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Hilary Hahn’s Eclipse

“Music like this resonates with the dissonance that you might be experiencing”



With a massive social media following, a trio of Grammys, and dozens of new works dedicated in her name, Hilary Hahn is the epitome of a classical celebrity. Yet in 2019, the star violinist embarked on a one-year sabbatical, looking for a fresh perspective on herself and her artistry. Extended by the intrusion of the pandemic, this sabbatical led to months of deep thought, the rebuilding of the very foundations of her career ideals, and eventually the recording and release of Eclipse, her newest album on the Deutsche Grammophon label. “Historically, eclipses are times of great power, with strong cultural beliefs about transformation and emergence,” muses Hahn. “I felt like that very much aligned with the 


Hilary Hahn by OJ Slaughter

experience that musicians went through in the course of the lockdowns: a shifting of the light, and a different feeling on the other side of it.”

Speaking to smART Magazine from Frankfurt, Hahn shares thoughts on the emotional dissonance of the Ginastera Violin Concerto, bringing Carmen to life on a violin, and her own efforts to address the ongoing upheaval of the past few years.

sM | Let’s start with Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy—how did this work come to join the Dvořák and Ginastera concertos on Eclipse?

HH ─ The Carmen Fantasy is interesting because Sarasate was very grounded in his Spanish musical roots. Carmen, as an opera, was written by a French composer but draws on traditional Spanish forms. In Sarasate’s day classical music was pop music, and artists would take the greatest hits of an opera and make a version to play themselves for a tour. Sarasate, in a sense, was reclaiming his own music from Bizet. It’s a full circle, and I love that.

I knew that my colleagues from the Ginastera and Dvořák project would be fantastic at this piece. I developed my Carmen interpretation really closely with conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, who has conducted the opera. I wanted to present the music as a singer would, not as a violinist. Carmen is a strong character, and it is really wonderful to highlight her arias and play a role.

Hilary Hahn

sM | This is your very first studio recording of Dvořák’s enormously popular Violin Concerto. Why is it the right time to tackle this piece, and what do you appreciate about it now?

HH ─ The Dvořák concerto is kind of a perennial favourite. I’ve always felt that it would be a great work to record, but earlier in my career I couldn’t quite figure out where it fit inside a project, or who to collaborate with. But after my sabbatical and the pandemic, it really felt like the right time to record this with the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. In a sense, they have a “German” way of playing, but they also work with people from everywhere, so they’re not only technically capable but musically very malleable. I knew that wherever I wanted to go with the piece, they would go too.

I really appreciate that the Dvořák concerto has a high level of accessibility. The rhythms are fun and catchy, the melodies are beautiful long lines, and there’s both drama and fragility. A cynic might say that it’s too accessible. But when you have colleagues who genuinely love the unique aspects of this work, it’s such a pleasure to work with them on it. I just knew that this was the right moment with the right people.

Hilary Hahn by Ella Mazur

sM | You’ve been particularly excited about the Ginastera Violin Concerto. What does that piece do for you that no other violin work does?

HH ─ I think it’s fair to say that I’m obsessed with the Ginastera concerto. It’s such a genius piece. It turns everything inside out and upside down to create a new world, and it doesn’t shy away from the darker side of things—there’s some brutality in it, but also some really uplifting phrases. It’s everything that’s in the human condition.

Reflecting the human condition is the sign of an emotionally astute composer, but Ginastera was also responding to the social climate of the 1960s. Music from difficult times becomes an emotional document of history that shows you what it felt like to be that person at that moment in time. Listening to music like this resonates with the dissonance that you might be experiencing sometimes in your life and in your history. Art can guide you through that dissonance to a new perspective or resolution.

sM | What are your top five violin concertos currently?

HH ─ Dvořák and Ginastera, of course. I’ve also been really into the Schoenberg concerto. Brahms is great, and so is Beethoven, but I can’t stop at five when there are so many contemporary works to list too. I know Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto really well, and I love Florence Price’s Second Violin Concerto. I try to avoid going through the sequence of composers everyone takes for granted, because I want to look at the people like Florence Price, who did hard, amazing work and didn’t get the credit they deserved.

Hilary Hahn

sM | You curated some playlists for Deutsche Grammophon recently: Rest, Travel, and Workout. What goes into selecting the perfect tracks, and how does it overlap with your thoughts as a performer?

HH ─ One funny outcome of the Rest playlist is that now my four-year-old needs to hear it to go to sleep every night. I wouldn’t normally listen to myself, but now Rest is a part of my life and I hear my own recordings every single night. Classical music is such an all-encompassing term, and I wanted playlists for different scenarios. You don’t see a lot of classical workout playlists. It also gave me a chance to mix and match artists and to play around with individual movements of pieces instead of entire works. That feels like creating a new composition in a sense, with four or five different tracks that all flow together. It gives me a chance to rethink some things.

sM | In September of 2019, you started a year-long sabbatical, one that you’d wanted to take for close to a decade. How did the pandemic affect that plan?

HH ─ In a way, since I was already off the road, I was protected from a lot of the logistical impacts that other artists experienced. I didn’t have quite the same scramble to replace concerts, wonder about next month’s schedule, or go through a technological learning curve. Ultimately, the purpose of my sabbatical was to see who I am when I’m off the road and don’t have plans. But, just as I thought I was starting to emerge with plans and ideas from that nebulous state, the pandemic upended everything, and again heightened all of these questions about who I am and what the purpose of my work and life are.

Hilary Hahn

As I was asking those questions, there were also new conversations in the world about racial injustice, systemic bias, and systemic racism. I realised I had a lot of gaps that I should have filled a lot earlier, and now I had a chance to do that. With no upcoming performance season to return to, I shifted pretty much all of my attention from preparing for the next season to correcting huge oversights in my own work from the ground up. I took a hard look at all of my projects, all of my social media, all of my searches, all of my assumptions, talked to as many people as I could, and began to rebuild. I’ve really tried to understand what I can do going forward to avoid anything unfair in how I’ve been doing things.

I titled this album Eclipse because, although the pandemic blacked out stage lights, they came back on. Historically, eclipses are times of great power, with strong cultural beliefs about transformation and emergence. I felt like that very much aligned with the experience that musicians went through in the course of the lockdowns: a shifting of the light, and a different feeling on the other side of it, where none of us take music for granted anymore.


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