If there is any such thing as the typical story of a great musical prodigy that has fulfilled all expectations, and more, and has gone on to become one of the greatest musicians of her generation, it would be the biography of violinist Hilary Hahn. The timeline began just a month short of her fourth birthday in a Suzuki program at the Curtis Institute, progressed to being admitted to that celebrated conservatory at age ten, made her orchestral debut at age eleven with the Baltimore Symphony and, most recently, appearing at Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium. Suffice it to say that the blank between age eleven and Duke is a remarkable music career, second to none.
She last appeared at Duke in 2005 at Page Auditorium, and she saved, for her final encore, an interesting connection she has with Duke University. Joining Hahn for this perfectly balanced and generous program of the new and traditional was pianist Robert Levin, also a noted conductor, theorist and musicologist. This was also a unique program in that by no means would you label Levin as Hahn's "accompanist" since there were solo selections by both performers, and the piano parts were far from simply being supporting for the big-name attraction.
J.S. Bach's Violin Sonata No. 6 in G, BWV 1019 is the last of six written prior to 1725. It has two quite unusual features: it has five movements instead of the usual four slow-fast-slow-fast configuration, and the middle Allegro is for keyboard alone. Brilliance and precision is the hallmark of the opening Allegro, and Hahn and Levin immediately locked into a tight and energetic duo that is Bach at his most bubbly and bright. As in the rest of the concert, Hahn played with music on a nearby stand, although she went long stretches where it was not needed. Levin apparently is not jumping on the iPad with Bluetooth pedal page turner fad and still uses a human being to turn pages. His solo, while Hahn stood absolutely motionless for about six minutes (another amazing skill!), was Baroque interpretation at its finest.
Hahn is a devout champion of new compositions for the violin and has recently commissioned works from twenty-seven composers. After that monumental project was complete, she asked Spanish composer Anton Garcia Abril (b. 1933) to compose a set of six partitas for the violin, which he did with great love and admiration for her, as evidenced in his laudatory program notes. Each of the six is named for a letter in her first name. Hahn played Partita No. 6, "You," a performance that more than satisfied the composer's goal "to develop a work suited to the violin's own technique: virtuoso, high-registered, and, of course, full of emotion." Sometimes a listener wants to re-hear a new work because they don't "get it," but in this case, I immediately wanted it played again because I was so enamored of its scope, varying moods, austere lyricism, textures, and at times show-off technique (nothing wrong with that).
Next it was time for Levin's solo turn as he played Träume (Dreams) written for Levin by Romanian composer Hans Peter Türk (b. 1940). As the title suggests, this is indeed a dreamlike excursion that also involves improvisation at various points in the composition. Levin created a nice aura and wistful quality, made all the more poignant by the fact that the composer wrote this based on a dream notebook kept by his late wife.
This program featured the big three (Bach, Mozart and Beethoven), and Wolfgang was up next with his Violin Sonata in E-flat, K. 481. As I was listening to Hahn and Levin perform this recognized gem of the repertoire, I was confused by thoughts that might be considered musical blasphemy: I was, for the first time that night, terribly bored. Can Mozart be dull and/or is this just a temporary moment of musicians' ennui? Of course, the answer to both can be "yes." I had the sensation that this was perfect playing running on emotional fumes after an unusually long first half. Speaking of emotion, passion, and fire, the second half was going to ignite the hall.
Although still in the midst of his middle period at its premiere in 1803, Beethoven's Sonata for Piano and Violin in A, op. 47 ("Kreutzer") is as profound, tempestuous, and angst-filled as any of his later works. Its three movements take you on such a fraught psychological journey that it became one of the main characters of Leo Tolstoy's novella "The Kreutzer Sonata."
Hahn opened the work by herself in another one of Beethoven's great slow introductions, here with perfectly intoned double stops and a sinister edge to her playing that very quickly portended rage, anger, despair and all those other good feelings. When Levin came in with powerful chords that mimic the violin's affect, it was clear that any doldrums from the end of the first half were gone, and we were in for forty minutes of a very delightful ride. Hahn let her playing speak for itself. While certainly not emotionless, she was generally contained in both the geography of her movements and her facial expressions. This was playing of frightful energy and controlled emotional chaos.
As an antidote to the fire of the first movement, the Andante was a set of variations that was all repose. Beethoven set a simple theme on its journey of unexpected twists and turns as Hahn played with a beauty of tone that was a balm for the soul. The Finale had the fire re-ignited, but with a little more of a bright edge as Hahn and Levin traded virtuoso licks played with seemingly effortless grace of movement. Simply put, this was a spectacular "Kreutzer" that had enough energy to light up a city.
The first encore slowed things down with "Mercy," a very poignant work by Max Richter. Surprisingly, they came back for a second and here was where Hilary told us that her grandparents met while students at Duke University and then dedicated their playing of "Cortege" by Lili Boulanger to them.