Part of our “Performer Picks” series of interviews with world-renowned artists about their favorite works in the B&H catalog. Read other “Performer Picks” interviews with Marin Alsop, Julia Bullock, and Simone Young.
One of the most celebrated performers in the world today, violinist Hilary Hahn is known for her virtuosity and expressive interpretations, as well as her advocacy of new music. The three-time GRAMMY winner has commissioned works by a range of composers, from Edgar Meyer to Einojuhani Rautavaara, whose final work Deux Sérénades Hahn recently recorded with Mikko Franck and Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.
Hahn also embarked on a multi-year, GRAMMY-winning commissioning project, In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores, to revitalize the duo encore genre. In 2019, Boosey & Hawkes published a complete print edition of the project that contains Hahn’s fingerings, bowings, and performance notes, providing the next generation of violinists with a host of contemporary encore options.
Read on for Hilary Hahn’s insights into favorite works from the B&H catalog—including works by Ginastera, Meyer, and Bernstein—and listen to this Spotify playlist of the works discussed below.
1. Einojuhani Rautavaara, Deux Sérénades
I was rehearsing Rautavaara’s Violin Concerto with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and my friend, conductor Mikko Franck. I really loved this piece, so I said to Mikko, who was very close with Rautavaara, “Do you think we could commission Einojuhani to write another violin concerto for us?” So he brought the idea to him during a visit, and instead of another violin concerto, they decided he would write serenades. By then though, Rautavaara was already in ill health, and when he passed away, Mikko didn’t know if anything had come of that conversation. After the memorial, Rautavaara’s widow brought him to the studio and showed him this manuscript for violin and orchestra titled “Deux Sérénades.” Mikko knew, “This is our piece.”
The titles are so gestural: “Sérénade pour mon amour,” “Sérénade pour la vie.” It’s like a message from the beyond. It wasn’t typical for Rautavaara to use such uplifting titles—he often tended towards darker qualities—so it was clear to Mikko that Rautavaara had chosen these titles for his last works on purpose, and that they were meant for him to find and for us to play. That’s why we knew that we had to produce a full album out of it.
As we were going through the music, there was a special presence in every note, because it was like watching Rautavaara’s catalog be completed. Every note was now out in the world. And when we got to the end, it felt like an ending and a beginning all at the same time.
> Listen to Hahn perform Rautavaara’s Deux Sérénades
2. Alberto Ginastera, Violin Concerto
When I first heard the Ginastera Violin Concerto, I was immediately obsessed. It doesn’t get played very often, but it needs to be played a lot. It’s not written in the folkloric style that most people expect from him—it’s a little bristly, but it also has these beautiful moments. I love music that has a big emotional range that I can really dig into.
It’s a genius work, the way Ginastera flips the structure on its head: the cadenza at the beginning, followed by a series of different studies, a middle movement featuring soloists within the orchestra. When you look around, you realize it’s just big chamber music.
There’s no getting around how difficult this concerto is—he wrote to the edge of what’s possible. But there are so many pieces in the repertoire that are hard to play that everyone learns as a student. Soon enough the impossible to play becomes a set of patterns that people begin to recognize, and it’s not so big an ask anymore. If you work through the difficulty and find the musicality, I think that is very powerful for the audience.
> Listen to Hahn perform Ginastera’s Violin Concerto
3. Edgar Meyer, Violin Concerto
Edgar’s concerto was the first piece that was ever commissioned for me. One thing Edgar did was give me some recordings of musicians he admired and non-classical music he liked, and he said, “These are some of my inspirations.” I didn’t know too much about bluegrass or classical Indian music, and hearing those was a super insight into aspects of his ornamentation and structure.
When Edgar was at rehearsals for the piece, I would always ask him to demonstrate because I love his playing. There’s a way that he moves when he plays—this thing happens in his body, a kind of counter-rhythm that I can't talk about to the orchestra, but when they see it, they get it.
I’ve played the concerto in different countries, and the way an orchestra approaches the strings and tone production varies from orchestra to orchestra, country to country. Showing them with my bow and my motion what I’ve learned from Edgar has been interesting as a soloist—I carry this knowledge with me, and I share it on the piece’s behalf. The orchestras are trying new things that are not necessarily in their national vocabulary, but you can hear the core of Edgar’s writing through all these different national accents.
> Listen to Hahn perform Meyer’s Violin Concerto
4. Leonard Bernstein, Serenade (after Plato's ‘Symposium’)
I was introduced to the Bernstein Serenade when I was 13, when I performed with Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra during my first international trip. When I was making my first orchestral recording with the Baltimore Symphony (my home orchestra) and David Zinman, who was my mentor for many years, I proposed that we do Serenade. It was already a core piece of my repertoire, so it was symbolic for me to record it on my first orchestral album. It’s so much a part of me, and I always enjoy playing it.
I’ve toured the piece in Europe, and I like it as an ambassador for American music. But it’s more than just Americana—it’s also so reflective of Leonard Bernstein’s personality. It has these beautiful moments that transcend any style of writing, and these opportunities for all the different members of the orchestra. The piece gives each section and soloist a chance to be individual. The soloist and the expressive decisions of the sections can go any which way. That’s how I learn a lot about the orchestra, how they relate to each other based on who picks up what from whom at different moments of the piece.
> Listen to Hahn perform Bernstein’s Serenade
5. In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores
As the person who commissioned, premiered, and recorded these 27 works, I wanted to create an edition that shared my memories of working with the composers, and the tidbits of information that could be helpful for someone playing these works.
Each composer has their own way of notating music. It was important to me that when you flip from one piece to the next, you see that it’s a different piece—it’s almost like visual art, and each person has a signature way that their notes look on a page. For example, Richard Barrett is very specific about his markings and their placement on the page. But then Antón García Abril very much did not want to be specific about certain details because it was important to him that performers make the piece their own. Yet his idea of rubato was very much in line with the traditional Spanish guitar style—not at all what I have learned as being rubato. Things like that were essential to communicate to someone interpreting his work.
I think it’s important to feel comfortable with contemporary music, to not feel intimidated when you open the page. I wanted the score to be as clear as possible for anyone, especially students, to be able to learn the music. So I made sure that symbols and special notations were explained, and that the stories I told would help the pieces feel more real, more personal for anyone playing the works.
> Listen to Hahn’s GRAMMY-winning recording In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores
> Purchase In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores Print Edition
Photo: Dana van Leeuwen / Courtesy of Decca
> News Search