Hahn's Up

Classical superstar Hilary Hahn works hard to maintain her creative balance

It’s a great time to be Hilary Hahn. There’s hardly been a stray day over the past three decades where that hasn’t been the case, but the past couple of years have been exceptionally good for the 31-year-old violinist.

Hahn’s been captivating audiences since she picked up her instrument at age 3, followed by five years of Suzuki instruction at the Peabody Conservatory, her Baltimore Symphony debut at 11, high school/college studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, her international debut at 16 and her signing with Sony Classical at 17.

Her adult accomplishments are even more impressive. Last year, Hahn won her second Grammy for her 2008 Deutsche Grammophon album Schoenberg: Violin Concerto; Sibelius: Violin Concerto. This year she released two recordings, Bach: Violin and Voice and Higdon and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos; the Higdon Concerto was written specifically for Hahn (a commission from symphonies in Indianapolis, Baltimore and Toronto and the Curtis) by her former Curtis instructor Jennifer Higdon, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the piece.

“I was in the middle of post-production on the Higdon when I got a call in New Zealand that it had won a Pulitzer. It never occurred to me that anything I would be playing on would win one,” Hahn says from a Los Angeles tour stop. “Performers don’t get them, so it hasn’t been on my radar. All of a sudden, people are asking me for quotes and I’m like, ‘But I didn’t write it!’ I feel great for Jennifer, but what do I have to offer?”

As for Hahn’s Grammy win, the violinist was gratified and excited. Unlike her first victory, for her 2001 Brahms & Stravinsky Violin Concertos, this time she got to enjoy it.

“I actually got to go to the ceremony. The first one, I had a concert in Germany; it was the middle of the night, and my dad called me and told me I’d won,” Hahn recalls. “It was really fun to go. They do the Classical before the televised ceremony; it’s very informal and quick. Then I got to be in the audience for the televised one.

“I went with my mom and we were sitting behind the Blind Boys of Alabama. It came time for their Lifetime Achievement Award and at that moment, I was putting something under my seat because I was doubled down and I got a jab in the ribs, saying ‘Cameras! Cameras!’ So I popped up and was trying to smile. My dad was watching and saw it all.”

For Hahn’s latest appearance with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, she’ll perform Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, Turkish, conducted by Maestro Paavo Jarvi. Hahn’s Mozart context goes back to her earliest musical experiences. Coupled with her avowed love of Cincinnati, the CSO and Jarvi, she’s anticipating a great program.

“I started learning the Mozart (3rd and 4th Concertos) when I was 11 or 12. I noticed when we were recording the Mozart sonatas, there’s something about Mozart that takes the pressure off,” Hahn says. “It’s challenging music to play and you have to focus throughout. You can’t just coast, even though it sounds easy. You have to be engaged the whole time, but the music seems to make people happy, even if it’s some of Mozart’s sadder writing. It has a kind of cleanness and purity that’s pleasing. I always enjoy the weeks when I’m playing Mozart.”

Hahn is a new breed of Classical musician, working extensively beyond the confines of the genre. She’s played with ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Roots singer/songwriter Tom Brosseau, contributed to the soundtrack of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and toured side by side with Folk sensation Josh Ritter (“He has such a contagious joy when he performs,” she says, “it’s always a pleasure to work with him”).

And for someone who has announced on her Web site that one of the things she avoids is “unnecessary technology,” Hahn is incredibly plugged in, from her frequent journal entries to the famous Twitter updates provided by her violin case.

“I finally caved and bought an iPod after I lost like my fourth CD wallet on the road,” Hahn notes with a laugh. “But the thing about being a creative artist, I need a little head space, and there’s a lot of stuff coming in from all directions. I enjoy reading and thinking, and it’s hard to make that space as an artist. Someone else does my Facebook and MySpace pages — if I did them I’d be very distracted and wouldn’t be able to focus on the music. And my violin case takes care of the tweeting. I haven’t been doing a lot of writing for my Web site, because we just finished a revamp and we’re about to launch it.

“I try to prioritize a certain amount of quiet work every day. I found that I haven’t been watching TV at all. I grew up not watching TV and I enjoy TV but it kind of takes my brain away from me. I like to take walks and getting out and seeing things. These experiences are so irreplaceable and give you a whole different perspective on the greater context that you’re in. If I didn’t try to take advantage of that, I’d be missing out on a lot of really interesting things.”

HILARY HAHN performs with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at 8 p.m. Dec. 17-18 at Music Hall. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.

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