano reductions of these pieces, the full orchestra experience is, once again, unmatched.

The final piece of the evening was the Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade Symphonic Suite, Op. 35. This is quite a long piece, though quite beautiful, and I noticed about it a quality that is far more pervasive than I had ever realized: as the sections trade off playing, they often overlap slightly and deliver this continuity of sound that blends together. The seamlessness of this is pretty astonishing to me, as an instrument’s timbre can somehow morph into a momentary richness of multiple voices and then rise up with great clarity into another sound entirely. At times, the piece was slightly jarring in its transitions, but that is certainly a facet of the piece and not of the performance. For their part, this was one of the best performances I’ve heard from the BSO: they acted truly as one voice. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe had several extended solos, and he has a warmth of tone that is eerily perfect for Symphony Hall. He is a master of bow control, which I’ve noted previously, and he manages I think to coax every last bit of sound out of his violin in what seems to be an effortless manner. It’s a treat to hear him play solos, I must admit, and I secretly wish that we could return at least for a moment to a time when the principals played the solos.

In fact, the American premiere performance of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 In D Major, Op. 19, was given by none other than former BSO principal first violinist Richard Burgin in 1925 under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky, according to tonight’s program notes. Tonight, the performance was delivered by Hilary Hahn, who arrived on stage in a bright red dress. In the din of the concert hall, the Exit signs all glowed approvingly above each door. I have heard a fair number of Hilary’s recorded works, and her Brahms Violin Concerto ranks easily among my favorite renditions of that work. In addition, I have always had a strong intuition that her personality, or at least what can be discerned from the few instances I’ve seen her appear publicly, is well suited toward solemn, heartfelt renditions of Bach. Her Bach Violin Partitas rank among my very favorite of those pieces. The music is at the same time joyous and peaceful. While I am familiar with Joshua Bell’s recording of the Prokofiev, I do not know the Prokofiev as well as the Brahms or the Tchaikovsky, the latter of which is finally being recorded by Hilary and due out this year. The structure of the Prokofiev is slightly untraditional though not uncommon, in that it starts off with the slower movement before launching into a Scherzo. Hilary is equally a technical master and emotionally mature player, and this was on display here. At one point, she transitioned so easily from pizzicato to spiccato to legato. It was clean, nearly flawless (only she may be able to find flaw, so let’s allow for that), and what a fireworks demonstration! This piece is intensely difficult, but she was able to usurp the technical demands and tell the story of the music.

Like the rest of the audience, I was graced with something I won’t soon forget, as Hilary proceeded to play an encore that was immediately recognizable as a Bach piece for solo violin. So many qualities were revealed in this choice, though I could well be reading into it. Whereas recent visitor to our stage Joshua Bell had played a fun, virtuosic piece in his Vieuxtemps Souvenir d’Amérique variation, Hilary opted for a slow tempo Bach partita that is difficult but not technically overbearing on the soloist but nevertheless presents plenty of subtleties on which to spend a lifetime. As I said before, I’m quite a fan of her Bach, and I believe she also understands the power of his music that can reach down seemingly into the souls of folks. It’s introspective music of the most beautiful order, in a world filled with hectic noise. It was more than a treat to hear her play Bach — it was perfect.

Though I admit that I did not know exactly which Bach it was, I guessed it was a partita, and at the intermission, I tried desperately to keep the piece fresh in my mind as I thumbed through tracks on my iPod in hopes of finding the correct piece. I started with Hilary’s recording of Bach partitas and went quickly through the movements of No. 2 and quickly dismissed it. I went on to No. 3 with fading fragments of her performance in my mind, which were further masked by the solo violin snippets I had been listening to. However, as I came upon the second movement of No. 3, the Loure, I was immediately convinced that it was the same piece.

I have heard rumors that Hilary stays after concerts to talk with her audience, and tonight’s performance was not an exception to that. Ever gracious, she patiently talked with fans who had formed a line that consisted mostly of children and their parents, which wrapped around the Miller room and ended in front of the gift shop entrance. I was happy to let several others get in line ahead of me, so I would not feel that my simple chat with her was holding up a long line of people apparently busier than I. While many took the opportunity to get CDs and programs signed, I cherished the little talk we had in which she confirmed to me the identity of the Bach. It was easy to agree that our beloved orchestra was amazing and particularly on tonight. I’m happy to confirm all accounts: she’s grounded and wonderfully approachable — thanks to her for her time.

Hilary will be performing with de Burgos and the BSO on Friday, Saturday, and next Tuesday. On opening day of ticket sales for this subscription season, I went out and purchased tickets for Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, and Hilary, for Saturday night concerts. However, at the time it wasn’t clear to me that Boston University’s transition-year hockey team would have clinched home ice in an unbelievable scenario, so I’ve forfeited my Saturday night tickets, yes in favor of college hockey playoffs, and am forever grateful to the BSO for the opportunity to see the performance tonight. I’ll undoubtedly be in attendance on Tuesday night as well and cannot wait.

In just about a week, Symphony Hall at Mass Ave and Huntington will open its doors again to welcome the 2009-2010 Symphony Season. As always, the program looks exciting and full of prominent guest artists who will grace the symphony stage. And of course, there are many ways to score inexpensive tickets to the Symphony. Here are the shows I’m looking forward to most:

Beethoven’s Complete Symphonies (!) – it will be my first Beethoven cycle with James Levine and the BSO
Berlioz’s Harold en Italy, with principal violist Steven Ansell – Ansell is an excellent violist
Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3, Op. 60, with the BSO Chamber Players – Brahms chamber music is among my favorite
Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, conducted by Bernard Haitink
Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 – they did this for the 2008-09 season and it was phenomenal
Brahms’ Violin Concerto, with violinist Joshua Bell and conducted by Sir Andrew Davis – Bell is incredibly talented, and this is in my top three violin concertos (Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn)
Elgar’s Violin Concerto, with violinist Nikolaj Znaider
Harbison’s Double Concerto for violin and cello, with violinist Mira Wang and cellist Jan Vogler (World Premiere and BSO Commission) – there’s something special about the double, as the Brahms’ double is my favorite piece
Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma – my brother saw Yo-Yo Ma a couple of years ago, and we sent our parents to see him last year in Houston. It’s finally my turn!
Mendelssohn’s Elijah
Mozart’s Requiem, conducted by John Oliver
Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, with Bernard Haitink
Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis
Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, with violinist Leonidas Kavakos and conductor Bernard Haitink
Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with violinist Hilary Hahn – Hilary Hahn has an incredibly mature sound
Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2
Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture and Entr’actes
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2

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