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A Conversation with Hilary Hahn

At 19, the young violin virtuoso is fulfilling her promise

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At 19, American violinist Hilary Hahn is one of the most impressive and musically compelling artists in the ever-growing galaxy of young virtuosos. Her virtuosity transcends technical perfection and violinistic wizardry. She is a master musician whose playing is illumined by a love for music and the need to communicate. "Music, for me, is interaction—interaction with the audience and with colleagues," she says. "I play each piece of music the way I would like to hear it if I were in the audience."

On stage, Hahn’s intense concentration grips the audience On stage, Hahn’s intense concentration grips the audience from the moment her bow touches the string. Immediately, she launches her listeners on a spellbinding musical journey. Her playing speaks from the heart with an intelligence, eloquence, and nobility that places her among the great interpreters of our time.

Hahn’s extraordinary musical gifts were apparent at an early age. She made her debut as soloist with the Baltimore Symphony when she was 11. Her 1993 debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra was followed by engagements with the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and other major orchestras in the U.S. and Europe. At 16, she completed the Curtis Institute’s graduation requirements, made her Carnegie Hall debut (again with the Philadelphia Orchestra), and signed an exclusive recording contract with Sony Classical. Her first CD (Sony 62793)—a patrician performance of the last three of Bach’s monumental Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin—received France’s Diapaison d’Or for young talent. In the U.S. it became the Pick of the Month for Stereo Review and a best-seller on the Billboard classical charts.

Hahn’s interest in the violin began shortly before her fourth birthday. She was taking a walk with her father in their Baltimore neighborhood when they passed a branch of the Peabody Conservatory that advertised music lessons for four-year-olds. Looking in on a lesson where a little boy was playing "Twinkle, Twinkle," Hahn was intrigued. She started taking lessons the next week. "Actually, I didn’t start on the violin," she remembers. "I started on a book wrapped in wrapping paper with a ruler sticking out of it. I held that under my chin and just stood while a cassette played. I was in a Suzuki class for about a year."

An engaging young woman, Hahn not only loves to perform but also enjoys talking about her early years and her life as a violinist on the international circuit. In April, when we met and talked after a Lincoln Center concert, I asked Hahn how she trained for her first public performances.

After the Suzuki start, with whom did you study?

When I was five, I started to study with Klara Berkovich. She was a Russian teacher who had just immigrated from St. Petersburg, after teaching for 25 years at the Leningrad School for the Musically Gifted. I studied with her for five years at Peabody Prep. She taught me how to draw my bow, how to play double stops, vibrato, pizzicato—basically everything you need to know to play the violin. She also taught me the basics of phrasing, so I knew what to do with a phrase and how to make something interesting. I did a lot of études with her, especially Wohlfahrt.

When I was about nine, she told me that I had done enough work to give a recital by myself. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could, because I had never heard anyone do that. I went home, looked at my repertoire, and decided that she was right, I probably could. We worked toward this for about eight months. The program included a Handel Sonata, the "Siciliano" and Presto from Bach’s unaccompanied Sonata in G Minor, the Wieniawski Caprice in A Minor, the Vitali Chaconne, Glière Romance, and other short pieces.

Around this time, Mrs. Berkovich told me that she had taught me as much as she felt comfortable teaching me, and it was time for me to look for another teacher. I talked with some of the teachers at the Peabody Conservatory, and one of them told me that she knew a wonderful teacher for me, Jascha Brodsky, who taught at the Curtis Institute. She suggested that I audition for Curtis. I had friends who had auditioned for Curtis and hadn’t gotten in, and they were of college age. But I was entering a competition and wanted to play one of the Viotti Concertos for someone. So I went to the audition entirely for the performance experience, and I didn’t expect much to come of it. But a couple of weeks later, Gary Grafman, the director of Curtis, told me that I had been accepted and that I would be studying with Jascha Brodsky. Since you can’t pick your teachers at Curtis—they pick you—I was extraordinarily lucky.

You were ten then?

Yes, and he was 83. I had a wonderful time studying with him. He told me tons of stories. He had studied with Eugène Ysaye in Paris in the ‘20s, and Ysaye was born in the 1850s, so there is just one generation between me and this great Belgian School. I studied with Brodsky for seven years, until he died, when he was 89 and I was 17. He took what Mrs. Berkovich had taught me and refined and developed it. He took me through the next sequence of études—Kreutzer, Sevcik, Gaviniès, Rode, and the Paganini Caprices. He taught me about 28 concertos, recital programs, and lots of short pieces. He gave me a thorough technical training and, like Mrs. Berkovich, wouldn’t let me go on to the next thing until what I was working on was absolutely right.

He had a kind of musical hierarchy that he wanted me to work through, with Beethoven and Brahms at the end. I wanted to do the Beethoven Concerto a couple of years too soon according to his schedule. I would beg him to allow me to do it, promising to practice really, really hard. His response was always, "No, you must wait until you have studied all the other repertoire. Then you will be completely prepared for it." So I put a lot of time and effort into the other pieces and moved fairly quickly through the repertoire, because I wanted so badly to be able to work on Beethoven and Brahms.

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