First fiddle

American violinist Hilary Hahn has been a mainstay of the celebrity-soloist circuit since 1991, when she made her major orchestral debut at the age of 15. Over the last decade, Hahn has twice been awarded the Grammy for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance with Orchestra, and in 2010, a piece she commissioned from composer Jennifer Hidgon won the Pulitzer Prize. 

Violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn brings a mixture of classic and contemporary pieces to the Paramount this Wednesday, with Valentina Lisitsa accompanying on piano. 

Hahn’s curriculum vitae may be hard to square with things like her latest YouTube post, in which she interviews a betta fish via Skype—“What made you want to be a fish?” she asks. “Is it what you want always wanted to do?”—but whether she’s performing Tchaikovsky or satirizing dull reporters, Hahn is lucid, self-possessed and sincerely playful.

While you wouldn’t call her a crossover artist, Hahn has toured with the angelic Tom Brousseau and the scruffy Josh Ritter, and played on two albums by …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. On October 11, Hahn released a more traditional display of her technical virtuosity in the form of Ives: Four Sanatas, which features frequent collaborator Valentina Lisitsa on piano.

The program for Hahn and Lisitsa’s October 19 performance at the Paramount includes Bach’s “Sonata No. 1,” Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 2” and Brahms’ “Sonatensatz in C Minor,” as well as shorts from In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, a current project that will culminate in the recording of 27 original works Hahn commissioned from contemporary composers. When I spoke with Hahn over the phone—a month after she interviewed the fish, so no (intended) connection there—she advised all in attendance this Wednesday to “come for the experience of simply hearing what happens, because this sort of old-fashioned program doesn’t occur very often.” 

Are all 27 of the commissioned pieces finished for your upcoming encore album?  

I’m currently working on 13 of the pieces to premiere next month, when the tour begins. It’s really exciting to think about presenting these new pieces to audiences so many times. Most of them are completely finished, but on a few I’m still working with the composers on little tweaks, making sure to get things the way they wanted. I’m going to record them at the end of this tour, and I’ll be getting the other 14 ready for next season. So it’s nice to focus on these pieces, which feel like they have unlimited potential for future performance. 

Did you do a lot of cold calling to get in touch with your composers?

Well, I could’ve had someone call for me but I really didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make contact with the composers so that I knew who they were and could established a rapport. I knew that not everyone I called would be able to do the project because these people have a lot of commissions they’re balancing and whatnot. I was actually forbidden to call a few people, because their publishers said they were too busy, and they didn’t even want to give them the chance to accept. But honestly, I didn’t expect so many of them to be open to the project, which is probably the reason the number of composers is so much larger than I initially anticipated. I knew I wanted to commission the pieces, so I could really feel a personal connection to them from start to finish, and find out what pulls them all together.

At the Paramount you’ll be playing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms alongside contemporary works. What drives a classical musician to play from the canon?

With someone like Tchaikovsky or Bach, a lot of people outside of classical music performance get the impression that it’s the same pieces played over and over again. But the thing is, it’s the same notes, but that’s about the only thing that stays the same. Of course, there are traditions of playing, certain things people tend to do that you can choose to go with or not. But you can interpret the speed of a piece, the loudness, the softness. You can interpret the rhythms. Everything in notation is basically relative, so what you choose to do with those relative proportions is up to you. It’s like giving two painters the same object. Of course, another part of it is simply growing up with a work. You know a song and you want to sing along. It’s a bit selfish, the whole artistic side of interpretation.

What is rigorous practice for, aside from obvious things like technique, fitness and memorization?

For me, preparing as much as possible and getting very comfortable with a piece lets ideas come to me in the moment when I’m playing it. You can’t just think of something and do it if you’re not very familiar with a piece. You need a really solid working knowledge of it in order to know what parameters you’re working with. Whether you really can push this tempo at this point or whether you really should put this emphasis on this note. Making decisions in the moment is what makes it really fun to perform. I just try to be as prepared as possible so the performance can be really spontaneous.

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