Hilary Hahn serves up a bevy of newly commissioned short works for violin and piano
by Mark Gresham | 28 Oct 2011
Last night at the Schwartz Center’s Emerson Concert Hall, violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Valentina Lisitsa performed thirteen of the twenty-six “encores” Hahn had recently commissioned for violin and piano as part of her “27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores” project. (There is one encore piece left to commission, to be chosen through an online “blind submission” process beginning November 15.) All have all received premieres within the past few weeks as part of a multi-city tour Hahn began October 13 in Cincinnati, just after the release of a new CD she recorded with Lisitsa, featuring the four violin sonatas of Charles Ives.
Unfortunately Hahn and Lisitsa did not include any of the the Ives in the main body of the program, though they did perform the “Largo” movement of the Second Sonata as an encore, with the new CDs available for purchase afterward in the lobby. Instead, the printed program offered in balance some traditional fare: J.S. Bach’s “Sonata No. 1” for unaccompanied violin, Beethoven’s “Violin Sonata No. 2” from his youthful Op. 12 group, and the nearly-as-youthful “Sonatensatz” scherzo by Brahms (published only after his death as WoO 2).
The playbill did state that that “program order is subject to change” and indeed that proved an understatement—thus more an à la carte list of selections. Rather than a piled up at the end as printed, the encores were dispersed throughout the evening, with Hahn announcing from the stage what would be performed next, and when it was time for intermission.
They opened the concert with “Bifu” a lovely, gentle and lyrical piece by Japanese composer Somei Satoh. The word “bifu” translates as “breeze.” The composer writes of the piece: “Wind is also blowing in our body. The wind in out body is called emotion. It also sometimes becomes a storm. I wish for the wind traveling in my body to remain a breeze.”
This piece bode well for the encores. Of the thirteen she played, I will only mention a few others here which most attracted my attention.
My favorite of the evening was “Memory Games” by Israeli composer Avner Dorman, inspired by the digital toy “Simon.” First introduced in 1978 and popular during the 1980s, Simon challenges the player to repeat a random sequence of tones by pressing the right sequence of buttons, adding a new tone to the end of the sequence with each successful iteration. “Several rounds of the game are played throughout the piece, so to speak,” writes the composer in his description, “making it resemble the form of a Passacaglia.” It’s an energetic, engaging composition which would be welcomed on many a new music concert.
Jennifer Higdon’s “Echo Dash” is also a kind of “follow me” piece, likewise energetic, but also especially sunny in disposition, with the leader of the musical chase changing throughout between the violin and each hand of the piano.
Paul Moravec’s complex, dialectic “Blue Fiddle,” for all its brevity, seemed better suited for the main body of a concert than feeling like an “encore” per se, packing a rich array of music into four minutes.
The elder statesman of the group, Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, was represented by a piece entitled “Whispering.” In his notes, Rautavaara spelled what he though an encore to be—then deliberately countered those characteristics with his piece. Writes the composer: “It is possible to be virtuosic without being noisy!”
Max Richter, in describing his plaintive piece, “Mercy,” recalled hearing pianist Maurizio Pollini pay simple Schubert pieces after heavy-duty 20th-century programs. Additionally, he writes: “I felt like the solo violin and piano formation was so revealing and intimate by nature that it really called for a very direct, simple kind of music in an encore setting, a kind of story-telling material that speaks very plainly.”
All of that said, much of the rest of the music was good, but most of the rest did not feel to me so much like “encores” as the kind of works one often finds in a collective new music concert, not really calling for an “I really want to hear that again!” response from the listener, or the hope of cajoling the performer back on stage one more time. I’m not speaking negatively of this remaining works’ musical value; rather to say that not everything short is an “encore.” Even then, an encore can take on its greatest importance over time as the performer lives with it, and becomes closely identified with it in the public mind—perhaps more so than a major work. Most pieces chosen by a performer for the purpose will not reach that level of symbiotic, shared public identity recognized instantly by the public.
Hahn is entirely right, though: It’s an important genre, however currently-ignored by composers (vs. its ubiquitous presence in the days of Kreisler and Heifitz). And it’s thoroughly delightful that she is taking the time, effort and musical risks necessary to bring it back to the fore with newly commissioned 21st-century repertoire. □
Credits: Photo of Hilary Hahn by Peter Miller.