Concert Review: Hilary Hahn Violin Recital in Taipei, January 14, 2015

First, apologies. 

I had all intentions of posting this like, the day after the recital just to try to get in on the buzz of the Asian leg of the tour. I’m not sure where Ms. Hahn is now, but I’m still in Taipei, since I live here, and I thoroughly enjoyed the concert. Deeply. I was impressed and surprised and pleased and regretfully also very overwhelmed by the line for autographs. 

How are these so blurry?
The English and Chinese programs
A few things that I got to thinking of listening to Ms. Hilary Hahn in performance on Wednesday night. 
  1. It’s a big hall and a little instrument. For the first part of the first half of the program, she was accompanied by one Mr. Cory Smythe, her collaborator for most of her recitals it seems. Even in a giant concert hall, full of people, and sitting on the very back row of the third floor, she was as crisp and clear as she could possibly be. Like, to a surprising degree. Obviously, part of that is due to the fine acoustics of the hall, but most credit goes to the instrument and its performer. I’ve had this train of thought with solo piano recitals before in the same concert hall, but having played the piano more than the violin, as with most people, I am quite familiar with how powerful a piano can be and the roar it can create if you’re forceful enough. After all, its 400 kilos of metal and wood and lots and lots of string and a huge soundboard. The violin… isn’t. It’s a teeny bit of wood and only four teeny strings and a bow. But my goodness did it sing in the hall.
  2. Bach was kind of a genius. There’s a quote I’ll find online from Ms. Hahn taking about her love for performing Bach pieces, and how it keeps her true or something, and she nailed it. I’m honestly probably less familiar with Bach than I am with, say, even Babbitt or Boulez, maybe. But I am perhaps a convert… My piano teacher has played some of her Bach pieces for me before, but I’ve never been in love. And I didn’t know where to break up these two ideas, because they’re kind of the same one, but…
  3. The Bach partita is obviously no Mahler symphony or Schoenberg quartet, but it was, it and of itself, a perfectly self-contained, solid piece that came to life on just four strings. That is a testament obviously to Bach, but was also such a compelling performance from Ms. Hahn. The different voices and counterpoint were clearly obvious, and double stops and separate lines sounded like one very tiny quartet on stage, all played by one marionette-type woman in a dress. It was literally captivating. I closed my eyes at a few points and was blown away.
  4. Point three wasn’t really a point, but it was the part of this point number four that is related to Ms. Hahn. The realization came to me that I have a tendency rather to enjoy obvious or very plainly stated complexity. Mahler’s symphonies, for example, are quite complicated. The previous event I’d attended in the same hall as this one was Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. That is outrageously sprawling. The other kind of complexity I’ve been fascinated with lately has been serialist works (those, for example, by Babbitt and Boulez, mentioned above, but also the twelve-tone works of the Second Viennese School). Serialist works are a kind of very overt complexity, be it as a result of non-repetition or patterns or themes difficult to ascertain. Bach, however, is rather at the extreme opposite. While his work to many (me included) may sound… at times quiet, simple, unexciting or even boring, the level of complexity in the most basic fundamentals of music, like counterpoint and all the rest, is stunning, and it was a different listening experience that made me eager to hear what else he has to offer. And there was no better way to have had that realization than listening to Ms. Hahn.
  5. Also, and this is just an aside set atop a soapbox of sorts, Ms. Hahn is just so damn elegant. She’s (at least) bilingual, and carries herself as a professional, not an arrogant superstar, but as a self-respecting, respected respectable person. This thought came to me after having shared my experience of the evening with some coworkers. One mentioned some pop-music singer or other who’d recently ‘played’ a ‘violin’ at one of her concerts, but as more of a gimmick than a performer. She was (barely) dressed in some ridiculous cocktail skirt that looked like it was made of plush aluminum foil and the whole idea just seemed… trashy, to put it respectfully. Hilary Hahn is of the same age as or younger than a handful of ‘musicians,’ (don’t get me wrong, this isn’t me making a comparison of any kind), but what was so clear form the performance and the articles I read and interviews I watched was that she has a craft. She’s not some freakish accident child prodigy, but has worked at and continues to work at her craft, and there is little to respect more than that.
Okay, so the concert itself. The first half contained mostly small pieces, one of which even called for pizzicato piano from Mr. Smythe. I think many people thought there was a problem or something going on with the piano when he stood up and started plucking. Extended technique, friends. Some of the pieces were quite modern, save the Bach piece, of course. It was a treat to hear the pieces she’d commissioned from modern (as in, still alive) composers for her recent album. They were all very enjoyable. Mr. Smythe walked offstage (well, so did Hahn, but came back) and she performed perhaps the most enjoyable piece of the evening, the Bach partita. Really amazing. 
The second half was the larger pieces, violin sonatas by Debussy and Schumann (his first). They were both amazing. I mean, really, the whole performance was. But her performance of the Schumann was so inspiring that the audience roared into applause when her bow flew off the violin at the end of the first movement. We’d done a good job of not clapping thus far, but there was lots of clapping… She then continued with the other two movements, and I am pretty sure most of the audience thought that they were the actually the last piece on the program. They weren’t. They were the rest of the Schumann. Only after that came the final piece, Max Richter’s work, which I believe most people then thought was one of the encores, of which there were later two. 
In any case, the large substantial works were just as enjoyable as the modern smaller works the artist herself commissioned from contemporary composers, and I was very pleased to hear a selection of them; both encores were also from this selection, one of which was Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Hilary’s Hoedown. It made me smile. 
I wasn’t in the mood to stampede out of the hall either before or after the encores to fight my way through a sea of small children (lots of [I will say very well behaved] children in the audience) for an autograph. The thought of waiting in line and the whole thing made me want to crawl in bed (I was coming off a nasty cold), but I will admit I daydreamed a bit about getting her autograph, shaking her hand, or getting a picture taken with her. But by the time I’d realized they had a table set up and roped off for Ms. Hahn, the line for autographs literally spanned two floors and wrapped from one end of the building to the other (as far as I could tell). It wasn’t happening. 
I was thoroughly pleased to have been able to attend her performance. Pleasant is the perfect word, and not just in the “it didn’t suck” way, but in a refreshing, satisfying, even surprising and refreshing and inspiring way. Thank you again, Ms. Hahn, and I hope to see you again soon. 
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