Friday, March 8, 2013

To Bach and back with Hilary Hahn

The performer in repose.

Artistic affinity is both a fact of life and an utter mystery - and much on my mind of late, as last weekend's Celebrity Series performances by violinist Hilary Hahn (above) and pianist Jeremy Denk were almost case studies in this curious phenomenon.

You all know what I'm talking about - indeed, the concert-hall crowd senses this kind of thing immediately; suddenly, after respectful applause throughout a program, the house goes wild for a piece, in the kind of instinctive response that performers live for.  A critical answer to the question of what, precisely, the audience is sensing remains elusive, however.  What secret link sparks the exciting synergy between a musician and a composer that yields that ineffable thrill?  Sometimes a critic can point to this or that technical skill which gives a performer the edge with certain material - that was definitely the case with Denk, whose touch and demeanor mapped to some composers, but not to others - but far less so with Hahn, whose command was impeccable, and indeed seemed adjustable to the technical demands of everything she played.

No, with Hahn the crux of the issue came down to - well, soul, for lack of a matter word.  For she performed everything in her program expertly (almost beyond expertly).  It would have been hard to argue with a single phrase. Yet strangely enough, of the composers on offer, only one - Johann Sebastian Bach - sounded anything like a soulmate.

But Bach came late in the program.  First came a suite of short commissions (one of three such sets) all intended, Hahn has said, as "encores." Now a great encore is like a little black cocktail dress: it's short and makes a statement.  A memorable mood, a striking phrase - a musical haiku is just the thing.  And to be honest, Ms. Hahn has been lucky in her commissions - almost all were appealing and highly crafted; but all were slightly over-embroidered. Indeed, you could feel their composers almost obsessively stitching in one too many ideas - it seemed as if each saw this (a solo by Hilary Hahn!) as their one shot at showing a large audience everything they could do.

Still, a handful made an impact.  Du Yun's "When a Tiger Meets a Rosa Rugosa," for instance, had a  memorably melancholic Chinese cadence (this piece proved only one stop in a kind of musical world tour, btw - other pieces hinted at Spanish, Middle Eastern or even Indian accents, as in Kala Ramnath's hypnotic "Aalap and Tarana").  Even more striking, however, were David Lang's lyrically circling "Light Moving" and particularly the shivering cries of Jeff Myers' "The Angry Brids of Kauai."

Not quite as successful was Hahn's first shot at a major composer - Corelli, whose Sonata No. 4 in F Major she essayed in a curiously diffident manner, against a still-more-curious accompaniment by pianist Cory Smythe, who didn't seem to know what to do with the Steinway he was playing (the piece was meant for harpsichord).  Things did finally warm up in a final, sweet Allegro, but the choice of the work itself left one puzzled.

Stranger still was the Fauré sonata (No. 1 in A Major) that followed - largely because Smythe was suddenly in his element, while Hahn was still wandering in the wilderness.  If you'd heard half this performance, though, you would have been wowed - Smythe's plush touch, so wrong for Corelli, proved nearly perfect for Fauré, and he handled the work's complicated counterpoints and swooping filigree with dazzling skill.  Meanwhile Hahn was just as skillful - but, as my partner pointed out, she seemed to be playing "like a competition winner" rather than an interpreter.  Perhaps Fauré's almost impacted sense of the romantic is hard for a young performer to parse; but I was reminded of Karajan's famous advice to another violinist trying out a punctilious rendition of a complex piece:  "You played it perfectly.  Now live with it for a year."

But then came the Bach - the great Ciaconna from Partita No. 2.  The "Chaconne" (as it's usually called) remains a landmark in the repertoire, one of those works by whose demands (it's thick with double, triple, and even the occasional quadruple stop) great violinists are tested.  And Hahn didn't just play it, she seemed to burn through it.  I wouldn't call hers a highly original rendering - but what an attack; Hahn had a kind of authority that comes from utter familiarity with, and comprehension of, the depths of a piece (she has clearly been living with this one for more than a year; indeed, Hahn has said that she has played Bach every single day of her life since childhood).  The variations seemed to only build in intensity as she progressed, and almost before she had hit the final, resolving note the audience was on its feet with something close to a shout.

There was more on the program - three more "encores," but nothing came close to this level of excitement.  But then how could it?  Hearty applause brought Hahn back for one more actual encore - Richard Barrett's "Shade," a skittering little number that hinted and haunted, and then was done.  Which left me haunted by the question raised by the whole performance: when will Hilary Hahn sense the depths in other composers that she now feels in Bach?  All I can say is that, when and if she does, she'll deliver a concert that will raise the roof - or burn the house down.

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