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Onetime Teacher, Student Find Success as Composer, Violinist

October 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Hilary Hahn and Jennifer Higdon shared a love of 20th century music when Higdon was Hahn's professor at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Fifteen years later, this student-teacher relationship has transformed into a partnership at the top of its field.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: once teacher and student, now, composer and violinist, making music together.

The last movement of Jennifer Higdon’s “Violin Concerto” is titled “Fly Forward,” and violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn shows why. Higdon set out to write a work specifically for Hahn, and when they first met to talk about what it might become, they spoke of musical ideas and a shared desire for something major and substantial.

JENNIFER HIGDON, composer: We were thinking 30 to 35 minutes, and you think substantial music material, so it’s not something that’s light, but something that feels kind of profound, although that’s a hard thing to define, when you really get down to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that what you meant by major? You wanted something important or profound?

HILARY HAHN, violinist: I don’t think that’s something you can request.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Whatever the starting point, it was a highly successful collaboration, yielding a Pulitzer Prize in music for Higdon and a new recording by Hahn that also includes the famous “Violin Concerto” by Tchaikovsky.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: It all started years ago here at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, one of the country’s most prestigious conservatories.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: Now 30, Hilary Hahn first came here, already a gifted player, at age 10, and studied with renowned violinist and teacher Jascha Brodsky.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: Hahn has gone on to build a major performing and recording career, encouraging and playing new works, while also happily holding on to those of the past, like Korngold here and Tchaikovsky on the recording.

HILARY HAHN: It’s funny. People keep thinking I’m playing the Tchaikovsky because everyone else wants to hear it. But I’m actually playing it because I like it.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Because you like it.

(LAUGHTER)

HILARY HAHN: I mean, people do want to hear the pieces they know, but a lot of people want to hear things they don’t know. And I try to not specialize. I try to just play as many different things as possible, because I feel like it enriches me as a musician if I do that.

JENNIFER HIGDON: Your instinct to do that is a good one, and I think choral is a really good way to approach it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jennifer Higdon came to Curtis in 1994 as a teacher. She and Hahn actually crossed paths in a course on 20th century music. She’s now one of the most widely-commissioned and performed contemporary composers.

But Higdon was no child prodigy. She grew up in a small town in Eastern Tennessee, taught herself the flute at 15, old age by Curtis standards, and didn’t begin studying composition until college. At home, she says, it was all rock ‘n’ roll and bluegrass.

JENNIFER HIGDON: Absolutely no classical music in my household.

JEFFREY BROWN: None at all?

JENNIFER HIGDON: None.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, I think I read where you said you were the black sheep of the family.

JENNIFER HIGDON: Totally.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

JENNIFER HIGDON: The black sheep of the family. I’m doing the classical, and my parents are into rock ‘n’ roll. Yes, I was completely the odd child.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: If you think violin concerto, there’s already a large and much-loved repertoire, including Beethoven, Brahms, and, yes, Tchaikovsky. So how do you write one in the 21st century?

(MUSIC)

JENNIFER HIGDON: You kind of have to take a leap of faith. You start writing, and hope that the ideas will come, and you try not to think about the fact that history is sitting on your shoulder, basically.

It’s — it can be intimidating. Because I know Hilary, and I know Hilary’s playing, it means that I thought about all the things she does well on her instrument, what — and she does a lot.

JEFFREY BROWN: Such as?

JENNIFER HIGDON: Such as being able to make these incredible leaps, interval leaps on the fingerboard, but also this beautiful sound on her instrument, low down, low in the register, high on the register. So, then you start thinking about, what can I write that will show off this player?

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: The members of the Old City String Quartet, here working on Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” were among the Curtis students involved in the earliest rehearsals of the Higdon concerto. They say they enjoyed working directly with the composer, and the results.

MAN: It speaks, I think, to most people right away. Some modern music, it’s a little like, oh, that’s very interesting, you know, but it’s sort of unsettling. And she’s actually doing stuff with the language that we really know, but just saying new things.

WOMAN: She actually changed instrumentations on the spot there. And she would hear something live and say, actually, you know, I think that wasn’t what I intended.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you guys are sort of the guinea pigs for this piece. And it was changing as you go?

MAN: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jennifer Higdon says that teaching young composers how to get the sounds they want is partly about getting past technical roadblocks. But, she says, there’s more.

JENNIFER HIGDON: There’s a little bit of psychology, and there is also a little bit of sociology. And I tell them to, go to a concert. Watch the audience. That’s a great composition tool. Figure out when they have stopped listening. You can see the audience kind of get a little restless. They let go. You have — you’ve lost them in the performance.

HILARY HAHN: It’s a lot like teaching and interpretation, too, I think, because…

JENNIFER HIGDON: Yes.

HILARY HAHN: … you don’t know as a player if it’s coming across the way you are trying to bring it across. You know what you hear in your head. You know what you’re trying to do, and, sometimes, what you want to do overtakes what you are actually hearing.

And a teacher can say, well, that’s not quit coming across, like, what are you trying to do, or do it this way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you worry at all about making sure that it’s accessible somehow, you know that — that word that’s charged, accessible? Do you think about that at all?

JENNIFER HIGDON: I think about it being communicative.

JEFFREY BROWN: Communicative.

JENNIFER HIGDON: That’s what I — it’s as if I went into another country and it was important that I got a speech across. If I’m not speaking a language that’s going to say something to them, then I have a problem.

(MUSIC)

JENNIFER HIGDON: It has been nice with the concerto to read the mail and the e-mails from audience members who are excited. They feel like they’re witnessing something, because they’re seeing a new piece born into the world.

And so, to me, I’m like, this makes the thousands of hours you spend in solitary confinement working worth it.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: With the recording now done, Hilary Hahn will perform Jennifer Higdon’s prize-winning “Violin Concerto” on tour next year.