Violinist Hilary Hahn

An advocate for new music, Hahn talks about her cross-genre collaborations and pushing musical boundaries.

Internationally famous for recordings that blend new and traditional pieces, violinist Hilary Hahn brings her love of classical music to a diverse audience. She appears regularly with the world’s elite orchestras and has released 12 feature albums, an award-winning recording for children and various compilations. She's also won two Grammys and performed on several film soundtracks. Named by Time as "America's Best Young Classical Musician" in 2001, Hahn began playing the violin shortly before her fourth birthday and had a major recording contract at age 16. Her latest release, "In 27 Pieces," bolsters her reputation as a champion of new work.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Two-time Grammy winner Hilary Hahn began playing the violin before her fourth birthday. She made her Carnegie Hall debut at just 17, just a year after beginning her impressive recording career.

Her latest CD is titled “In 27 Pieces, the Hilary Hahn Encores,” which features new compositions which she commissioned, and this weekend she’ll be performing with the L.A. Phil. Let’s take a look at Hilary Hahn in concert, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting.

[Video clip of Hilary Hahn performance]

Tavis: So welcome to Gustavo Dudamel’s town.

Hilary Hahn: Thank you.

Tavis: (Laughter) He kind of owns Los Angeles right about now.

Hahn: We know he founded it and everything.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) That’s how they treat him, as if – he’s a great guy. They treat him like he founded it, though. But he deserves it, though, he’s a great conductor.

What is it like for you when you’re playing with conductors who are rather revered? Dudamel’s still young. There are a lot of great conductors out there. But does it make a difference? Does it put any level of pressure or intimidation when you’re playing with Conductor X, Y, or Z?

Hahn: It only puts as much intimidation in the situation as they put into the situation, and actually, I need to be able to play the music, and so I don’t like to have intimidation be part of it.

I just want to work with people, so I always try to find a way to collaborate in the best way for the music. Often these conductors are great conductors because they think so much about the expression of the emotion.

They think about how to get an orchestra to do what needs to be done, and also how to make the orchestra the best that they are already, but to bring out the best that they could be as well.

Tavis: Speaking of Dudamel, his predecessor here in L.A., Esa-Pekka Salonen, was on this program not long ago and we had a fascinating conversation which kicked up a lot of Internet chatter about his suggestion that we have to find a new word for “classical music.”

Hahn: It’s such a misnomer.

Tavis: But we had a really deep conversation about it, and so he kind of put it out there. Not to my surprise, those who love classical music and those who think it’s a little stale at times, took to Twitter and Facebook and all kinds of other social media outlets and we got some really interesting ideas for how to rename classical.

So it was a fascinating conversation, but obviously what he was getting at was more than just a name-change. It’s how you expose the music, how you treat the music, how you bring in new compositions.

Obviously he’s a conductor and a composer. You have done essentially what Esa-Pekka Salonen was talking about, which is being a great artist who is intent on bringing new stuff for us to listen to. That’s basically what “In 27 Pieces” is, yes?

Hahn: Essentially, yes. I actually was noticing that there are a lot of encore pieces. The encore is the short piece after the program has finished, where the performer brings out something that the audience doesn’t expect.

So it’s the chance to program in the spur of the moment exactly what you feel like playing. So I noticed that a lot of the encore pieces for violin and piano, which is a particular genre, were really the older pieces, not contemporary pieces.

I really wanted to create more of a focus on favorites for the future that reflect our era. Not to put down any of the things that have been written before, because they’re fantastic works. They’re just so evocative and so sentimentally important as well for listeners.

But there really is a need for a continuum, because the music represents our times, it represents these artistic ideas that are reflections on everything that composers experience, so it’s important to keep that going.

Tavis: This might be an impossible question, but in these “27 Pieces,” artistically, how do you think the sound of these pieces represent the times in which we live?

Hahn: That’s a really good question. It’s hard to generalize because each piece comes from a separate person with their own life story, and I think that they reflect all of the things that the composers have been exposed to.

So they’re by composers from all over the world and from composers of various generations, from people in their thirties to people in their eighties. I think that also it’s all of their musical influences as well.

Composers don’t just sit in a room and write things that are in their heads, they actually listen to a lot of music, pop music, jazz, rock and roll, any combination of music that catches their ear.

In addition to being well-versed in all of the classical repertoire that’s gone – “classical” repertoire that’s gone before.

Tavis: I suppose the ultimate compliment to you and to these composers of these pieces would be that years from now, people are playing these as encores.

Hahn: I hope so. That’s what I want to have happen. Because for me, I’ve worked on this project for a while now, as I mentioned, but it also feels like it’s just beginning.

Now that the record is out, there’s going to be a published edition so other violinists can learn these pieces. The whole idea was to increase awareness of contemporary possibility in writing an encore piece.

I also had a contest for one of them. It was open to the public and I got about 400 entries. So in the whole scheme of this project, it’s almost 450 new pieces, short pieces for violin and piano.

So I do hope that people will not only play these but also think about what they would want to write, think about what they want to express in these pieces, but also others. So I would really like this project to be bigger than me.

Tavis: That’s the hope of every artist, I think.

Hahn: Yeah, I think so.

Tavis: That the work is bigger than them, ultimately, and that it goes on and on and on. I suspect it will; there’s some good stuff on here. It’s called “In 27 Pieces, the Hilary Hahn encores.” You might want to add this to your collection if you’re a Hilary Hahn fan.

Hahn: Can I ask you a question?

Tavis: Sure you can.

Hahn: What kind of music do you like to listen to at the end of an evening?

Tavis: That’s a good question. It depends on what kind of evening it is. (Laughter) It depends on where I am and who I’m with and what I’ve been doing.

Generally speaking, I prefer to hear classical – there’s that word again – in the evening.

Hahn: Ah.

Tavis: I prefer to hear jazz in the evening. For me, after such a long day of TV and radio and appearances and speeches and writing and whatever else I’m doing, for me it’s about two things.

It’s about bringing the heart rate down, number one, and for me it’s also, at the end of the day, about being introspective. I pray the same prayer every morning, which is essentially that when the evening comes and the night falls, I want to be able to look back on this day and see something that I’ve done that I can present to my creator that might not make me feel so ashamed.

Hahn: Oh.

Tavis: So at the end of every day I want to look back and try to find something in that day, something small, something large, but something I’ve done in some shape or form or fashion that’s enhanced the quality of life for other people.

When I want to get into that introspective, meditative space to kind of figure that out, classical helps, jazz helps. So that’s what I generally prefer at the end of a night.

Hahn: I think that’s a really good goal, and that ties in with the music in a really nice way.

Tavis: Can I ask you a question?

Hahn: Yeah. (Laughter) You’re in trouble. Hilary Hahn might be moonlighting as a talk show host in the not-to-distant future. What a great question it was. I’m not sure my answer measured up, but it was a great question.

Anyway, the new piece, again, from Hilary Hahn is called “In 27 Pieces, the Hilary Hahn encores.” Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Greg

    I really liked your answer Tavis… Nice to hear what you think and pray about daily. Inspiring.

  • Bob Price

    Totally agree with Greg! I’m 72 years young and you’ve just inspired me to renew my own purpose! Thank you so much, Tavis, and thank you Hillary for asking the question — now there’s a lady to listen to!

  • Dalia Pharoun

    I love Hilary Hahn how she plays the violin , it’s very cool and nice!!!

    -Dalia

  • Robert Bress

    Just watched you program of January 29 with Hilary Hahn – wonderful! Two of my favorite personalities on my computer. Outstanding. Loved her question to you and the answer you gave. I’ll not only “keep the faith”… I’ll keep watching your program. If our paths ever were to cross it would be my great pleasure to meet you in person.

Last modified: January 30, 2014 at 3:08 pm