Hahn Introduces Bach To Her Contemporaries

Hilary Hahn and Cory Smythe at the Celebrity Series concert in March. (Photo, Robert Torres)
Hilary Hahn and Cory Smythe at the Celebrity Series concert in March. (Photo, Robert Torres)
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Hilary Hahn’s concerts are quickly becoming one of the don’t-miss events of the arts calendar. It just doesn’t get much better than last summer’s improvisatory World Music concert at the Institute of Contemporary Art and Friday night’s enthralling Celebrity Series program at Jordan Hall.

If the more classical concert was more subdued it wasn’t any less adventurous. How many concerts at this level begin with three pieces by little-known composers — Antón García Abril’s “First Sigh” and “Third Sigh” and Du Yun’s “When a Tiger Meets a Rosa Rugosa.”

“Hmmm,” I hear you saying, “am I really sorry I missed this concert?”

Yes, I’m saying, you are.

Admittedly, at points during the first “Sigh” I was wondering if this concert mixing 10 short commissioned encore pieces with established longer pieces by Corelli, Fauré and Bach would be one of those “If you eat your contemporary-music vegetables I’ll let you have a baroque burger and classical fries” concerts.

The evening quickly established itself as something else entirely. Hahn is a violinist of such grace and intelligence that you quickly give yourself over to her choices. Abril’s sighing became more interestingly impressionistic and “Rosa Rugosa” had strains of gypsy music meets “Psycho.” And I mean that in a good way, given that the latter piece was written by the great composer Bernard Herrmann. (All the contemporary pieces are part of her project, “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.”)

Still, doubts lingered until she charged through a fast-paced Corelli Sonata No. 4 and a very pretty Fauré that showed off how accomplished her pianistic partner, Cory Smythe, is.

And if that didn’t allay any concerns, the second half was breathtaking. Last season Gidon Kremer surrounded Bach’s “Chaconne” with contemporary work as if to show that Bach, himself, was a modernist master. Hahn also sandwiched Bach’s piece between contemporary work, but this time the effect was closer to showing how melodic contemporary music can be. Not that there weren’t dissonant slashings here and atonal bits and pieces there, but the playing throughout, particularly in the Bach, was so seductive, dramatic and downright gorgeous that you’re ready to follow her choices wherever she goes.

And as I said earlier in the week, it’s not just the beauty of her tone. The Bach was more nuanced and self-assured than on her Sony recording from 1997. Her look has changed dramatically since then. She’s more stylish, poised and charismatic. More importantly, so is her playing and so are her choices.

Everything about Hahn keeps getting better.

Related Stories:

New York Times review of the program, played in New Jersey.

Radio Boston interviews Lang Lang.

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