Hahn And Denk Don't Settle For The Same-Old

Hilary Hahn and Natalie Zhu in a 2005 concert.  (Photo courtesy of AP//Keystone/Sigi Tischler)
Hilary Hahn and Natalie Zhu in a 2005 concert. (Photo courtesy of AP//Keystone/Sigi Tischler)

This weekend’s Celebrity Series stars, Hilary Hahn and Jeremy Denk, have a lot in common. They are always on a rash of best-CD and best-performance lists at the end of the year. And while the word “revelatory” is one of the most used terms in musical criticism, no other word can better describe their sensational recordings of Charles Ives’s music from a couple of years ago, Denk performing the two piano sonatas and Hahn the four sonatas for violin and piano with YouTube dahlink Valentia Lisitsa.

They won’t be performing Ives this weekend at Jordan Hall, Hahn on Friday and Denk Saturday, but their recent recordings not only speak to their commitment to 20th and 21st Century music, but reflect a welcome trend toward soloists not getting mired in 18th and 19th century and rarely poking their heads into the modern, never mind contemporary, world.

In that regard we seem to be in the midst of a golden age of violinists, with Gidon Kremer, Lisa Batiashvili, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Hahn turning out one distinguished CD after another of modern music. Hahn, in fact, has commissioned a set of encores from contemporary composers, several of which she’ll be performing Friday night before recording them all for Deutsche Grammophon.

Hilary Hahn (Photo, Peter Miller)
Hilary Hahn (Photo, Peter Miller)

Hahn wanted to create new favorites as well as play old chestnuts for the inevitable encores to her concerts, she said in an interview. “I had to do it on my own. I only knew a couple of the composers so I made 30-something cold calls, and I thought “This is what it feels like to call people up and ask them out. I wasn’t expecting so much enthiusiasm. It was really fantastic, really encouraging.”

There is a kind of innocence to Hahn. I’m thinking, if I’m a classical composer and Hilary Hahn calls me up and wants to know if she can commission a piece from me I’d be pretty enthusiastic. But if Hahn was once known for just the sweetness of her tone that’s changed.

The melodiousness remains, which is part of the reason she makes the thorniness of Ives and Schoenberg seem so accessible. But it’s not at the price of sophistication. Her performances display a pretty complete understanding of what the composers she’s championing are about, which of course adds to their accessibility.

It’s also admirable the way she mixes composers across the centuries on her Sony and DG recordings: Beethoven and Bernstein, Barber and Meyer, Brahms and Stravinsky, Mendelssohn and Shostakovich, Schoenberg and Sibelius, Higdon and Tchaikovsky. (While classical music is an international calling these days, you can see – and more importantly, hear – a greater appreciation of American music in her playing.

Denk does something similar on last year’s excellent Nonesuch CD sandwiching Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in between Ligeti solo piano pieces. Beethoven’s late chamber works have a kind of modern dash to them anyway, but on this CD you actually have to listen to where Beethoven ends and Ligeti begins. He’ll be performing the Beethoven piece this weekend, but with more sedate company – Bach and Liszt, though Bartok is also on the program.

And if there's a more entertainingly provocative blogger among musicians, I don't know who it is. Take a look at Think Denk.

Hahn continues to chart an adventurous course for herself. Her improvisational recording and performance with avant-garde pianist Hauschka were sublime, particularly at the ICA with its harbor vista.

“I just thought it would be interesting to create something from scratch. So we tried different ways of working together and the one that spoke to both of us was improvising. Just for ourselves for a while, we just worked on stuff together and saw where that led. Then we went into the studio and made the record … I’ve always looked at the things I’ve done maybe outside of classical music as something that would enhance my performance. It’s making music from instinct and creativity and making something out of no references whatsoever. It’s helped me a lot with my own playing and own projects.” So Friday night she’ll be playing Fauré, Corelli and Bach before settling into the contemporary groove of her new project, titled “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.” One of the commissions is from Nico Muhly, whose music graces the American Repertory Theater’s great new production of “The Glass Menagerie.”

The Muhly piece won’t be on the program, but — accompanied by Cory Smythe --she will be playing:

Anton Garcia Abril - "First Sigh"
Anton Garcia Abril - "Third Sigh"
Kala Ramnath - "Aalap and Tarana"
Mason Bates - "Ford's Farm"
Du Yun - "When a Tiger Meets a Rosa Rugosa"
David Lang - "Light Moving"
Jeff Myers - "The Angry Birds of Kauai"
James Newton Howard - "133…At Least"
Elliott Sharp - "Storm of the Eye"

“I did want to find a range of styles and composers who represent the variety of classical music today. Since it was a project I’d be doing for a long time, it had to be something that spoke to me. I didn’t want to do just stuff I knew, but explore the different ways that people are creating music these days.”

So far, through her recordings and performances, Hilary Hahn has been a great 21st century guide. She and Denk have distinguished themselves on CD; there’s no reason to think their performances this weekend will be any less illuminating.

Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



More from WBUR

Listen Live