Hilary Hahn to focus on small things with encores project

October 21, 2011

Hilary Hahn performs new encores and music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

Hilary Hahn made an acclaimed recording debut at age 16 in music of Bach and over her successful career the American violinist’s career has largely concentrated on Classical and Romantic fiddle cornerstones as well as selective forays into contemporary works.

Hahn, 31, will indeed serve up some of the usual repertorial suspects on her current national tour, which will bring her to Chicago Sunday at Symphony Center in a recital that will offer music of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. But most focus will attend on the many five-minute encore pieces that will be scattered throughout the program, the first fruits of a two-year commissioning project.

Titled “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores,” the violinist has commissioned more than two-dozen works from composers around the world. The first half, which she will be premiering on her current national tour, offers music from composers in nine different countries with the remaining encores to debut in 2012.

So, along with her recent Deutsche Gramophon release of the complete violin sonatas of Charles Ives, is this a conscious effort to concentrate more on offbeat American and contemporary music?

“It just kind of happened,” said Hahn recently on the phone. “It was never a conscious decision.

“I just realized I wasn’t playing anything by Ives. So I wanted to learn some Ives. And I’d been planning and thinking about this encores project for almost ten years.”

“It’s a really international project and I guess the Ives is kind of ‘older-new’ stuff. You always want to expand your repertoire and it’s nice to find new music.”

When most people commission a new work they ask for a full-length sonata or a concerto, to fill up a program half. Hahn, however, went the other way, commissioning 27 composers to each write a work of less than five minutes for violin and piano.

Hahn said there has been a recent resurgence of interest in encore pieces through individual recordings and compilations, which got her thinking about the initiative. “And I thought, ‘Well, what about new encores?’ It would be nice to hear new pieces.

“The encores that people know and love are all wonderful pieces and they should absolutely be played frequently. But I realized that I was not seeing new pieces appear with the same prominence. And people forget that when those old pieces became popular, they were pretty new. And I felt that if we don’t have new pieces ever become the focal point for the encore genre than we won’t have new short pieces in the future.”

Certainly some composers still do write short encore violin works. John Corigliano’s flashy Stomp, for instance, received a blazing performance by Nigel Armstrong at last Monday’s MusicNOW concert.

But in general there has not much widespread interest in new encore works.

“I think shorter pieces are still being written but I don’t think they’re commissioned as part of a [specific] project like this,” said Hahn. “I just wanted to focus on it because it is part of the repertory and it’s something people look forward to at every concert. It’s that little surprise at the end when you never know what you’re going to hear and I thought it would be nice to have new music incorporated in that.”

The dozen works to be premiered on this tour include works by Lera Auerbach, Jennifer Higdon, Ivan Moravec, Nico Muhly and Einojuhani Rautavaara.

Lera Auerbach’s Speak, Memory is “a really striking piece,” says Hahn while the two encores by Max Richter and Somei Satoh are “meditative and really beautiful.” Gillian Whitehead’s item is “very evocative” of her native New Zealand while Nico Muhly’s polyphonic encore creates multivoiced challenges for the players. The encores will be recorded and released in 2013-14.

Hahn’s current recording offers the complete violin sonatas of Charles Ives, hardly mainstream fiddle repertoire. In her notes for the CD, Hahn noted that and pianist Valentina Lisitsa had planned to casually play through the sonatas and quickly found out that that’s not an approach that works with Ives.

“It’s not exactly sight-reading music,” says Hahn. “I mean I’m sure there are people who can sight-read Ives but I’m not one of them.  It’s just tricky to put together. If you haven’t really heard it, you don’t know where the landmarks are and what you’re aiming for.

“It was definitely a case of having to take it apart before we could put it together. And once we put it together logistically, the music flows and it really started to become clear.”

Ives’ anarchic mix of 19th-century Romanticism, hymn tunes, fractured dissonances, and aching nostalgia are as distinct as Schoenberg, says Hahn.

“It’s like learning a new language. Once you learn the grammar, you can start to appreciate the beauty of the language. And that was exactly what happened with these sonatas.”

She particularly appreciates the room for interpreters built into Ives violin sonatas. “It’s very flexible. There’s a lot of room for rhythmic freedom and musical freedom and you can kind of go where you like with it.

“He wrote a lot of markings in his scores. But to me, like most markings, they’re relative. You can choose what proportion of the markings you want to do on any given day. Like, are you going to exaggerate the dynamic here or how far to go with a crescendo there.”

Unlike some, Hahn feels the four Ives sonatas have different expressive profiles. “I found that when I was playing the last three sonatas on one program, I had to find the different characters. They couldn’t simply exist on the program. For me I had to make them stand out from each other or I wouldn’t know what I was doing with them when I got on stage. And the process helped me find that side of them.”

While the violinist has her own views on the Ives sonatas’ various traits, she prefers that listeners discover the music for themselves and reach their own conclusions.

“How often do you get to hear music from a great composer with a completely clean slate?”

Hilary Hahn performs new encores and music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms with pianist Valentina Lisitsa 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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