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Q&A with Violinist Hilary Hahn, Who Grew Up with a Daily Dose of Bach

Peter Miller
Hilary Hahn

Hilary Hahn's love for J.S. Bach goes way back. She began learning solo sonatas and partitas when she was nine years old. And thanks to her teacher Jascha Brodsky at the Curtis Institute of Music, some solo Bach was at every lesson. 

Shortly after the release of her new CD, Hilary Hahn Plays Bach, WRTI's Susan Lewis spoke with her about her love of playing Bach live, her approach to recording Bach, and why she still makes sure to include his music in almost every concert she plays.

Bach, I understand, has some real meaning to you, some real significance in your musical development.

Bach has played a long part in my musical life. I started playing the solo Bach Sonatas and Partitas when I was nine in preparation for a couple of movements that I played on my first full recital when I was ten, and shortly after that I started at Curtis and my teacher Jascha Brodsky at Curtis believed that Bach should be part of one's musical life every day.

He always liked me to bring a bunch of different things to my lesson and he would just kind of pick whichever he wanted to hear that day. I always knew that he might ask me to play something by Bach, so  I had to have some solo Bach ready twice a week for my lessons and because it was such a present part of my musical life, I wound up programming Bach in recitals and playing it as encores after concerti, and it just worked so well that I kept doing it, so I can say that in almost every one of my concerts in my career, I have played solo Bach.

Could you talk a little bit about the Partitas and Sonatas? I mean what they are, what did he write them for?

It's not quite clear what his final intended destination was for these pieces, but they've become such a part of the violin repertoire. I would say performers, with violinists, and with students, it's become a sort of a set of pieces that's attained cult status. It's notoriously difficult to play these works technically, but also musically, there are so many directions you can go in with these pieces that you can play them in all these different styles.

There's a way to connect with them personally for every single player, but you have to find your way, find the way that works for you, find the way that really expresses what you want to say. And that's a tall order.

So they are notorious for many different reasons, but they're also really beautiful and I don't think there's any question about their musical impact either. It's really meaningful deep music.

So, the background for this CD is that when you were 17, your first album was half of these partitas and sonatas, is that right?

My teacher Jasha Brodsky at Curtis believed that Bach should be part of ... musical life every day.

Yes. I was not intending to make a complete set as a recording, but I was making a CD for my first record, so three of the pieces fit very well into a CD and I just picked the three that I was, I suppose most familiar with the three that I played the most. And those were, coincidentally, the second half of the set. The last three.

So that left the first three unrecorded, and people were asking me to record them—fans and you know, colleagues and people would just say, hey, when you going to do the rest? So eventually I thought, you know, enough time has passed, I should get to that, I should do that. But I liked having it in front of me. I like having it as something to look forward to. So it's a funny feeling when it's actually done and the whole set is recorded, you know, over 20 years, granted.

But it is, it is complete now.

You mentioned earlier that you have to find your way into them. How did you find your way into these particular pieces ?

Well the first two pieces of this repertoire that I ever played were the Siciliano and Presto from the G minor Sonata, the third and fourth movements.

And I remember when I first learned them, it was so awkward to play them, like in the Siciliano, there are these string crossings,  it's almost like hopping from tight rope to tight rope and yet you have to keep a lyrical, relaxed feeling to the playing and I'm not freak out while you're playing. And as a nine year old that was just a whole new set of techniques that I'd never learned before. So I give my teachers a lot of fun credit for giving me that challenge.

But now having played those pieces since I was nine, now I remember what that was like, but I don't feel those particular challenges anymore because I'm so used to the, I guess the spatial relations physically that I, I have to do with my bow arm to get from point a to point b.

Now my considerations are more what kind of tempo do I want to take? How can I keep the feeling of this dance going? How can I keep the swing of the piece while still having full expressive range? And I wind up making decisions very much on what feels natural that day.

So, does it feel normal to play this at a faster tempo? Does it feel normal to play it slower? Does it feel like I should emphasize this particular note or does it feel like I should go away from this particular note?

And one thing I've just found over the years is that having a certain way that I'm planning to play something and forcing it to be that way, you can tell if it doesn't feel natural as a listener, you can tell.

So, I try to practice a variety of different interpretations of any given piece so that I have the freedom and concert to really dive into whatever wants to happen that particular day. So, it's really a matter of being authentic in that sense. With these works, it's just one performer. You can't share the the interpretation with someone else and bounce your ideas off of someone else and be surprised by someone else's ideas.

You have to surprise yourself.

The music has to surprise you, and you have to be open to these spur of the moment thoughts that can change your idea of the interpretation, and once you get those ideas then you kind of run with it.

It's almost like if you always are looking out the window at the same scene and then suddenly you notice that there's something there that you never saw before. There's birds nest or like there's a fire hydrant and then you realize that, oh, well that means that there is a whole flock of birds that lives in this tree.

And then you start thinking about it a little differently. Like that tree is a house for someone or there's a fire hydrant because maybe there was a fire here at some point, and they needed to put a fire hydrant there. 

I don't know, that's a little bit dorky, but it's kind of the same thing that happens when I look at the landscape of a piece. It has these little clues embedded in it that can mean nothing or can mean everything.

Maybe the more time you spend with something, the more possibilities you uncover. But  I really do think that he planted all of these little amazing details into the works and the more you uncover, the more options you have as a performer. 

Right. That sense of spontaneity you are describing sounds as if that would often happen during performance. Is there any different way you approach a recording?

I look at a recording as a performance. If I don't have an audience in front of me physically, I imagine that there in front of me and some other way. So when I'm playing on stage for recording and there's a microphone there, I have been a listener in headphones and in cars and on airplanes and as background music in a party situation or in a mall, I don't know.

I've listened to a lot of music in my life, so I project that this music is reaching the ears of an audience that is in all of those circumstances and I imagine playing for people as they're listening at home, chilling out with a glass of wine or as they're cooking dinner or any number of circumstances and that's my audience at that time.

I find it really nice to create those personal connections with the audience even if they're not right in front of me. 

That's great. And you've are these pieces that you've used in these programs that you've been doing off out of the concert hall programs for concerts, concerts for babies and parents, concerts for knitting circles, concert s for yoga classes. Are these the kind of pieces you play?

I am in a very fortunate situation where I get to have live music in my life every single day. Sometimes I'm the only one playing it, but often when I'm rehearsing with people, I get to hear the full dimensional range of instruments and tones and people's spontaneous ideas. Sort of  the beautiful and the messy parts of music. I get to hear that every day and I love it.

So I have this idea that, you know, for people who are not surrounded by live music, it's nice to integrate live music into circumstances in which they would just be listening sort of in the background to music because I think live music just has a whole different feel to it.

Recordings have a certain feel that is really poignant and live music has a different feel that is also poignant for different reasons. So it's nice to have this range of musical experiences in one's life. And that's why I do play concerts for people who are sitting and knitting together or they're doing their yoga or they're with their babies when they wouldn't necessarily be able to go and do these things in the concert hall, but they love to have music in these sort of daily circumstances of their lives.

So yeah, definitely I play solo Bach at all of these occasions because, well, from a practical perspective, it's something that I can always do. I have my violin, I can always do solo Bach, we don't have to worry if the piano is in tune or if there's enough space on stage, it's just me standing there with my violin.

So another reason I play the Bach though is it really seems to create a mood in a room. It changes the feeling of a room and makes it a concert hall and it draws people in without being fussy.

It just draws people in.

It's music that allows people to think their own thoughts and follow whatever experience they want to have with this particular performance.

Right. I was going to ask you, I was listening to this CD and it's beautiful and it's so, it just, it does draw you in, it absorbs you in your materials.

You talk about, as a musician, the importance of technique and phrasing and finding the different voices. And your hope that listeners will find the depth, emotion, humor, and reverie. 

Just like a lot of things have many different sides to them emotionally in life. I think the Bach pieces reflect that. It depends how you're looking at the day. If you're looking at the day as a good day,  a lot of funny things happened or people said fun stuff might hear in the music that it's got a lot of clever twists and turns, but if your day just kind of stinks, you know, you might go into the music as a chance to really connect with what's not feeling good in that particular moment

It lets you really acknowledge where you are with yourself as a listener, and as a performer, and have a place to put those feelings and have a place to, to make sense of things or leave them hanging, but it gives you a sort of an outlet for whatever is going on for you that particular day.

It taps into whatever is going on in your life. That's wonderful. Thank you so much, Hilary Hahn.

Thank you. 

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.