The Hilary Hahn Encores Project

TurkeyTurkey Corelli, Bach, Fauré, Howard, Abril, Bates, Ramnath, Myers, Ali-Zadeh, Oshima, Turnage: Hilary Hahn (violin), Cory Smythe (piano), Istanbul Is Sanat Virtuoso Series, Istanbul 03.01.13 (AM)

Arcangelo Corelli: Violin Sonata No. 4, Op. 5 in F Major
James Newton Howard: 133… at Least (World Premiere)
Antón García Abril: Three Sighs (World Premiere)
Mason Bates: Ford’s Farm (World Premiere)
J.S. Bach: Chaconne from Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004
Kala Ramnath: Aalap and Tarana (World Premiere)
Jeff Myers: Angry Birds of Kauai
Gabriel Fauré: Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 13 in A Major
Franghiz Ali-Zadeh: Impulse
Michiru Oshima: Memories
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Hilary’s Hoedown

I don’t know about ‘something borrowed’ and ‘something blue’, but the wedding of Hilary Hahn’s violin and Cory Smythe’s piano indeed featured ‘something old’ and ‘something new’ with staples of standard sonata repertoire peppered with gems from Ms. Hahn’s recent ‘In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores project,all played to perfection.

As convivial and lacking in harmonic contrast it might be, it is always edifying to hear a Corelli violin sonata as a precursor to the developed sonata/concerto form if for nothing else. What is lacking in harmonic contrast is made up for in the composer’s incessant tempo changes (offering the soloist ample opportunities to exhibit diverse temperaments within the music’s tapered structure). This light opening piece gave Ms. Hahn and Mr. Smythe a chance to coordinate themselves for the heavier action that was to follow.

Hilary Hahn’s Chaconne, perfectly timed to fifteen minutes was, as expected, mesmerizing. She started on a subdued tone in presenting the renowned phrase and the initial toccata variants, but she amplified her dynamics as the music grew on counterpoint creating the illusion of an added violin upon each new arriving voice. The middle major key section was executed gracefully, but also with an underlying agitation, allowing the return to the main theme to come out as naturally as Bach intended.

It is my purely personal opinion that Faure is a truly boring composer and his Violin Sonatas, with their over-romanticism to the point of disingenuity, may just be the pinnacle of his supercilious musical language. I would normally consider the A Major Sonata’s opening movement with its achingly long melody lines lost in a jumble of overtly expressionistic harmonies, an exercise in futility. But here, the competent team managed to give the audience a meticulous and sober reading by deciphering the music phrase by phrase and playing out both their solo and companion duties to the hilt. The duo comfortably shape-shifted into a tranquil singing tone in the musically more substantial Andante and a lightly biting humor in the whimsical Scherzo.

Ms. Hahn and Mr. Smythe’s extraordinary performances in the Corelli, Bach and Faure withstanding, the 8 pieces chosen from Hahn’s 27 Encores project were the true highlights of the evening. The violinist who had chosen 4 pieces off the project for their world premiere this evening, kept the scores nearby just in case, but hardly ever needed them.

James Newton Howard’s ‘133… at Least’, the first of the encores, with its restless structure built around falling chromatic scales is a world apart from the film soundtracks he is generally known for. The two minute piece demands perfect synchronization, particularly in its coda, which was duly executed. Next up was Antón García Abril, a composer also known for his film and TV projects in his own right. His ‘Three Sighs’, based on lyrical themes interspersed with sharp piano arpeggios often runs on two voices from the violin. Ms. Hahn calibrated her sound to a soft and breathy timbre, contrasting Mr. Smythe’s harsh dynamics. As the melody got more restless as it progressed, the diffused violin sounded more and more out of place, and we were left as if we were looking at a pastoral painting with hints of sinister placed here and there.

Mason Bates’ contribution to the Hilary Hahn project was the one I was looking forward to hearing the most. Being one of the most interesting, creative and genre-b(l)ending composers alive, I was curious to hear what influences he would bring in to the mix. ‘Ford’s Farm’ started with a gentle caress from Ms. Hahn playing the pizzicato opening alternating with a fiddle melody in two and three lines. With the introduction of the piano, the music morphed into something like contemporary baroque dance music accented with sharp beats that revealed the composer’s DJ Masonic persona. Bates’ short but fast virtuosic passages for each instrument, and call for rhythmic unison was easily handled by the soloists. Kala Ramnath’s ‘Aalap and Tarana’, another world premiere, is an ethnic piece that presents plenty of challenges for the violinist, both technical and artistic. Although the melody is of Indian descent in feel, Ramnath has used progressive scales in its construction. Mr. Smythe provided the base of the music in intervals of fifth and octaves in the bass register, while Ms. Hahn performed the byzantine melody in all its aspects, which included plenty of portamentos to accommodate the microtones.

Jeff Myers’ ‘The Angry Birds of Kauai’ (no relation to the popular computer game), the winner among the more than 400 works that were submitted for the project, is built upon a wide range of influences from Filipino kulintang music to overtone music. Mostly dodecaphonic in style, this high strung music gives equal weight to both instruments where the violin mimics the sound of exotic birds while the piano provides the sound of nature in the background. Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s ‘Impulse’ another 12-tone work with heavy Schonberg influences came next. With piano stabs working against Ms. Hahn’s melody lines covering multiple octaves with lots of jetes and tremolos was a truly excitable piece. Michiru Oshima’s ‘Memories’ with its rush romanticism against an unnervingly dissonant backdrop provided some antidote to the nervous atmosphere. The work resembled the soundtracks of Yasujirō Ozu films not only in its unassuming qualities, but also in its ethereal ending disappearing into thin air. The final piece of the evening, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Hilary’s Hoedown’ true to its namesake, was a fast moving, swirling dance in which Ms. Hahn seemed to have the most fun playing where she jumped at the opportunity to do some fiddling.

All in all, this evening marked by the fruits of Hilary Hahn’s forward thinking musicianship and the camaraderie between two fines musicians, was extremely satisfying.

Alain Matalon