Interview: A Talk with Violinist Hilary Hahn
On September 9, 2003, shortly after her recording of Bach Violin Concertos
was released, Hilary Hahn became available for brief telephone interviews.
Hahn spoke from the New York office of Universal Classics, the label with
which she had just signed.
Hahn was running a good half hour behind schedule when we began our
conversation. Twenty minutes later, she had to leave to attend a Tower
Records signing. Given how little time was available to us, Iím amazed at
how much she was able to share.
What strikes me most as I replay the tape of our conversation is the
simplicity with which this gifted 23-year old artist discussed the mysteries
of artistic creation. Hahn had no need of airs or phony sophistication. I am
what I am, she suggested by her voice and the innocence of her replies.
Readers who have heard the artistís Sony debut recording of Bach Sonatas and
Partitas, her Barber/Meyer disc, or her Grammy-winning CD of Brahms and
Stravinsky Violin Concertos know that she is capable of music making of the
highest order. This impression was further confirmed when I heard Hilary
play Bach, Bloch, and Mozart live on February 8, 2004. The solo Bach Partita
No. 2 performance was extraordinary, not only for its unquestionable
technical proficiency but moreso for its intellectual and emotional
coherence. Zhu proved a more than able partner in the Mozart and Bloch,
exhibiting equal degrees of care and nuance.
Here is the interview:
Jason Victor Serinus: Do you know the repertoire youíll play at your
February 8 Berkeley recital?
Hilary Hahn: Yeah. It will be the Mozart E major Sonata, Bach Partita No. 2,
the Bloch Sonata, and the Mozart Sonata in A major.
JVS: Please discuss these pieces and why youíve chosen them.
HH: Weíre going to be recording four Mozart Sonatas over the next few years.
I wanted to play two on this next program because I want to play them more
often than Iíve played them already.
I chose the Sonatas in E major and A major because theyíre ones that my
pianist Natalie and I have always liked reading together. Iíve read through
all the Mozart Sonatas with her, and whenever we got to those two, we always
really liked them. I thought it might be fun to put some more time in on
them and actually learn them.
JVS: What about the Mozart sonatas do you especially like?
HH: Theyíre both very lyrical, theyíre thoughtful, theyíre well written, and
they have equal importance in all of the lines. Theyíre very interesting to
dissect and put back together again.
JVS: Itís tough to talk about music, because music communicates things that
are beyond words. But letís give it a try. Bach has always meant a lot to
you. What is your love affair with Bach about?
HH: I like playing it, and itís a lot of fun to work on because thereís
always something new to discover in it. Once youíve thought an
interpretation through, it usually works pretty well. Anyone can hear what
youíre doing and interpret it for themselves as well. Interpretation in Bach
does not stop with the player.
Thereís no standard interpretation in Bach, and the traditions that youíre
supposed to follow depend on whom you talk to [laughing]. Heís not like some
composers who everyone played a certain way and you can only deviate a
little bit. With Bach, as long as what you do has logic to it, and as long
as you feel it that way yourself, thereís no reason why you canít try it.
JVS: What about the Bloch?
HH: Weíve played it before, and wanted to play it again because itís so much
fun to perform. It was the opener for our Carnegie Hall recital in November
JVS: How long have you and Natalie been working together?
HH: Gosh, ten years on and off. We met at Curtis. She was a student of Gary
Graffman and I was studying with Mr. Brodsky. We worked together and it went
well. While Mr. Brodsky isnít around anymore, the nice thing is that since
she also studied with Claude Franks, every now and then I get a coaching
with him or one of her other former teachers.
JVS: Letís talk about interpretation. Two of us writing for an audiophile
publication ending up giving you a Golden Ear Award - the greatest honor
this publication bestows - for your Brahms/Stravinsky recording.
HH: Thank you.
JVS: I brought the SACD copy of the disc from room to room at the 2001
Consumer Electronics Show, and after playing it for three or four minutes in
a room -- itís not a venue where you can sit and listen to an entire
performance undisturbed -- everyone who heard it ran down to the store and
bought a copy. They sold out just like that [snapping my fingers] because
everyone found it so beautiful.
HH: Oh, thatís so sweet.
JVS: Thereís something about your interpretation, such as where you
transition from the concertoís declamatory, forceful opening passages to its
meltingly tender phrases that just does me in. Obviously youíre expressing
parts of yourself in your own language.
Were you able to tap into those parts of yourself from an early age? I think
your first public performance was at 11.
HH: Actually, my first public performance was at age six. I played a couple
of pieces in a small student recital. When I was 11 was my first performance
with orchestra. It was a chamber orchestra.
JVS: As youíve gotten older, how have different feelings manifested? Have
you found yourself getting deeper into the music?
HH: I think early on you learn a lot from your teacher. I think those
feelings are always there; you just have to learn how to bring them out in
the music. My teachers always thought that musicality was important as well
as technique, so I was taught how to express my feelings through the music.
You just canít think it and have it happen [laughing bashfully]. It has to
be thought out to some extent. You have to plan out how youíre going to
bring across what youíre feeling in the music.
JVS: There are some singers who go right to the heart of the matter. Thatís
what I experience in your Brahms. Was accomplishing such open communication
always easy for you? Was there difficulty at first opening your heart and
baring it onstage?
HH: I think that you try different things at different times. For me, when
Iím onstage I canít just forget about everything Iím doing and get lost in
the moment, because then I might actually get lost in the music. I have to
keep a certain logic going during the concert to keep track of what Iíve
done, what Iím going to do, and how this phrase relates to that. I have to
make sure that the little details I alter -- the phrasing -- on the spur of
the moment actually play out in a way that makes sense later on.
I donít feel like Iím ever not baring my soul, but at the same time I canít
entirely forget what Iím doing and delve so deeply into the music that I
lose track of everything. Itís in the practice room that I figure out what I
want to express and how itís going to be done.
JVS: Do you ever find yourself playing a phrase youíve played many times and
all of a sudden saying, ďHmm, Iím going to do that differently?Ē
HH: All the time.
JVS: And then you have to figure out how that fits in with the rest?
HH: Right, right. Once you change one little thing, it changes the whole
proportion of the piece. Itís like painting a face; you make the nose a
little different and the whole face looks different. Then you have to figure
out how thatís going to affect the rest of the painting.
JVS: You studied ballet?
HH: Um hum.
JVS: I see your training in the prepossessed posture I see in all the
pictures of you. How many years did you study?
HH: About eight years. Not seriously. I wasnít very good at it [laughing]
but I took it.
JVS: When did you stop?
HH: Around 13 or 14, something like that. My body wasnít being trained well
enough to do it anyway at that point. I would have had to go to three
classes a week and been there all the time to study. I wasnít available to
do that, so it didnít quite work out in the end.
I was never serious about it, so it wasnít a major decision to stop taking
classes. I just did it for fun.
Then, a few years later, I found a place where I could do one class at a
time when I was in town, so I started studying again.
JVS: Youíre still doing ballet?
HH: Well, no, I havenít had time lately. But every now and then Iíll take a
class. I like to dance, so I just dance for myself.
Iíve been doing sculling for a while, but Iíve been doing it more seriously
lately. Itís another hobby I like: rowing in the really long boats with the
really long oars. Sculling is when you have two oars per person; rowing is
when you have one oar per person.
JVS: Is there any possibility of straining your arms?
HH. No. No. I grew up using a rowing machine every other morning. There was
one in the house, and my dad thought it was important to keep the natural
strength I had when I was little.
I had very strong arms and upper body, and that tied into the music very
well. At one point when I was little I could do a one-arm chin up
[giggling]. I donít remember that. Actually, I do kind of remember thinking
there was nothing to it, but I donít remember when I stopped being able to
Every other morning I would do some rowing on the rowing machine. Then one
day, when I was 12 or so, I happened to be at a festival and someone found
out that I used a rowing machine. They told me they had some rowing shells
-- the shells are the boats -- and invited me to come on down to the lake
and try it out. When I said I didnít know how, they said theyíd teach me. So
I learned how to do it. It wasnít that hard after using the rowing machine.
In other words, Iíve been using those muscles that way for a long time. Itís
not really a strain when you do it right.
But I also like reading and photography, and being creative.
JVS: Do you have time to do all that with your schedule these days?
HH: Writing and photography I get to use for the Journal that Iím starting
on my online site soon.
JVS: The one that used to be on the Sony website?
HH: Itís my site now so I have to organize it. I found a web designer and
got permission to use photos from my album covers, so hopefully it will be
done by the time people read this.
I do writing and photography for the Journal. I read when Iím trying to
brush up on my language skills and when Iím on the airplane. I like watching
foreign films, especially in languages Iíve learned. I have other hobbies
too, but I canít take anything on the road so I tend to just draw when Iím
JVS: The violin you play is from 1864. You fell in love with it when you
were 13. Have you tried a Strad or Guarneri? Whatís the difference in sound
(not that Iím complaining about your sound) between those different
HH: The violin I have is a copy of Paganiniís ďCannonĒ Guarneri. Its
nickname refers to its big sound. Iíve tried others, but the reason I always
wind back up with mine is because Iím so comfortable with my instrument and
itís mine. Iíve had it for a while, and I kind of grew up with it. So it
adapted to me and I adapted to it.
JVS: When you try other instruments, does a different sound come out? Can
you not make them sing in the same way?
HH: No. Itís a matter of the fine details of sound and how it changes a
little bit with each playing. It takes awhile to get adjusted to an
instrument. I feel Iíve adjusted to my violin; we work well together
JVS: I love your Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Last night I was comparing it
to the Oistrakh version with Ormandy that I was raised on. I still have the
lp that my father played on our ancient Magnavox.
JVS: Yes. The performance was never transferred to CD. Thereís only skip in
it, thank God. Itís in a painful place, but it only skips once, and then no
I was comparing Oistrakhís sound to yours. Of course, heís miked
differently, and was recorded in an earlier era, so itís so hard to tell
whatís really going on.
JVS: Your sounds and interpretations are very, very different; both strike
me as valid.
As you matured, did you hear a sound that you wanted to create on your
violin, or was it always a dance between what you could do and what the
violin could do?
HH: Iím always changing the way I play or something about my technique a
little bit. Thatís how I develop in a lot of different ways.
You always envision what you want to do ahead of time. I guess the violin
plays a role because it can do certain things. But itís more the case that
when I want to try something and want to get a certain sound, I work until I
get it on my violin.
My violin is very flexible so it can do almost anything I want it to do. But
it has also gotten used to the way I play -- it sounds weird I know -- so it
can respond pretty quickly to what Iím trying to get it to do. I donít think
it really influences what I feel I can do because itís often the case that I
discover something on my violin that I wasnít aware was possible.
JVS: And thatís an ongoing discovery process for you?
HH: Yes, it always is.
- Jason Victor Serinus -