The Well-Tempered Music Guy

Simple thoughts by a simple listener on classical music

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Hilary Hahn Interview Transcript

The following interview was conducted live by phone during WKCR's BachFest, on December 27, 2005.
(Sorry it's taking me a while to post these, this transcription is tedious work. I'm a pretty fast typist, but not fast enough. The Hewitt interview is coming soon.)

JT = some jerk; HH = Hilary Hahn.

JT: So why did you choose Bach to record your first record?

HH: Well it’s interesting, the first recording that I did for Sony was Bach and the first one that I did for Deutsche Grammophon was Bach, with no Bach in between as far as recording goes. But I’ve always played a lot of Bach. I actually did the Brandenburg Concertos at Lincoln Center one winter. I think I was 15 or 16 or something like that, and that was right around the time I was going to start recording the first album, the Bach stuff. I felt like I’ve played so much Bach from the beginning, that I might as well make Bach recordings (laughs).

JT: What’s special about Bach to you?

HH: Maybe this isn’t accurate, but to me it seems that Bach is actually one of the most romantic composers. A lot of his music has a lot of depth to it. You can interpret it any way you want, and you can really pour yourself into it, or you can hold yourself back. There’s a kind of a balance there that you have to strike. You can’t just go all out and have it sound like Bach still. But at the same time you can really find a lot in it every time you come back to it. So there’s a definite emotional connection for people who play it, and the audience as well gets a lot of variety as far as the interpretations that they’re presented with.

JT: Yeah, you certainly take a very expressive style in your Bach playing. I know you value very much the history of violin playing, the old masters. Who are some of your big influences in your playing, especially for Bach?

HH: For solo Bach I was influenced by Henryk Szeryng and Arthur Grumiaux. I listened to their recordings a lot very early on. Milstein as well, for Bach, he’s a great person to listen to. And I also listened in general a lot to Kreisler and Heifetz and Elman and a lot of other people from that generation. My teacher, Jascha Brodsky, was familiar with all of them.

JT: Talking to other performers, Angela Hewitt said she barely listened to any recordings of the Goldberg Variations before she played them. Other performers have told me they don’t like to listen to recordings first, because it can distort their interpretation. But my impression is that you do listen to recordings and that it actually helps you with your interpretations.

HH: Right. Coming into a recording session myself, I don’t tend to listen to other recordings, because I need to make sure I have it straight in my head, what I want to do. But when I’m learning a piece, it helps to listen to different recordings to hear how the different – well, with Bach, it’s solo – but still, it helps to hear how the different instruments interact, and to get a feel for the pacing of the piece, and how it sounds when one person plays it versus when another person plays it, then you get an idea of what the options are. There are some pieces that have a tradition of interpretation, and if you do a certain thing because you don’t know any better, it’s not acceptable. You can do anything you want, but there are certain pieces that have certain ways of being played that you have to start from in order to sound like you know what you’re doing. But in other pieces, you can just start from scratch, and whatever you come up with is fine. So it really depends on how much variety there is in the interpretations, and how much is considered standard.

JT: How did you find that situation in terms of the Bach Violin Concerti? Was there a lot of tradition bearing down on you?

HH: Well, with anything that now has performance practice traditions, I think that kind of frees you up in a way. Because there already, when you start your own interpretation, are so many different possibilities. You can really choose anything you want. With Bach, there are certain things that don’t work structurally, but they have nothing to do with tradition, they have to do with the structure of the piece, the phrasing you can come up with in that structure. For example, sometimes certain accents wouldn’t make any sense in the music, or certain tempi just don’t feel right, so you really can’t force yourself to do something that doesn’t feel right. With Bach it’s more that it has to work as an interpretation, but as far as which one you choose or how you go about your interpretation, there are a lot of options.

JT: In terms of tradition, obviously each violinist puts his own stamp on the work. But at this point, there are also two broad camps, the Heifetzes and the Milsteins on the one hand, and the period performance explosion on the other. How has the period performance movement influenced you, if at all?

HH: Well, I think there’s a third category, which is sort of a combination. Because there are people who are on the extremes of both, people who make a career out of knowing the traditional way that things should be played, and they’re extremely good at it. And then there are other people that like that kind of style, but don’t really want to go all the way into that, with the baroque instruments and everything like that. So they play in a more historically informed way but on modern instruments. And there are people who just throw all that out and do whatever they feel like [laughing]. And I think I’m kind of between the last 2 categories I mentioned, not really striving to sound like a historically informed interpretation, but at the same time I don’t want to disregard what is evident from the music. And there are certain things in the research of original performance that are very helpful for someone like me. I’m not trying to do only them, but I am trying to respect what the composer intended and how the composer might have expected it to be performed, in things like ornamentation and other stuff. I don’t want to do something from another era, in other words.

JT: Yeah, for instance you didn’t record the [Bach Violin Concertos] with the full forces of, say, the Berlin Philharmonic, you recorded them with a chamber orchestra [the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra], if not on original instruments, more scaled to the forces of Bach’s time. And with a harpsichord continuo.

HH: Yeah, exactly, I wanted to record it with a chamber orchestra, with as small an orchestra as possible.

JT: How did you get hooked up with this particular ensemble, the LA Chamber Orchestra?

HH: Jeffrey Kahane, used to conduct in Santa Rosa, California. He may still do that, I don’t remember. But I worked with him a lot there. He’s also a really good pianist, and I know him from various musical experiences. So he seemed like a good person to record the Bach with. And the LA Chamber Orchestra was… actually, Sony arranged that recording, and then the contract, when we were renegotiating for the second contract, just didn’t work out. So Deutsche Grammophon took over what Sony had arranged. They didn’t have to, that was really nice of them to do. And the way Sony had set it up was, they were comfortable recording with the LA Chamber Orchestra, and I had wanted to record with a chamber orchestra. And there was Jeffrey, directing the L.A. group, so it all just all worked out really well. I think one reason Sony had an agreement with them was there was some kind of financial thing. American orchestras are really expensive to record with, but they had some sort of financial arrangement that worked for Sony. So that was nice. I didn’t want to record without a conductor, I wanted a conductor to take responsibility for certain things, in the interpretation and in recording sessions and things like that. So that ruled out some of the other chamber orchestras that Sony would have considered. So it all just kind of came together nicely. The musicians were really quick on the uptake, because that particular group has a lot of people who also play soul music. And they’re incredibly good musicians, because you have to be really quick to play soul music well, because you just don’t get any rehearsal. And so I knew they would be flexible as to whatever we decided to do interpretively, and it just made a lot of sense.

JT: Have you ever played a baroque violin?

HH: No, I haven’t, not because I don’t want to, but just because the situation hasn’t arisen. You can’t just pick it up, you need someone to talk you through it, explain things. And you need to spend time trying to figure out how the sound would have been produced. So I don’t want to go in and say, oh, I played one for five minutes. Yeah, if the situation arose, I would be curious, but I just haven’t been in the right context yet.

JT: With a lot of the recordings you’ve made since your original Bach record, you’ve paired a classical or romantic concerto, like the Beethoven and Brahms, with a 20th Century work. You didn’t do that this time [in the Bach Concerto record]. Was that simply because the Bach concertos conveniently filled up an entire CD?

HH: Yeah, that pretty much is it. I wanted to do the oboe and violin double concerto which isn’t done very often. Once you start dividing something up that could have been recorded in one album, you have to make several projects out of it. And the projects are not self-contained. For example, if I were to record 2 of the Bach concertos along with some other major work, I would have to record something else to fill out the remaining 2-piece disc. So it’s tricky. I thought, I want to record them all anyway, so I might as well put them on the same album.

JT: You mentioned the Concerto for Oboe and Violin, and there’s also the Concerto for Two Violins that we just heard. How was it different for you performing concertos for multiple soloists?

HH: I think it’s fun. I’m actually working with Jaime Laredo right now, because we’re playing the Bach Double and I’m playing something else with him conducting tomorrow night [December 28, 2005] at Carnegie with the New York String Seminar. And he’s playing the first violin part in the Bach Double and I’m playing the second. So it’s fun, because I used to take lessons with him. We did that about ten years ago, and now we get to do it again. It’s neat, because it’s a good chance to work with other people in a very decisive situation. As soloists, you have to know what you want to do. You can’t say, “Oh, well let’s see if this works or that works.” You have to go into rehearsal with a tempo, a basic structure in mind, and all of that. In chamber music, you have more rehearsal time and more flexibility in the rehearsal time that you’re given. With orchestra, it’s like chamber music meets the efficiency of an orchestra. So it is different from just playing a duet.

JT: Do you feel you have to change your playing when playing with other soloists?

HH: Oh yeah. I mean of course, it’s only fair. Everyone alters their playing for the other people. It also happens in regular concertos. I have a basic idea of what I want to do, but then I change the details according to what the conductor or the orchestra is inclined to do. And sometimes those details make for a large change overall, and that’s fine, too. But you do have to have an idea of what it is you’re trying to do, but within that you do have a lot of flexibility, so it’s only fair that everyone be flexible.

JT: One interesting choice in this recording is that the tempi are very fast. I mean that in praise, I love fast. Was that a decision made by you or by the conductor, or some combination?

HH: Well, it was more my thing. It’s different for recordings, when people are going to see that as your definitive interpretation. From one concert to the next, it doesn’t really matter a whole lot whether it’s this way or that way, as long as you feel comfortable. But for recording, that’s how people are going to think you hear the piece. So you really have to decide what it is you want to do at that point in time. And I wouldn’t of course force anything that someone didn’t want to do. But it was important to me to try to maintain those tempi. I was basically trying to come up with tempo relations within each piece. I couldn’t define what they are now, because it’s been a while. But I came up with things that would separate each piece from the one that preceded it and the one that followed it. That’s one trick of recording an album of all the same composer, you have to make each piece sound different. And if you take each movement individually and just think about what works for that particular moment, then you can run into a situation where you have just a whole bunch of movements recorded, and yet they don’t sound like they’re related to each other or differentiated from each other. So I was trying to come up with certain tempo relationships between the movements that would make sense as a whole but also work individually. And I wound up having some of the movements be rather brisk and other movements were slower than people play. And I tend to feel comfortable taking quick movements quickly and slower movements more spread out. I don’t like to average it so that they sound kind of the same.

JT: Yeah, I think that contrast really works well.

HH: I think it’s important, because the music is so clean and lively, so I don’t think it suffers from a quick tempo.

JT: So just to clarify, do you think that relationship is important just between the movement within a piece, or also between the pieces? Did you choose the order of the works as they appeared on the CD?

HH: Yeah, I chose the order. The order was just what sounded best back to back. Because some pieces sound better back to back than others, and some pieces sound similar back to back and then you can’t have something sounding really similar and then really different. So we were going for some kind of consistency in how the pieces ran into each other. Yeah, it was too complicated to do tempo relationships for the entire album [laughing], so I just stuck to each piece. I’ve played the double in the past week in another concert and now I’m working on it with Jaime, and the tempi are really different even between those two concerts. It’s just because sometimes you settle into one tempo and sometimes you settle into another, and it depends on the other person playing as well.

JT: What are the differences for you between performing on stage and recording?

HH: Well, performing on stage you have an audience there. And that makes a big difference because you can just feel that they’re there and they’re definitely there to receive the music that you’re putting out, so that makes a big difference psychologically. With recording, you do things over and over again, so that is another big difference. Performing, you play it once through. Recording, you have a certain amount of time to get it and that’s that. Once you finish that day, that’s all you have to work with. So there’s a certain amount of time pressure but a need to keep things fresh, so that the takes don’t start to sound the same and tired and all of that. So it’s just a different approach. I have to approach recording from the end perspective. I have to always keep in mind what I want it to sound like in the end and what will work well on the recording. So I can’t be playing like I do in a big hall, when a microphone is right in front of me, because a violin sounds different up close than it does in the distance. And I can’t just play and forget what I’ve played, because I’m going to have to do it again and improve it for the next take, so there’s a certain amount of keeping track of things that’s involved in recording sessions. But in both circumstances you have to be flexible on the spot, and if someone else tries something different musically or tempo-wise at any particular point, you have to be able to adjust to that, if it sounds right and it sounds interesting. So yeah, spontaneity and flexibility are very important. Playing for an audience is an important thing to keep in mind in the recording sessions, where you don’t have anyone listening out in the hall, because a tiny extra noise, someone moving their foot on the floor or whatever, would show up in the recording and ruin a take. So when I’m in a recording session I think of all the people listening at home or in their cars or wherever it is that they’ll be hearing it, so that’s my audience. I don’t record without an audience, it’s just that they’re not right there with me.

JT: Have you done most of your recordings in studios? Many recordings are made in a hall, even if there’s no audience.

HH: Yeah, a lot of mine have been in halls. I actually haven’t recorded anything in a studio, except for non-classical recordings, that’s different. Or radio broadcasts, where you play something through and then you do the interview, and that’s of course in a studio. The Bach solo album was in a concert hall above a savings bank in Troy, NY. It’s a very famous hall; a lot of people use it for recordings. And the others that I’ve done with orchestra have been in the orchestra halls. Abby Road Studios, that’s a studio, but the orchestra studio we used was quite a large space, so it felt like a hall. You could have put people in there. It’s not exactly a hall, but it’s not a rinky-dink acoustically dead studio either. When I’ve recorded in London I’ve recorded in studios, but it’s very much like halls. Otherwise it’s just in the orchestra’s home hall.

JT: Going back to your first CD, the sonatas and partitas. That was an interesting choice, to start out with a completely solo recording, as a violinist, that’s-

HH: Actually it’s easier, because you have all the time in the world. You don’t have to stick to an orchestra schedule.

JT: Is that one of the reasons you chose to do that?

HH: No, it’s just the stuff that I played the most actually. I just played more solo Bach than anything else, and why record something you’re not as familiar with. So it just made the most practical sense.

JT: Well you certainly didn’t make any compromises in terms of quality there.

HH: Oh. Well, I did the best that I could.

JT: No, I mean in terms of choosing which works to record, the Bach pieces being some

of the greatest in the violin repertoire.

HH: Oh, right. Yeah, I was just lucky, because they’re great pieces, and I played them a lot so I was familiar with them to a certain extent. Also, being solo, if I wanted to listen to all of the takes I’d done, I could do that. I actually did listen to every single take in that recording. So we would work really late into the night sometimes. Everyone needed to sleep, but no one needed to get onto another job or teaching or whatever else they had scheduled, because it was just us, the crew and me.

JT: Did you have a lot of time for the Concerto recording?

HH: Well of course that was with orchestra, so it was very limited. You have to finish by a certain time. So no, that was pretty straightforward, as far as orchestra recordings go.

JT: Do you have any more Bach recordings in the works?

HH: I’m thinking of making a habit of this, every contract period. So every five or six recordings, I do a Bach. The next contract period is 2 recordings away, and I’ll probably do some cantatas with voice. Various singers and a small ensemble. I think those are really beautiful works and it would be nice. There are some really nice violin lines, and I love working with singers. But that’s a little while out. The next recording is in the works, I’ve recorded Paganini Concerto no. 1. And the other piece I’m playing tomorrow, besides the Bach Double, is the [Ludwig] Spohr Concerto no. 8, which I’ll be recording in February to finish that album. And after that is the Sibelius Concerto and Schoenberg Concerto. And after that is the album in question.

JT: That’s great, sounds like you really have things planned out.

HH: You have to, because you have to book two years in advance. And for recordings these days, it’s not enough to book the preparatory concerts, you also have to book the next season – some concerts of the piece you recorded, so that the record company can get more publicity, to get the word out on the album. And anyway, it’s fun to play something after you’ve recorded it, because you have a different perspective on it, having spent all that time with it.

JT: I understand that music education is very important to you, educating kids about music.

HH: And also college students, and anyone who hasn’t been to a concert or is curious about it. You don’t have to be little to learn new things.

JT: Everyone worries a lot about this, it’s one of the hot topics: the future of classical music. You’re a shining example of a brilliant, young, American musician who has really excelled in classical music. How do you feel about the future of classical music in this country?

HH: I really can’t say, because I haven’t been around for long enough to see certain trends come and go. But what I am noticing is a lot of younger people coming to concerts and just being curious about the music, not necessarily going because they’re being “educated” in it, or because they’re expecting one thing or another, but just because they’re curious. Like, “Oh, what’s this music, I wonder what this is like.” Classical music is one of the few genres – I guess jazz is similar, I guess – where you can just explore it for yourself, and find what you like. And anything you like is fine. It’s not like pop or rock music where a lot of the stations just play the top 50 to 100 hits, and you are pretty much inundated with what’s popular because other people like it. And if you don’t like something that’s cool, then you have bad taste; and if you do like something that everyone hates, you have bad taste, and that reflects on you, and it’s just not like that in classical music. And also, I think because the same thing is played by numerous people, you can really discover more about each piece that you might be curious about, just by listening to different people play it. A lot of people aren’t really aware, unless they’re involved in the classical music world, that the way two people play the same piece, even if we don’t change the notes at all, is quite different from each other. There are little things that make it different. It’s kind of like sitting someone down in front of a certain scene, with the same paints and the same canvas and the same brushes as the person next to them, also sitting in front of the same scene at the same time. And you get two entirely different paintings.

JT: Or different actors performing the same Shakespeare play.

HH: Precisely. You get two people to say the same line and they don’t say it the same way at all. That’s a lot of the interest in classical music. And people can just come and see what they like and go from there. And everything is related, too. Nothing just comes out of the blue. But at the same time, everyone has made these innovations in classical music, all the composers, as time has gone along.

JT: How did you come to classical music, and the violin in particular? Were you in a musical family?

HH: No, not really. There was a lot of music for fun in the family, but not really anyone professional in music. So I just heard it a lot around me. My parents played classical radio all the time, and I grew up listening to classical radio. We didn’t have a TV or anything, so that was always on. And my dad sang in a church choir and he would practice at home. So basically no, not a musical family, just I was exposed to it early on.

JT: Did he sing a lot of Bach?

HH: Yeah, actually. He loves the B Minor Mass, so I’ve heard it a lot.

JT: Of course, don’t we all!

HH: Yeah, and then of course, as far as Bach was concerned, I’ve done a lot of Bach, because in Solfege class, we had to do Bach… what do you call them? I want to say cantatas, now that I have that word in my head…

JT: You probably mean the chorales.

HH: Yeah, the chorales. We had to read these chorales in different clefs and play them on the piano, so I would practice them and get really familiar with them. I was one of those dorks who practiced their Solfege assignments, so I actually got familiar with a lot of them. A lot of what Bach wrote is really great music, and it’s different from itself, one piece is different from the next. And they really have interesting content, each particular piece, no matter how short it is.

JT: That’s why we’re able to play Bach for a week and half non-stop.

HH: Right!

JT: There’s really no other composer you can do that with, who wrote that much music, that consistently great, and that varied.

HH: Right, and you can just find so much in it. And he wrote for a lot of different instruments as well, so there’s variety just in the nature of what he wrote.

JT: Well, thank you so much for talking to us. We look forward to more recordings, and more Bach. [short re-iteration of December 28 concert info]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

im thinking that as far as im concerned, Hilary Hahn is just one of those individuals who can strike a cord inside of anyone. I'm so taken by everything that she has to say because im an artist and can relate to alot of her comments. Im not a classical musician but a visual artist who finds inspiration inside of her music. When I was 18, my mom had this violin sort of tucked away, hidden in some storage closet. After listening to her music for the first time, I had this drive inside of me. Never have I really had the urge to play an instrument before but I stood in my room for hours just sampling sounds, listening to it so closely...trying my best to do well. In that short period of time, I found a deeper love for music, a craving to play more. About a month later, my dad and I went shopping for a classical guitar and suprisingly I picked up on it quite quickly with lessons.
Thank you Hilary for the means a great deal to me.

Vancouver, Canada

4:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please! Hahn needs to go back to school! Her signature speed-Bach interpretations are abusive and destroy the true genious of the composer. Honestly, I can't listen to her for long! There are many, many gifted and well-educated performers out there that deserve a lot more attention for their faithful interpretations of Bach's work, not reinventing the wheel in their own image. Don't even get me started with her trashy sex appeal angle on her albums! Half-naked teenager > a Renaissance tapestry any day, I guess.

11:31 AM  

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