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Hilary Hahn at Strathmore

It was Ionarts' first time at the spanking new concert hall at Strathmore (a 30-to-50-some minute Metro-ride from D.C.), and it offered Hilary Hahn with the Baltimore Symphony under Marin Alsop. From seat J1 (some 15 feet away from the stage on the left aisle), the sound was present, well defined, and the brass in Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Joan Tower's Fanfare for the (cherish the wit!) Uncommon Woman, No. 1, had a proper forward edge. These works that opened the evening need no comment, especially since Tim Page said everything there is to be said about Joan Tower's work in his review on Saturday.

The Prokofiev does deserve mention, however. The pianissimo start was so delicate that some in the audience hadn't even noticed that Marin Alsop was already under way. Hilary Hahn, a graceful, rather lithe thing in a beautiful green skirt (all too often, the female musician's choice in clothing is woefully over the top or downright painful... simple elegance, as here, is rare enough to warrant mention) went right with the delicate opening and played with the lightness of a squirrel in ballet class.

She seems so completely involved with her playing that her every motion becomes part of the music, not part of a show (à la Salerno-Sonnenberg). Left-hand pizzicato amid furious runs in the 2nd movement? No problem. Like a musical spider did her left hand ensure near perfection while her right hand turned the notes into beautiful music. Her modern French instrument, a bit more nasal than old Italians but with a clarity—almost glassiness—that I cherished in the Prokofiev only accentuated her clean style and ability.

A cell phone rang—fortunately?—exactly between the 2nd and 3rd movements. Perhaps I will be deemed unduly cruel, but I think that for a year, across all orchestra homes in the world, performances should stop upon a cell phone ringing and not resume until the culprit has stood up to acknowledge the shame. Hilary Hahn, who does not look the 25 years she is, had a mature grasp of the Moderato that (I feel like paraphrasing Tim Page again) ought to have convinced every audience member of the beauty of the work, if not Prokofiev’s music altogether.

Brahms's Symphony No. 3, as announced by the associate principle horn's preconcert speech (too long by nine-tenths), is indeed a difficult work to bring off successfully. I found that phrases in the opening got lost because of some odd accentuations. Unlike the Prokofiev, where the orchestra was either marvelous or Hilary Hahn too good for me to notice weakness behind her, the Brahms exposed rather limp and blasé playing. Bowings among violins were just approximately in sync and the first violinist's engaged moves (antics?) became more a distraction than anything else. Successive movements had moments of real beauty—like the clarinets in the opening of the Andante—but were brought home more safely than with inspiration. The finale (Allegro) had admirable drive and energy. With all the bravos hurled at Marin Alsop, she felt compelled to delight the audience with a Hungarian Dance as an encore.

For a brilliant Prokofiev violin concerto in a beautiful and good-sounding hall, the trip to Strathmore was eminently worth it, even if Montgomery County's "no smoking… not even outside!" policy left me fuming.

Picture (Detail) courtesy Deutsche Grammophon, © Kasskara

Added Commentary by Charles T. Downey:

I, too, leapt at the chance to hear Hilary Hahn at Strathmore Saturday night. I have been waiting for the opportunity to listen to the violinist who had Terry Teachout positively enraptured last December. The rest of the concert was pleasant enough but nothing deserving much mention. The pairing of Copland's fanfare with Tower's only served to point out the deficiencies of the latter piece. Copland made something iconic, while Tower has made something sadly derivative.

The final piece on the program, the Brahms Third, is a piece that probably does nothing to alleviate harpist Helen Radice's recently expressed doubts about that composer's often difficult music at her blog, twang twang twang. It has a stunning third movement (Poco allegretto), which is one of my favorites, but as a complete work it may be the least satisfying of the four symphonies. (Since Helen has called the German Requiem the "fourth most tedious piece in the world"—a work whose beauty obsessed me as an undergraduate that I listened to it daily for about a year—I doubt that my recommendation of the first piano concerto as an antidote to Brahmsophobia will be of any help to Helen. Fortunately, we don't all have to like the same music. Helen's Brahms backlash cannot have been any worse than what greeted me after expressing my indifference to certain long half-hours in the operas of Wagner.)

The problem with the Brahms in this particular performance was a lack of rhythmic unity, stemming in the first movement from what, to me, looked like nearly unreadable gestures from the conductor, Marin Alsop. She did a good job of providing nice dynamic contrasts and carefully brought out delicate inner voicings, but the pacing seemed ossified at times. There was a similar problem with ensemble in my beloved third movement, where the wind players were clearly having trouble at times following Ms. Alsop's occasionally erratic direction. She is an acrobatic conductor, full of energy and clearly talented, but I wonder just what her extravagant gestures communicate to her players, especially when her movements take her hands below stand level.

Never mind, since it was the Prokofiev that we really came to hear. Hilary Hahn (whose Web site is a wonderful place to poke around), we were reminded by the opening comments, is a Baltimore girl, and she had some of her earliest musical experiences with the Baltimore Symphony. Let me assure you that her hometown was glad to welcome her back. In her black chemise and apple-green silk skirt, she would have had a supportive audience no matter how she had played. Make no mistake, however, she played this concerto to within an inch of its proverbial life. It is a happy, almost airy, piece, unusual for Prokofiev, and it seems to be related to the feeling of a composer on his way out of Russia, sinking into chaos as it was in 1917, on his way to Europe by way of Siberia. Ms. Hahn gave us a shimmering opening over the buzzing sounds of the orchestral introduction, leading into a virtuoso display of good tone all over her instrument's strings (strong and husky on the G string and pure and soaring on the E string), hypnotic accuracy on double stops and silky fantasy in the harmonics, shrieking glissando effects and rasping mute sounds.

As for the idiot's cell phone ringing between the 2nd and 3rd movements, which Jens mentions, I prefer the reaction of that conductor in Copenhagen, who stopped a piece when he heard a cell phone ringing, waited for it to stop, and then began again from the beginning. The third movement (Moderato) began like the wheezing of an old clock, over which Ms. Hahn's violin soared on a folk-like melody. This gave me the chance to appreciate her vibrato, which is pronounced enough to give the line life but not so much that it obscures the sense of true pitch. There really was no technical flaw in her performance, aside from the occasional tiny imperfection (shockingly rare with Ms. Hahn) there to reassure you that you are listening to a live performance. Not only is Hilary Hahn a true virtuoso, she is a consummate musician, aware when her part is an accompaniment to the orchestra (and not vice-versa) and, in a rare moment when Prokofiev does not call on her in this concerto, directing appreciatively with her chin the music she hears from her colleagues. The greatest tribute was from concertmaster Jonathan Carney, who stood up at the end of the concerto, clearly moved, to shake hands effusively with Ms. Hahn. I am sad that I did not know, as critic Daniel Ginsberg (there for the Washington Post) told us at the intermission, that more applause might have convinced Ms. Hahn to play an encore before intermission. That would have been worthwhile.