Review: Hilary Hahn’s ‘27 Pieces’ strikingly eclectic at Disney Hall

Let me get this straight. Two weeks ago in Santa Barbara violinist Jennifer Koh went from Bach to way beyond at Hahn Hall. Then Hilary Hahn at Walt Disney Concert Hall went from Bach to way beyond Tuesday night. Both virtuoso American violinists, who are in their early or mid-30s, bring real depth to Bach but are now spreading their wings extraordinarily.

They are, moreover, part of what is surely a remarkable new golden age of violinists in their 30s — Leila Josefowicz and Janine Jansen are also in the picture. All have been evolving from glamorous prodigies into venturesome mature artists who are moving the violin into new realms.

But none has shown more surprising recent development than Hahn did in her striking Disney Hall recital with elements from her commissioning project: “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.”

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The encores aren’t encores, at least Hahn did not treat them as such on Tuesday’s program. Instead, she featured eight short pieces interspersed between sonatas by Fauré and Mozart, along with Bach’s solo Chaconne in D Minor.


The new works were a wild mix — edgy, violent, sweet, seemingly sweet, ethereal, earthy, folksy, obviously descriptive, complexly abstract. The violinist writes in her program note that she listened widely late at night to music she had never heard, and when she found pieces she loved she “made nerve-wracking cold calls to the composers to ask them to participate in my project.”

The mix is so interestingly eclectic that the first question has to be: Just who is Hilary Hahn? She made a splash as a shockingly well-put-together teen violinist, her Bach in particular being musically far beyond her years. In her 20s she became known as an inflexible control freak. Many conductors found her hard to work with. Although coolly collected and utterly serious, she expanded her repertory with such caution that she courted superficiality and became a new music lightweight.

That was not, however, the Hahn who walked onstage Tuesday, or not entirely. She wore an unusually revealing (for her) gown, and tore into Elliott Sharp’s well-named “Storm of the Eye.” Sharp is a longtime fixture of New York’s downtown avant-garde scene, a composer and multi-instrumentalist improviser noted for raw, loudly harsh sound. Hahn braved this storm’s eye with all her technique intact and in the process made the ugly beautiful and astounding.

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Also new for Hahn was her accompanist, Cory Smythe. A young New York new music pianist, he demonstrated a sparkling clarity of tone, as well as an exciting sense of color and rhythm. The piano part needed to dominate David Lang’s languid “Light Moving,” a calm tribute to early Minimalism, as it needed to lead much of Mozart’s short, early Sonata in E-flat, K. 302, and Hahn — this, too, unusual for her — let it. The sonata received was a gloriously crisp, lyrical and excitingly fresh reading.

As for the rest of the traditional repertory, the Chaconne, which Hahn dedicated to the memory of cellist Janos Starker, was a transfixing example of her architectural way with Bach and her utter command of her instrument. Only Fauré's early Sonata No. 1, Opus 13, was disappointing, here a restrained Hahn refusing to let go an inch.

But the news was in the new. David Del Tredici’s “Farewell” revealed his special touch in the way he makes a touching tune wander where it probably shouldn’t and then be wonderfully welcomed home. British composer Richard Barrett’s “Shade” was at the opposite end of the spectrum, an intricately fashioned exercise in high-end musical engineering.

Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, made popular in the West by the Kronos Quartet, gave Hahn, in “Impulse,” a fractured, commanding display piece — a knockout. The Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov dwelled, as he often likes to, on the mystically bitter dregs of nostalgia in his haunting Two Pieces (Waltz and Christmas Serenade). There was no program note for L.A. composer James Newton Howard’s lush but anxious “133 … At Least,” so the title remains a mystery.

As part of her commissioning project, Hahn sponsored a contest for the final encore. The winner was Hawaiian composer Jeff Myers, and the violinist broke into a rare smile while squealing enticingly in his exotic “The Angry Birds of Kauai.” A very nice touch was Hahn’s actual encore. It was the world premiere of one of the competition’s runners-up, Rani Sharone’s “Tick.” Tick it did, imaginatively.

In a much bigger sense Hahn has really begun to tick, too, as a proponent for new music. Tuesday she proved that she has the potential to make a difference.


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