By Michael Roddy
LONDON (Reuters) - Classical music fans know that American violinist Hilary Hahn plays a wicked concerto, knocking out the fiendishly fast final bars of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, for example, faster and with more sheer energy than pretty much anyone else alive.
"It's a finger twister but it's so fun. You just feel that bit coming and you're like, 'Here it is, here it is' and yahoo, you just dive in," she told Reuters in an interview on her way to the airport after another stop on her seemingly perpetual world tour that has her living in so many hotel rooms she keeps a running tally of them on her website (www.hilaryhahn.com).
Now the petite 32-year-old, who looks slighter in person than she does when she is upstaging an orchestra, is going after new audiences, in the classical world, where she made her major orchestra debut in Baltimore in 1991, and signed a recording contract with an international label at age 16, and in the club, rock and folk music scenes as well.
She was in London, and in Berlin the previous night, playing in clubs to launch the live tour for her upcoming CD "Silfra", a collaboration with German avant garde composer and pianist Hauschka (aka Volker Bertelmann) that blends his percussive, specially prepared-piano sound with free-spirited violin riffs by Hahn (CD on Deutsche Grammophon, for UK release June 26).
Recorded during a 10-day intensive studio session in Iceland, where Hahn recalls having gotten to the swimming pool only once, their music is hard to categorize but eminently listenable, which is probably just what Hahn, who is famous for unusual pairings on her classical CDs, intended.
One of her two Grammy-winning recordings twins the challenging Schoenberg Violin Concerto with the crowd-pleasing Sibelius, which is typical of Hahn's penchant for looking for ways to get audiences to view music, some familiar, some less well known, in a new light, and stay fresh and lively herself.
"Other people really get the most out of focusing on a certain time period and staying there and that's where they get their stimulus from," she said in the limousine to the airport, moving her century-old Vuillaume violin, which is a copy of a Paganini Guarnerius, from time to time to keep it out of sunshine that has been a rare commodity in London this year.
"I like coming at things from a direction that's different from the composer's direction at that time....It also forces me to think afresh and not go back to old habits of playing something in a certain way. I like to think of things in a very large context."
In recent years, that context has included letting her hair down for a violin solo with the Texas indie band Trail of Dead, fiddling a soulful accompaniment to folkie Josh Ritter's "Girl in the War" and working with singer-songwriter Tom Brosseau.
Hahn rejects the notion this is anything new for a conservatory-trained soloist of her international stature, citing the example of the famous 20th-century Austrian violinist and improviser Fritz Kreisler, who wrote pieces in the style of other composers and only later admitted they were his own.
"I think soloists have always done a lot of different things. If you go way back, soloists used to improvise all the time, they would write their own material for recitals, Kreisler, even....So I don't know that it really is a new thing, I think the forms that we have available to us are a little different," she said.
Nor is Hahn turning her back on the traditional concerto, which she says she loves, or chamber music, which once was one of her career options. She is doing her bit to rejuvenate the violin repertoire, commissioning the "Hilary Hahn Encores", a daunting effort on her part to get 26 contemporary composers, plus one wild card slot for anyone who sends in a winning entry to a website, to write pieces under five minutes long.
She's begun mixing the freshly minted encores into her recitals and while she is pleased with the results, she acknowledges that learning the music of literally dozens of composers whose music she's never played before is a challenge.
"It didn't occur to me that since I hadn't played a lot of these composers' music before there would be this whole process of figuring out how I relate to that particular piece. It's this musical language, so it's like learning a new language," she said.
"But I'm really excited how the project has come together. It could have been any kind of thing and it's turned into a really solid, very interesting project for me personally and people have reacted well to it, so I know it's not just in my head."
As a social-media savvy product of the age, Hahn does all the usual tweeting (under the guise of her snitch-prone violin case, which tells followers what she is cooking, what she is listening to and that Hilary has just gone out on a shopping binge) and provides interactive links on her website, offering a window for the general public, she says, onto what it's like inside the music world.
She's also "interviewed" a fish, a betta Siamese fighting fish, in this instance, in a video clip that can be seen on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xZl1_NXKls), starting with the obvious opening gambit, "So, what made you decide to become a fish?" The fish, of course, has very little to say on that, or any other subject.
Hahn denies it's a spoof of the "fishing expeditions" uninformed journalists may have engaged in when interviewing her, though she allowed as how she once was interviewed by a reporter who had no idea what she did for a living. Somehow, the published interview was all right, she said, and besides, she seems game for anything as she travels the world from one club and one concert hall to another, to advance the cause of music.
"I like to introduce people to what the music world really is because I think it's so multifaceted and full of such enthusiastic and interesting people doing things for such genuine reasons. I think that can sometimes get a little bit lost so it's nice to just present that and people can make of it what they like."
(This story was refiled to remove extraneous character in paragraph 9)
(Editing by Paul Casciato)