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At age 33, two-time Grammy-winning violinist Hilary Hahn has already made a lasting impact on the violin repertoire, premiering two concertos written for her by American composers and championing both well- and lesser-known works in performance and recording. Hahn now delves deeper into the world of contemporary classical music, commissioning over two dozen composers to write short-form pieces for acoustic violin and piano. She toured half of the new works during the 2011/12 season and is now touring the second half of the new works during the 2012/13 season. Hahn is also recording the works. The project is called In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.
This idea began to take shape nearly a decade ago, when Hahn noticed that new encore pieces were not being showcased as much as other types of contemporary works. Shorter pieces remain a crucial part of every violinist’s education and repertoire, and Hahn believed potential new favorites should be encouraged and performed as well.
Of the project, she writes, “My initial goal was to expand the encore genre to embrace works of different styles. Because I was planning to play the commissioned pieces myself, it was important that the composers’ writing spoke to me in some way. I listened to a lot of contemporary classical music, for hours on end, often late into the night. I loved hearing things I had never heard before. I made nerve-wracking ‘cold calls’ to composers to ask them to participate in my project. I wasn’t sure what the reactions would be, but to my surprise, so many people were receptive that the project gained exhilarating momentum.
“It has been thrilling and an honor to get to know these composers as artists and to work with such different personalities and styles. Going into this project, I had no idea how much I would learn from it. Each composer brings his or her own musical language to the table. As a performer, the process of exploring these pieces is both challenging and exciting. The structure may be concise, but each work contains a wealth of expression.
“When composers put ideas down on paper, the aural world takes on a greater dimension. My hope is that these particular contributions will showcase the range of music being written today, while bringing enjoyment to listeners and performers alike.”
In addition to commissioning 26 composers to write short-form pieces for acoustic violin and piano, Hilary Hahn put out an open call for submissions on her website. Over 400 composers of diverse ages and nationalities submitted works. Each entry was made completely anonymously. As Hahn says, “Reviewing the pieces, I was glad that everything about the scores and audio files was anonymous. All I had to go on was the music itself: no identifying titles, handwriting, or names. I was eager to open the files as they arrived. It was interesting to see how different composers interpreted the encore as a musical form.” Jeff Myers’ work, The Angry Birds of Kauai, was selected as the winner and received its world premiere in South America in September 2012.
For every encore that was received, $2 has been donated to the music programs of Dramatic Need.
Some of the composers wrote notes about their encore, which appear below, followed by notes on the other works that complete the program.
Storm of the Eye
Elliott Sharp (b. 1951)
A projection of phosphenes and phantom images boiling inside the vitreous chamber, weather systems in miniature transposed down into the audible spectrum. Extended violin techniques used in Storm of the Eye allow the violin to become other instruments: percussive, electronic, sometimes undefinable, especially when combined with the piano’s output. However, when needed, fragmented hints of dark melody emerge from the maelstrom. A mini-concerto, Storm of the Eye’s nine sections are like time-slices cut from the arc of larger processes. Storm of the Eye was composed during a residency in 2009 at Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. The processes at work in this piece are core elements of my formal music. These strategies may also be heard in such recent pieces as The Boreal, composed for JACK Quartet, On Corlear’s Hook for Radiosinfonie Frankfurt, and Occam’s Razor for double string quartet.
David Lang (b. 1957)
Long before they were titans of American music, Philip Glass and Steve Reich were young composers – underappreciated, underpaid, and living in New York. Together they started a furniture-moving company to make ends meet, and they called it Chelsea Light Moving. I have always loved this name. Partly I love the poetic image of the ever-changing light dappling the streets of Chelsea. But I also love the other meaning: “We’re composers! No heavy lifting!” I think you can hear from the gentle propulsiveness of my piece Light Moving why it reminds me of those early days in New York.
Richard Barrett (b. 1959)
Although Shade was commissioned as an encore, probably the only aspect it has in common with a traditional encore is its duration – it has the character of a much larger composition which has been radically compressed into its present three-minute dimensions, within which are four distinct “movements,” each of which unfolds a different kind of sonic and structural relationship between violin and piano, and in the course of which a wide range of color and expression is explored. In the first, the violin emerges repeatedly from the resonance of piano cluster-chords; in the second, the violin weaves a convoluted thread through a dense but delicate piano texture; in the third, the two instruments are constantly and rapidly exchanging roles in a sequence of brief encounters; and finally, in the fourth, violin and piano gradually withdraw to extremely high and extremely low regions respectively. The idea of one instrument being (in) the shade of the other is a constant feature, although from one moment to the next it might not always be clear which is which. Keeping me company during work on this piece was Hilary’s recording of the Violin Concerto by Arnold Schoenberg, whose own “shade” appears at the very end, in the form of a somewhat oblique reference to his monodrama Erwartung.
The Angry Birds of Kauai
Jeff Myers (b. 1977)
The Angry Birds of Kauai was created specifically for the Hilary Hahn Encore Contest. This work was inspired by the multitudes of birds that squawk and sing in cacophony every morning on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
The melodies and gestures imitate the rapid birdsong banter that they accomplish when they call, respond, and furiously compete for mates. Though the birds may or may not be angry, I definitely was after being woken up in the countryside every morning at the crack of dawn. The piece is cast in a theme and variations format. The bird theme, heard at the beginning, is a series of twitters and shouts, with a smattering of fast arpeggios. Throughout the piece, this bird theme is subjected to ever increasing modifications, expansions, twists, and interruptions. The loud, intermittent bird chords represent the “angry” shrieking sounds which territorial birds sometimes make.
Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (b. 1947)
What is the outstanding quality of Hilary Hahn, who has at such a young age joined the ranks of the prominent stars of contemporary interpretational art? When one hears her live, on the station “Mezzo,” or on numerous YouTube videos, one comprehends that she is marked by a formidable level of energy. Her interpretations shine with sunny, joyfully colorful emotions; her playing is gripping and thrilling to hear. This young violinist copes with technical difficulties as if she came from another planet, giving virtuoso interpretations of the most complex pieces in the violin repertoire. This deep impression provided the first impetus, the first impulse to write a piece dedicated to her – a piece expressing youthful impetuosity and determination. The slow middle section embodies a sudden memory of childhood – pure visions. But then a storm grabs hold of the movement anew, impetuously driving it to a brilliant, bravura finale, as befits a piece with the title Encore for Hilary Hahn.
Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937)
Con moto, poco rubato, dolce, leggiero, lontano – these terms at the beginning of the score occur repeatedly in almost all my compositions, not only in those many smaller pieces (for various ensembles, mostly collected into cycles) I have been composing in the past ten years. One could call these years my “Period of Bagatelles.” Here, however, the small genres (fr. bagatelles = harmless trifle) are not simply mere musical irrelevancies, but sublime trivialities; they represent a whole philosophy, a way of thinking.
The short form makes it possible to capture the moment as it is and make it linger on (Ah, linger on, thou art so fair! after Goethe), without imposing the burden of what is termed thematic elaboration. In other words – the development of a moment musical is not the most important aspect of the music, nor even is its timbre, but rather the clarity and distinctiveness of the melody and the possibility to recognize it, to recall and to repeat it. In this way, the outwardly weak text is to be rendered and articulated in a special way: namely, the usually supportive means such as agogics, tempo, dynamics, and pedal use are now being brought more to the fore. What I am trying to do is to transform the musical style of bygone times, i.e. simple elements of the musical texture (such as triple meter, sequences, triads) by giving it a multi-dimensional, metaphorical meaning, and, despite any “neo”-connotations, a sense of modernity. Born out of silence and dissolving into silence, my music may leave a strangely rare reverberation in the interpreters’ and listeners’ awareness.
Sonata No. 1 in A major for Violin and Piano, Op. 13
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
In 1872 Camille Saint-Saëns, Fauré’s former piano teacher, introduced the younger composer to the great singer Pauline Viardot and her extended musical family and salon. Fauré dedicated a number of his songs to that influential doyenne, fell in love with her daughter Marianne (who would break off their engagement after three months), and dedicated his First Violin Sonata to her son, the violinist and composer Paul Viardot.
It was Marie Tayau, however, a rising young star and the leader of a pioneering all-female string quartet, who played the premiere in January 1877, with Fauré at the piano. “In this Sonata you can find everything to tempt a gourmet: new forms, excellent modulations, unusual tone colors, and the use of unexpected rhythms,” Saint-Saëns’ wrote. “And a magic floats above everything, encompassing the whole work, causing the crowd of usual listeners to accept the unimagined audacity as something quite normal. With this work Monsieur Fauré takes his place among the masters.”
That magic is quite apparent in moments such as the transition from the development section to the rapturous recapitulation in the opening movement, a songful sonata form with its lyrical freshness subtly supported by contrapuntal give-and-take. The second movement is a poignant instrumental ballad begun in D minor and closing in D major, which also makes enthralling use of counterpoint in the way the two inter-related themes entwine together. The vivacious scherzo, a sort of brilliant French hoedown, revels in sonority as much as rhythmic byplay and structural inspiration, and the finale goes beyond consummation and summation with verve and nerve.
— John Henken
Sonata No. 19 in E-flat major for Violin and Piano, K. 302
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
When Mozart’s first sonatas for violin and keyboard were published in 1764, it was as “Sonatas for Harpsichord, Which Can Be Played with Violin Accompaniment.” This was a rather modish genre at the time that also vividly marked a pronounced stylistic shift from music composed as horizontal layers to music constructed around vertical stacks.
Thirteen years later, the rapidly maturing composer was in Mannheim on a job-seeking tour, where he played six keyboard and violin duets by one Joseph Schuster. “They are not bad,” Mozart wrote to his father. “If I stay on I shall write six myself in the same style, as they are very popular here.” He carried through on this plan with six sonatas (known as the “Palatine” Sonatas from their dedication to the Electress of the Palatine) published in Paris the following year, 1778.
In these sonatas the ensemble balance is much more equitable. Like all but one of them, the Sonata in E-flat is in two movements – uncommon for Mozart, but not among his models. The first is a textbook sonata form, with a thematic development section that begins, dramatically, in the minor dominant. It is filled with the instrumental brilliance for which Mannheim music was famed. (And the urgent “Mannheim rocket” crescendo launched after the repetition of the opening loud/soft phrase, among many other examples in the keyboard part, was clearly conceived for the piano, not the harpsichord.)
The second movement is a rondo, but not the exuberant, Haydnesque sort. Rather it is an expressive Andante grazioso in the galant J.C. Bach mode popular in Mannheim, with a gently solemn refrain tune that Mozart varies simply but touchingly in texture. The extended final return of that theme is a particularly fine example of Mozart’s characteristic talent for taking a popular model and transcending and transfiguring it with genius.
— J. H.
Chaconne, from Partita No. 2 in D minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
A chaconne (ciaccona in the Italian form, which Bach used) is basically a set of continuous variations over a repeating harmonic pattern (and/or its bass line). This protean one moves in the rhythm of a sarabande (in 3/4, with the weight on the dotted second beat). It is in three-part form, with an exalted middle section in the parallel major.
“On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings,” Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann about the Chaconne. “If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”
The Chaconne has inspired reworking by later musicians in a multitude of transcriptions and arrangements, and has prompted extravagant ideas about the inner nature of its mysteries. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has developed a theory that the Chaconne is in fact a tombeau, a memorial piece for Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who died in 1720 unexpectedly while Bach was away with his employer, Prince Leopold of Cöthen. In her theory, which has been realized in several recorded arrangements, the Chaconne includes many references to pertinent chorales.
— J. H.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.