Interview with Hilary Hahn

Star violinist Hilary Hahn will perform Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 at the “Easter Festival in Autumn”.

The coronavirus has forced all musicians into an extended fermata. But the pause has been especially long for the 41-year-old American Hilary Hahn: in 2019 she entered what was supposed to be a year-long sabbatical. As that sabbatical bled into the pandemic, Hahn settled into lockdown mode in her home near Boston.

But Hahn had the support of a vibrant online community. One social media, hers is one of the most thoughtful and engaging voices in classical music. In November 2020, as America was in the grip of the tense presidential election, Hahn sought refuge in Mozart, composing her own cadenzas to his Violin Concerto No. 5. On October 30, Salzburg audiences get to hear her perform the work with the Staatskapelle Dresden led by Daniele Gatti. While in Salzburg, she will also receive the Herbert von Karajan Prize.


What does it mean to you to be able to play concerts again after the pandemic-enforced silence?

HH I’ve been thinking a lot about how it is for everyone to reenter the listening zone. I think it’s going to be important in the next season that we don’t just paper over the return, but that we leave space for the feelings to arise. So many people have been in survival mode. Listening to music can intensify that in a good, but also a very moving way.

There may be a tendency to think, oh we’re playing a concert again what a relief! But for performers it’s important to also appreciate that everyone in the audience is giving something of themselves in the listening experience. Their presence, focus, the sharing of emotion is an offering.


Has the long pause changed the significance of a piece of music as mainstream as the Mozart concerto that you will play in Salzburg?

HH I’ve lived with Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto a very long time, but this is a new evolution. I will actually be playing my own cadenzas. I wrote them during election week and it was a very good outlet for me. They were a place where I felt at peace in the course of that week.

I’ve never played a cadenza by a women unless it was written into a concerto composed by a women, and I thought it would be good to insert my voice. Composing is a way I can abstractly express a truth. It’s a way to organize my thoughts.


How do you procede?

HH I improvise and record it.  And then I see how I sound playing my ideas. I get rid of the things I don’t like and put what I like in order, with a bunch of different options. And I look for the flow, what leads best into what else might come. This might be how someone choreographs. They move through the space, they probably film themselves, and they know innately that something is working by watching. That coming from inside the self and then looking at it from outside: it’s shifting your perspective on your thoughts, shifting your perspective on your experiences.


You will be playing this concerto in Mozart’s home town. What do Salzburg and its festival mean to you?

HH Salzburg is very special. It really feels personal. It’s a place that has empathy with music. History, energy and environment all combine to make it special to play there. It’s historically connected, it’s beautiful, the air is fresh, it doesn’t take much to get to a hiking location. It feels like a reset.


In Salzburg you are receiving a prize named for Herbert von Karajan. Was he a touchstone for you musically?

HH Of course. I grew up listening to a lot of his recordings. And classical radio was the soundtrack in our home. He was one of the big names, an established giant in the field.


To what extent do strong conductors like Karajan shape a soloist’s interpretation?

HH It depends on the relationship between conductor and soloist, and also on their age difference. A mentor to a young soloist usually determines tempi and the overall arc of the concerto.

Then, as you get more equal in age – conductors are young until they’re sixty, right? – you start having conversations and forming an interpretation together. I think ultimately it’s productive for everyone to be collaborative. Ultimately, a great collaborative conductor has to have an immense amount of self-confidence because they have to know that they can do anything that’s needed and be okay with being in a collaborative role. It’s an interesting dynamic when you think about it: somebody collaborative has to be able to do it all.

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