An Interview with Hilary Hahn
10 years ago, in an ill-tempered article for the Berliner Zeitung, a music critic coined the term “cuddle classical.” It referred to musicians whose PR strategies tended towards the sweet and approachable; alongside the violinist Hilary Hahn, he named Janine Jansen, Baiba Skride, Leonidas Kavakos, and (of course) Lang Lang.
I think he got Hahn, at least, all wrong. She is nice, which Europeans tend to mistake for a lack of depth. But she’s also well-spoken, clear, controlled, and firm. In a phone call from her tour of Europe with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Mikko Frank, we talked about following U.S. politics from overseas, lesser-known works of Max Bruch, and why she’s staying loyal to her violin.
VAN: What’s it like touring as an American at this difficult moment?
Hilary Hahn: I actually flew over to France the day after the election. And it was very strange to be traveling with an international group of people while there’s been such intensity back home. In a way being over in Europe, people are aware of the dynamics to some extent, but it’s so much more intense and emotional back in the States. In a way I feel like I’m able to regard things from a distance. But at the same time, I feel like I’m observing things from the outside that I’m really inside of.
It’s almost like, in a different way, when I’ve been overseas for Thanksgiving. Everyone knows what Thanksgiving is [for Americans]. But you can buy a turkey, get your stuffing and your sweet-potato casserole, your pumpkin pie and all of that, but at the end—if you’re not with expats—you’re sitting in a room by yourself eating your stuffing and your pumpkin pie. And you’re like, “Am I missing the point?”
I think being overseas has been interesting in that way, because I get to talk with people internationally about their impressions of things, so I get that whole different set of perspectives. But I also…I’m trying to think about where I fall in the action spectrum, being overseas.
On this tour, you’re playing the Bruch Violin Concerto. Musicians talk a lot about historical performance practice these days. Can anything from that, which usually applies to Baroque or Classical music, be applied to a big, famous concerto like this one?
I think the technique is more similar between the Romantic era and the current day. Where you see a difference is in the instruments that people use—which strings. A lot of that shows up mostly obviously in keyboards: for example, the piano that Brahms wrote for is quite different from the piano that we have today. So for keyboard players, there is a significant amount of performance practice. But my violin was made shortly before this concerto was written, and has undergone no structural changes since then. So I’m pretty much playing on the instrument that it would have been played on, as far as dimensions, projection, and all of that.
I feel like what you can learn from performance practice is about how people approach the music; how they approach the philosophy of playing the different types of pieces; the scholarship that they apply to it. If that is something that informs your interpretation in particular, or at least is helpful very early on, it’s a great process to go through.
We’ve talked to other violinists about the scholarship—the reading of sources and letters—that goes into preparing a Beethoven or Brahms Concerto. Would you go through the same effort for the Bruch, which is somewhat of a showpiece?
I don’t think there is much information on Bruch. I haven’t come across a lot of stuff. Maybe there’s a trove somewhere [laughs]. But I think it’s more about knowing the music around that era, working with people who are really specialized in that era of music. Bruch really didn’t write a lot of things that are played today, so we don’t really have much reference for his music. Although, in his time, he was definitely a seriously respected composer. And these pieces that have survived to be played with more frequency, they are part of the repertoire. But Bruch is one of those composers we just don’t have as much information on. And it’s not because he lived in a vacuum. It’s just because not as much of his stuff survived, and not for as many instrumentations as other composers. So I think it’s harder to apply it directly to him.
We tend to only think of the Violin Concerto.
Well there’s the “Scottish Fantasy,” which is another piece for violin and orchestra. There’s a Concerto for Two Pianos, which I haven’t heard. I was talking about this last night with the conductor [Mikko Frank], and some of the orchestra—we were trying to think of what is played frequently by him, and what’s mainstream, and what’s not. So I just learned about [the Concerto for Two Pianos] last night.
If you could play a famous violin like a Stradivarius—an instrument besides your own—what would it be?
I’ve had [my] violin since I was 13. I’ve had the chance to play other instruments, but I really just keep returning to it. It feels like it’s part of me, and I feel very loyal to it. The thing is, it’s hard to know if you want to play an instrument until you’ve played on it [laughs]. Each one is different.
I feel like with violins there are famous makers, but whether that instrument is a match or not is very hit or miss. The instruments by the really famous Italian makers, Guarneri and Stradivari, are such old instruments that sometimes they’ve been taken care of well and sometimes they haven’t. Sometimes they’ve been set up a certain way. (By set up, I mean: there are little tiny adjustments you can make within the placement of the bridge, the sound post, the tension of the sound post inside the instrument.) So there are little things that it might have had done to it over the years, or it might have been repaired in a certain way, that changed the way the instrument resonates. There was a trend at one point to take out what was perceived to be extra wood inside the instrument; just shave it down. Some instruments just aren’t their original selves.
Looking at your social media, and its wry observations, it seems like you still enjoy traveling. Do you?
I’ve organized my schedule in recent years to not be constantly on the road. I need some time to prepare for things between concerts. I also do well when I have a little time to recharge. I’ve really come up with a schedule that works for me under multiple circumstances; that helps a lot. Also, I think my personality is well-suited to touring. Because there’s a lot of time when you’re just kind of on your own: practicing, reading, doing emails, whatever.
The idea of being well-suited to the musicians’ life is something that comes up often with Hahn. In one YouTube video, a fellow performer asks her about nerves. She responds, “I think I have a good physical response to adrenaline.” It sounds like a person saying she has a strong immune system or a quick metabolism. One way of looking at talent is not as a mysterious gift from God but rather as a set of lucky personal and biological circumstances that make life on the road enjoyable and adrenaline a helpful response on stage.
So you enjoy alone time?
Yes. But if I did only that, I’d probably need to recharge my social life. The combination is good for me, I’m comfortable with various proportions in the day. I am suited to the lifestyle: I like to work on stuff, think about stuff, chip away at things, I like to be creative. All of that is helped by having a little bit of breathing room in all aspects of the day.
I’m based in the New York area.
How was it establishing a base while spending so much time on the road?
I have family in the area, so I’m often actually with family. That helps. In a way, when you travel so much, you get really quick at adapting to the basic things of every day. You get really quick at finding where you’re going to go to eat, at finding a coffee shop you can work at. That’s the other thing I love about travel—I love having new, little home bases every week. I get to find my favorite little places, and go back to them. I can try other things too. I can go to museums that have exhibits that I wouldn’t have seen elsewhere.
And I think that experience of adapting—you really have to adapt to a lot of things on the road, and not in a bad way, it’s just how it is—I like the process. It makes it easy to get used to a place. What takes awhile is building a community when you’re in and out. You just need to take your time and that eventually works out kind of on its own.
On your website and Instagram, you showcase some fan art. It’s hard for me to imagine other violinists, say Joshua Bell or Anne-Sophie Mutter, having that…
[Laughs] I think we all get it. I don’t know, I haven’t talked to them about it, but…I think people draw stuff and give it to people who are on the stage. Maybe it is unusual.
I do have a lot of younger audience members. I have older audience members as well. It’s a pretty big range. Maybe there’s some connection there between the interests of the audiences and the demographics of the audiences.
Why do you think younger people come to your concerts in particular?
I don’t know exactly. I’ve only ever been me, so I have no comparison. I think that maybe…I’ve always tried to make sure that my website, and the stuff that I post, are good for all ages. I try to provide information that is helpful for violin students, as well as long-time concertgoers. The things I’ve written about, I try to make them informative across the spectrum. I’ve always tried to make it so that if a parent wants to let a kid look around on my site they don’t have anything to worry about. I don’t exactly what that would look like; what would worry the parent of a student of violin going on a website of a violinist [laughs]. But I’ve always kept that in mind. ¶