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Hilary Hahn Presented by WPA[S]

available at Amazon
In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, H. Hahn, C. Smythe
(DG, 2013)

available at Amazon
Telemann, Twelve Fantasies for Solo Violin, A. Hadelich
(Naxos, 2009)
One of the strangest press releases I have ever received arrived earlier this month. "Announcing a refreshed brand," it began, for Washington Performing Arts Society, changes that consisted of the removal of the last word of its name and a new logo. It was accompanied by news about the 2014-2015 season, during which disappointing trends will continue, sad to say: more crossover, more jazz, more novice performers. In the early years of these pages, I wanted to review pretty much everything on the WPAS Classical series. Fewer concerts have made the cut for me in the last season or two, and it looks that will only be getting worse.

Happily, there are still concerts that will make the cut: Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in Monteverdi's Orfeo; pianists Evgeny Kissin, András Schiff, Paul Lewis, Stephen Hough; among younger artists, pianists Beatrice Rana and Igor Levit; and an exciting premiere will be featured in Sila: The Breath of the World, by John Luther Adams, "for multiple choirs of woodwinds, brass, percussion and voices, to be performed in a large outdoor space (location TBA)." Still, it was hard not to see the grandstanding of WPA's president and CEO, Jenny Bilfield -- featured in a fawning bit of promo-"journalism" in Strathmore's glossy program magazine (apparently written before the organization's name change) -- as emblematic of the "refreshed brand": the focus on all the wrong things.

The current season neared its end on Wednesday night, with the latest recital by violinist Hilary Hahn, presented by WPA[S] in the Music Center at Strathmore. Hahn, who hails from Baltimore, could probably move enough tickets under most circumstances, and some of her performances, like those heard recently with the Philadelphia Orchestra here and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in Munich in 2013, have been worthwhile. Sadly, not this one, which had an unfortunate combination of mediocre programming and lackluster finishing. Hahn had one particularly shining moment, a radiant but understated rendition of the sixth of Telemann's solo fantasies (E minor, TWV 40:19). It was, perhaps not coincidentally, the first piece Hahn played from memory on this concert, and it seemed to be something pondered more deeply by her than the music on the first half. Hahn's restrained vibrato gives her tone a blissfully pure quality, heard to beautiful effect in this piece, where she did not have to compete with any other sound. The first, second, and fourth movements, more contrapuntal, had all the voices sensitively defined and phrased so they could be easily unpacked by the ear, although with a cooler approach than the more viscerally intense interpretation of Augustin Hadelich, whose recording for Naxos from a few years ago is a delight. Hahn's Siciliana was graceful but with an edge that seemed to trade on associations with a folk fiddler's sort of sound, taking the chords strictly in rhythm, often little more than understated grace notes (the one movement where Hahn's interpretation beat out Hadelich's to my ears).

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Violinist Hilary Hahn shows mastery at Strathmore (Washington Post, April 24)

Phyllis A. S. Boros, Violinist Hahn adored by audiences, critics (Washington Post, April 21)

Interview with Hilary Hahn (Tavis Smiley Show, January 29)
Hahn's best recording work was her take on Arnold Schoenberg's violin concerto, and it was little surprise that she gave the same intensity to the Austrian composer's 12-tone Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment, op. 47 (1949, publ. 1952). Manuscript evidence indicates that Schoenberg wrote out the entire violin part of this work first, by itself, and then added the piano part, which makes it subservient to the violin solo. Hahn caught the fantasia aspects of the piece, its often wild shifts of character, making it as beautiful as she could with its many clashing dissonances, with a few sour notes at the piece's extremes of range and volume. It made a nice comparison to the other fantasias on the program, the Telemann but also Schubert's Fantasia in C Major for Violin and Piano, D. 934 (op. posth. 159), last heard to greater effect from James Ehnes in March. Neither Hahn nor her pianist, Cory Smythe, were exactly laser-like in accuracy in the piece, which can be a bear, and neither made much special out of the more ethereal parts of the score, the piano tremolos of the opening or the variations on part of Schubert's own song, Sei mir gegrüßt, especially with Hahn's instrument tending a little flat by the end.

Hahn has peddled the little commissioned pieces of her encores project here before, on her 2013 WPA[S] recital, and while the two included here were pleasant enough to listen to, it is hard to imagine them ever really being widely used as encores. Antón García Abril's Third Sigh featured mostly folk-influenced melodic writing for the violin, often accompanied by extended, Messiaen-like chords, all of it pretty, slow, and smoky. Richard Barrett's Shade was more dissonant, with keening, microtonal bends in the violin, dying out in a haze of spectral harmonics. Mozart's rather insubstantial A major sonata, K. 305, was a lightweight conclusion to an often drab affair -- in one sense, the opposite of the Schoenberg piece, a work for piano with violin accompaniment -- especially with Smythe unable to sustain much interest in the piano-only sections of the variations.

Benjamin Grosvenor returns to Washington next week, presented by WPA[S] in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (April 29, 7:30 pm).

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