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Cover Story: Hilary Hahn - Violinist with a vision

PSO opens new season with a bright, young star

Friday, September 15, 2000

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

Hilary Hahn wants to personally thank you for listening.

Pittsburgh Symphony

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New faces in the PSO

Hilary's 'Hahn-line' journal

She doesn't say it in such a cheesy way -- she is 20 years old after all -- but the American violin virtuoso is doing her part and then some to help right the good ship classical.

In a keynote address she gave this summer at the annual conference of the American Symphony Orchestra League in Boston, Hahn tactfully urged her fellow musicians to work harder to connect with audiences and offered tangible ways to do so.

She advocated that artists look at "music television, the Internet, direct contact with audiences and programs for kids," while also maintaining they not be "reluctant to talk with the media."

"To me, all of these activities on the part of artists are connected to the goal of breaking down barriers that keep people from coming to classical concerts," she said. "This isn't a matter of self-interest or egomania -- it's an effort to help with classical outreach."

Hahn hasn't changed her tune since that conference -- "I think that there's a lot that [artists] can do that isn't too energy-consuming that would make a big difference," Hahn says over the phone. She'll put that theory into practice again this weekend when she performs in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's season-opening concert with music director Mariss Jansons. She'll play Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto in a concert that also includes Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and Ottorino Respighi's "Feste romane."

The Baltimore resident, originally born in Lexington, Va., has played to critical acclaim around the world for some time now, including a 1994 date with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Lorin Maazel at Heinz Hall at the age of 14. By then, concert performing was already old hat for Hahn, who made her major orchestra debut at age 11 with the Baltimore Symphony.

Since then, she's been nominated for a Grammy, won two Diapason "d'Or" award for albums, played with most of the major orchestras of the world and graced covers of publications everywhere.

Because of the exposure, she's been associated with other wunderkind violinists such as Sarah Chang who have impressed pundits with their talent, but raised some eyebrows about the long-term effect their relative immaturity and their marketing might have on the field. Critics asked if classical music was pushing kids out of the nest too early to pump sales. Was the field aping pop culture marketing -- sacrificing art in order to make it popular?

The debate is still open, but the concern was certainly a bit overdone. Prodigies have been placed in the public eye for time immemorial. And if top-notch performing artists like Hahn continue to take responsibility for their art (and their means of living, it might be added), it may become a moot issue.

Hahn's main thrust is in making connections, on and off the stage. "I try to do a lot of direct contact with the audience, because the audience is part of the concert, too, as much as anyone on stage, and it's a shame not to get to meet them if you get the chance," she says. "I just enjoy doing that."

At her concerts, Hahn eschews the green room in favor of mingling with the average concert-goer. She also signs her recordings whenever she can. "I see a broader section of the audience than some people might. ...One of the most rewarding things is meeting someone after a concert who has never been to a concert before. It is incredibly rewarding when they say, 'This is my first classical concert.' It is really exciting for everyone."

No one expects Hahn to save classical music by herself, nor is she doing anything radical. She is just pointing the way to a simple strategy that artists can use to pull more people to art music.

A more difficult avenue concerns recent classical music's underuse of television to reach people. Hahn made it clear in her Boston speech where she stands. "This takes persistence and good contacts, but if 'Good Morning America,' or the 'Today' show, or Oprah, or the Osmonds, or David Letterman, or Conan are listening ... I'd be happy to offer my services," she said "I've been on shows like those in Germany, Australia, Canada, and on cable TV in America, talking and playing short pieces of solo Bach, so I know it can be done effectively."

OK, some of this might seem a bit naive, but remember, this is a young woman signed by and heavily backed by Sony, and she has already learned how to use that power to further her visions.

Case in point is her "Postcards from the Road," an online journal that she has kept for about two years and displayed for all to read at, a Sony site. It's by far the most wide-reaching enterprise she does -- other than performing -- attracting more than 8,000 hits a week.

"It started as a project geared toward grade-schoolers, but adults began coming up to me after concerts and telling me that they'd been following my journal, too," Hahn said in her address. "I expanded the concept to include everyone ..."

Though Sony is undoubtedly thrilled with the extra attention and publicity the successful online journal has brought Hahn, it was her idea and it isn't edited for content, she says. "I do [the journal] because I wish there was something like that when I was growing up as a kid learning violin and studying music early on because it would have been fun to find out things that I always wondered about," she says. "Like, what do people do on the road, how did they spend their time, how much performing did they do, what do they like to do as a hobby, what do they eat on the road, what's their pattern on their performance day, stuff like that."

That's a mouthful, but Hahn does give much of that interesting nitty-gritty in her postcards, and does so with a descriptive and clear prose style.

"I have always enjoyed writing, actually," she says. "I have always enjoyed literature classes, and I took a fiction workshop for writing and analyzing at Curtis ... I don't know if would do it professionally, but it's nice to have the balance with the music." She also has written the liner notes for her latest album, one of Barber and Edgar Meyer violin concertos.

The Barber concerto is a favorite of hers. "It combines everything," she says. "It doesn't lack lyricism or technique or anything like that. It's put together in a very wonderful package. It's wonderful to listen to and it's also rewarding to play." The reward is a pliant piece whose themes allow for ample individualistic interpretation. "It seems like it would be a very straightforward piece, but there is actually a lot under the surface that you have to take into consideration when you are figuring out how you want to play it," she says.

Hahn's take on the work is intriguing: "It seems very lyrical, but it also has an incredibly dark side to it," she says. "It sounds sunny, but it threatens to rain."

The youthful confidence Hahn shows in what can be changed in classical music will likely ruffle some feathers. But if more soloists -- especially those already laden with lucrative deals -- made as much of an effort in this regard, who knows what the effect might be? Some do, of course (Midori and Yo-Yo Ma come immediately to mind) and some don't feel at ease doing so ("Some people don't feel comfortable with it. ... You can't do something that you don't feel is the right thing to do," Hahn says). But virtuoso soloists are the stars of the field and therefore have tremendous influence on its future. As it looks now, Hahn looks poised to contribute to the future of classical music in this regard as much as she certainly will in performing.

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