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Violinist Hilary Hahn Talks About Working With 27 Different Composers On Recent Encore Project


Grammy-winning violinist Hilary Hahn was a professional touring musician before finishing college at age 19. She’s traveled the world, recorded numerous albums, played with the biggest symphonies on the planet and was named “America’s Best Young Classical Musician,” by Time Magazine in 2001. With all her accomplishments and accolades she manages to stay grounded.

“I don’t go through my life thinking I’m a really important violinist. I consider myself a musician but my specialty within music is violin.”

She recently released a new album entitled In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, and she’s bringing some of those pieces to a performance on April 17 at Sacramento State as part of their New Millennium Series.

“Twenty-seven encores in one program is a lot of music,” said Hahn. “What I like doing with them is putting them between bigger pieces. Whether I put them in a small group together or whether I put them individually within programs. In this particular program we have different pieces from different composers that are older than these encores, which are pretty much all written within the past few years, and it’s nice to tie the new music into the older music.”

Each encore was composed by a different musician, commissioned by Hahn. After finding 26 different composers, Hahn held an open contest for the final encore, bringing the total count up to 27.

“The challenge that surprised me the most was how completely different each composer's writing and process was; just trying to find an access point for each composer’s music, not from a listening perspective but from a playing perspective,” Hahn explained. “It could be technique, or a certain affinity for the music, or a stylistic point that I felt very comfortable with. I think you need to find that starting point and from there you can build your understanding of the piece which helps you bring it across to the audience.”

These composers spanned the globe and Hahn worked with each one as directly as possible to ensure the tone and message of the piece was accurately interpreted.

“I hadn’t worked with most of the composers before at all. It hadn’t occurred to me that working on a two-to-five minute piece would be just about as intense as working on a 30 minute piece when the composer was someone whose music I had not played before.”

Hahn said after playing each piece so much they’re all a part of her, but in the beginning it was a much bigger project that originally anticipated.

“It’s kind of like when you’re reading a book and you’ve never read something by this particular author before and you spend the first 20 or 30 pages just trying to figuring out where the book is going and whether you’re into it… and then before you know it you’re in it and you’re reading it and you can’t put it down. It’s kind of like that when you’re working with a new composer.

“I think a lot of people have the impression with classical music because it’s written and it looks very specific on the page that it tells you exactly how to play it, but actually all it tells you is the relative things... nothing is really mathematical,” explained Hahn. “Just like when you’re acting on stage or if you imagine yourself reading a line of words, what words you put the emphases on completely changes the meaning of the sentence."

As Hahn worked through all the pieces and continued to refine each piece she learned how each composer’s idea of notation was different.

“Working with the composers I realized just how fluid notation is – some of them when they wrote a certain note that was the very note they meant to write in exactly that way and considering changing it for any reason was not so easy because they’d gone through that whole process and selected that note. Whereas others would tell me right off the bat, ‘Oh you know, if something isn’t physically comfortable to play, if it isn’t working, just let me know I’ll change it or you can even change it, just run it by me.’"

"Even something as basic as what notes to play was not absolutely clear as far as what the composer originally intended. I just had to get to know each composer’s personality and each composer’s priorities. It’s very hard to describe music accurately in the notes on a page... There’s just so much freedom in music that can’t be dictated."

Hahn worked with most of the composers over a combination of video chats, phone calls, and e-mails.

“It was really helpful for me to work with the different composers in coaching sessions or by sending them rehearsal sessions and getting their feedback. I really learned a lot about each one and what they probably meant when they wrote something I didn’t recognize.”

You can catch Hahn live at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 17, at the Music Recital Hall at  Sacramento State as part of the New Millennium Concert series


Melody Stone

Former Interactive Producer

After working in newspapers and doing print journalism for years, Melody transitioned into digital marketing and design. With a healthy blend of journalistic and digital media skills she builds out interactive web stories for  Read Full Bio 

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