Live Review: Hilary Hahn Burns Blue in New Concerto at the BSO (2009. 06.04)

The Hypergiant of Higdon's Universe

The Hypergiant of Higdon's Universe

Whatever extraordinary things you’ve heard about Baltimore-native Hilary Hahn (Wiki) are true. I am probably the one classical devotee who’s never owned, borrowed, burned or downloaded a single track of Ms. Hahn’s playing, Brahms or otherwise. To experience her for the first time, live and seated four rows from the front, revealed she’s not a player…she’s a phenomenon of nature.

To have her precisely punctuate the intimacies and imagination of a composer new to me, Jennifer Higdon (Wiki), made for pure transfixion.

The piece — the east coast debut of the BSO’s co-commission of Higdon’s Violin Concerto — is the savviest treat that conductor Alsop has dangled before us all year. A reminder of the daring things she did in her first year here. A good touch, since we just found out we’ve got her for 5 more years. So long as her Brahms and Dvorak cycles cup the gems of unproved new music, we will add our applause to the ovations that rallied and rang as Marin Alsop took the stage.

Higdon was Hahn’s teacher of 20th century music and a natural choice of composer. And Hilary did something rare to up the ante. She dared the composer to “make it a little harder.”

In this case, “harder” does not make demands on the listener – not in this work of sparkling curiosity. The Violin Concerto begins with the movement 1726 — not an archaic reference, just the address for the Curtis Music School where Hilary and Higdon first joined forces.

Hilary started us off with strokes of high note simplicity, or at least seeming simplicity, backed by touches of percussion: light banter of glockenspiel and crotales, possibly some humble household instrument for striking. Think constellations popping. Not explosions up close, but distant clusters. Strings provide beds of cloud. Hilary and concertmaster Carney enter a duet. And Carney, like a pale moon, had to reflect and confine himself to the expressiveness of his ankle-length biker-inspired leather boots.

A young osprey swooping with her bow arm, that’s Hilary at work. She is almost inhuman. Here’s why: she plays from a center of absolute calm. So calm, she’s intense. Like how the blue flame is actually hottest… or how a star surface above 10,000 Kelvin looks cool, but isn’t. And then you realize that she’s playing all of this from memory! You can be sure there is nothing sublunary about her bridgework.

You might just have to forgive her for being imperious. For she nods her head to survey her backing symphony, head turning like a clock hand over her right shoulder, striking 9 o’ clock, 10 o’ clock, 11 o’clock, bouncing to see if they keep time sufficient to her liking.

Higdon’s crescendos are unique: controlled devolution. They are like vacuums that nature abhors, an intensity that tears down instead of builds: a scaffold of inversions. Maybe those five seconds is what it’s like to stand in the face of a half-exploded neutron bomb, before we quickly move on.

In Chaconni, (like Chaconne) the woodwinds begin very bright before ceding to the cellos. All in all, tight disciplined writing that picks out and elevates the individual instruments to rise to Hilary’s level before sinking back into the harmonic order.

It’s worth noting this piece was composed backwards, starting with the third movement first, Hilary saying “make it harder” all the way. So the third movement, Fly Forward, was the first composed and last played. Some hatefully encroaching percussion gets wiped out by Hilary’s darting bow, side-swiping swerves of notes. Then the only two seconds where Hilary took a rest. She races through to one last swipe to finish — catching audience quite by surprise.

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One Response to “Live Review: Hilary Hahn Burns Blue in New Concerto at the BSO (2009. 06.04)”

  1. E.K. says:

    I’m especially impressed by her playing from memory, always an issue with players. I look down on it (even in classical, btw). To have a piece of music or a poem in your head helps you perform the work much more intimately. It takes a little extra work to memorize, but not a lot. Anyway, nice writing, Sam, especially when you have her start playing.

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