Recital Review Print

EMF: Hilary Hahn and Josh Ritter Present a Rare Joint Collaboration

July 17, 2007 - Greensboro, Nc:

A number of classical musicians, whether through a desire to expand audiences, to refresh the tour routine, or through a genuinely broad interest in other music, have explored "crossover" concerts with established musicians from fields such as country music, jazz, or non-Western cultures. Cellist Yo Yo Ma's "Silk Road Project" is an example of the latter, while Joshua Bell's joint venture with double-bassist Edgar Meyer is an example of the former. Readers of CVNC from the region will remember reviews of cellist Matt Haimovitz playing Bach suites in bars, heard locally in Cary and in Greensboro as part of the EMF's Fringe series.

Virtuoso violinist Hilary Hahn is the latest musician to take classical music to non-traditional audiences by playing in bars and bringing such audiences into the concert hall with joint collaborations with her favorite songsmith, Josh Ritter. This rare partnership consists of only four concerts this season — at the Ravinia Music Festival, the Aspen Music Festival, Dana Auditorium at the Eastern Music Festival, and in Verbier, Switzerland. Duke Ellington is supposed to have said, "There are only two kinds of music, good and bad." Hahn and Ritter seem to have taken this approach to heart since they hope these concerts will broaden the perspectives of both the artists and the audiences. Both musicians have a palpable appreciation for each other's music and clearly enjoy "jammin'" with each other. Their concert divided the program into two sets — Ritter's before intermission, followed by Hahn's. However, each joined the other midway through the others' program as an accompanist. Both artists spoke casually and at length from the stage, an approach common in a club setting but very rare in a formal concert hall setting.

Although Ritter confessed to having studied the violin for thirteen years, his instrument is the guitar, which he played both with and without amplification. Confessing to being nervous as well as being thrilled about playing this joint program, Ritter projected a winning stage presence, a grinning "aw, shucks folks" persona coupled with a quick wit. I am unfamiliar with Ritter's work and readily admit a strong prejudice against amplified instruments and especially the guitar, because of the sound of fingers sliding across the frets. Ritter's soundman was a subtle artist, and much of the playing of the guitar came across as subtle as a minstrel accompanying himself with a lute. From time to time, Ritter pulled the plug and played his guitar acoustically using a pick. Dana Auditorium has very fine acoustics so every note could be readily heard.

Ritter sang and accompanied himself in a selection of some of his favorite songs, such as "Wings," "Kathleen," and "Girl in the War," which was unusual, portraying the anguish of the male lover of a woman away at war. Ritter recalled finding a kindred spirit during the course of a college course in music history. Franz Schubert is the natural soul-mate for a contemporary songsmith. Ritter quipped that if he had to stand in the shadows of giants, Schubert's 4 feet 11 inches would do! Each of the concert's two sets featured fine songs Ritter adapted from Schubert models. "Potter's Wheel" has the same rhythmic underpinning as Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade" ("Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel"). "The Oak Tree King" is a spectacularly effective English language retooling of Schubert's "Erlkönig" ("The Elf-King"), a chilling and dramatic tale about an evil fairy who steals children. Ritter's skilled guitar effects added much to the atmosphere.

Over the course of Hilary Hahn's set, she recalled experiences with her legendary teacher at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Jascha Brodsky, who was at that time the last surviving student of Eugene Ysaÿe. Hahn gave J.S. Bach's Solo Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, S.1003, an elegant and mature interpretation with the musical strands of the "Fuga" being cleanly articulated and the echo imitations in the concluding allegro tastefully brought out. Hahn played with fine, warm sound that carried readily at all dynamic levels. Her intonation was precise, and her execution of multiple stops and harmonics was breathtaking. Fireworks for violin in both sets involved works by Heinrich Ernst (1814-65). In Ritter's set, his singing of the original version of "The Last Rose of Summer" by Thomas Moore (1779-1852) was followed by Hahn's spectacular bowing and fingering of Ernst's Variations on the song. In her own set, she managed to conjure the four voices (the child, the father, the Elf-king, and the pounding of the horse) sketched in Ernst's "Erlkönig, Caprice for Solo Violin after Franz Schubert," Op. 26. Paganini's Caprice, Op. 1, No. 24, for solo violin, and Milstein's "Paganiniana" found no weaknesses in Hahn's virtuoso quiver.

Two works not on the printed program served as encores using both artists' services. Hahn accompanied and occasionally took of the melodic line of Ritter's "Bone of Song." His songs struck me as sophisticated collages made with "sound bites" and snatches from a broad cultural tapestry. (St. Jerome and seraphs are not frequent elements of bluegrass, for example.) Paganini's "Cantabile" can be accompanied by either piano or, as Ritter did, guitar. Hahn's violin playing was eloquent. It is hard to say who had the most fun — Hahn, Ritter, or their large and enthusiastic audience.