Violinist Hilary Hahn and composer Jennifer Higdon on their big new recording
The violinist Hilary Hahn is one of the most famous soloists in classical music, known for her flawless performances of Bach, Mozart, Tchiakovsky, and Stravinsky. At 30, she's been named the nation's best young classical musician by Time and has won two Grammys (and has performed a Bach solo at the awards).
But these days, she's asked more and more to play a recent piece by a far less canonical composer: Jennifer Higdon, whose 2008 violin concerto was composed for, and dedicated to, Hahn.
"My colleagues are asking, 'When can we do this together?'" Hahn, 30, said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. (Higdon was on the line, too, from her home in Philadelphia). "Conductors I haven't played it with are asking me if we can program it."
It isn't as surprising as it might seem that musicians are clamoring to perform a work by the 47-year-old composer. Higdon hasn't had many performances in New York, but she is one of the most successful classical composers in the country.
The New York Times recently cited data from the League of American Orchestras that "blue cathedral," her 13-minute work for orchestra from 2000, was the most frequently performed work in the 2007-08 season of those composed in the past 25 years. The San Francisco Opera has commissioned her first opera, scheduled to premiere in the fall of 2013. In fact, she's currently at some stage of work on nine different commissions, and is turning away far more than she takes on. The piece was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in April, the first win by a self-published composer.
So it is perhaps unsurprising how high the anticipation is running for a new recording of the violin concerto, featuring Hahn and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vasily Petrenko.
And all this will in turn likely direct more attention to the composer, as well as to Hahn: the violinist has performed world premieres before, but isn't very widely known for her work with new music. The two will be discussing the concerto and album at Housing Works Bookstore tonight at 7 p.m. in advance of the release date tomorrow. (Hahn will perform the piece, with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall in February.)
"I have to say, it means that everything I've ever written, people are ordering like crazy," Higdon said of the Pulitzer. "We have so many orders coming in every week, it's kind of staggering. Usually when a composer wins the Pulitzer it's a career boost, but my career was going very well. So I actually spend a lot of time turning down commissions, believe it or not. I've turned down probably about 30 or 40 comissions since the beginining of May."
Both she and Hahn were honest about how nice it can be to get more public recognition. The Pulitzer came soon after Higdon's Grammy for her percussion concerto, and Hahn has her two, receiving the most recent one for her 2008 recording of the Schoenberg and Sibelius violin concertos.
"When I started my recording career," Hahn said, "I hoped that someday the Grammy committee would notice something. With a Grammy, if you're releasing your record with a major label, you have a chance with any record. You also have a very long shot with every record. It was kind of this nice little thing I could put next to my name or in my bio. It could appear in front of my name and I'd be like, "Oh, I'm legitimate now!" When I won, I thought, O.K., that's done, and I can go on and make more recordings, and have this Grammy thing in my bio and that's great. Check!"
The two first met when Higdon taught Hahn in a 20th-century music class at the Curtis Institute in 1996, and Hahn performed in the premiere of a Higdon piece a few years later, but it wasn't until 2005 that the plans for the concerto were finalized. Like most major compositions these days, a consortium of orchestras banded together to support the commission, and the piece was premiered by The Indianapolis Symphony in February 2009.
"Hilary decided to record this before I had written it," Higdon said, emphasizing how rare that was for a major soloist. Hahn said, "If there was something that didn't really work in the piece for me, I knew we could talk about it, make it work. I knew her style. The biggest concern for me was deadlines, but I know Jennifer is really good with deadlines, so I trusted the quality of the piece already and I knew the logistical things would work out, too."
"That's what you call vision, though," Higdon insisted. "Vision and faith!"
It requires some faith on the part of the record label, too, as well as a shared vision between label and soloist. (Hahn left her first label, Sony Classical, in 2002 because of disagreements about future projects.) She said that Deutsche Grammophon had been supportive of the Higdon/Tchaikovsky project at its inception, and now, with the Pulitzer, that faith has paid off.
The piece itself is a big, capacious work, veering from orchestral bursts to quiet lyricism to the virtuosic solo flourishes at which Hahn excels. The quiet passages, which Hahn said were more challenging for her than the fast, note-heavy cadenzas, are among the concerto's best—the melancholy ending of the first movement, and the second movement, a series of chaconnes, which starts with the rhythmic regularity and simple openness of Copland, but soon spins off into something entirely fresh. The feel is often closer to that of a chamber orchestra, both in the intimacy of the arrangements and in the difficulty of the ensemble writing.
"I actually think it's one of the most demanding concertos for an orchestra," Higdon said. "It demands real playing from the orchestra, it's not just backup. While they're supporting Hilary, there are solos with individuals in the orchestra, and the solos are pretty hard. And I did that because the players in orchestras are now so good that they can actually do it."
The two recalled walking off the stage at the Indianapolis premiere and sitting in front of the computer for a video interview for Hahn's Youtube channel, featuring a series of talks the violinist has had with other musicians. (Her conversation with the composer Nico Muhly went up on Friday.) Both Hahn and Higdon are familiar with the ways in which being an artist in the 21st century can facilitate communication with audiences, as well as personal and professional flexibility, but can also make it hard to be, well, an artist.
"One challenge, if you do a website, a Youtube channel, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Ping, other things like that, is you don't have time to be an artist," Hahn said. "As a performer, you need to practice. From my perspective, I don't know how anyone would be able, if they have a daily blog and all that, to do that and focus on their work, the work that they're doing it to support. There are up sides, you just have to balance it."
Higdon had at one point become so overwhelmed by the day-to-day administrative tasks of being a composer—score rentals, shipping, balancing the books—that her partner, Cheryl Lawson, started working with her full time. (Their company, Lawdon Press, combines their two names.)
"The thing you actually need to be focusing on is your writing," Higdon said. "And that takes so many hours, even to generate just a small amount of music, that you really absolutely have to be focused on writing the music, because the other stuff won't amount to anything if you don't have the music there. That's a real danger I see with young artists that I worry about, young composers, too. They get too carried away with the career stuff and they're not as concerned with working on their music."
If it's tough for Higdon to find balance in her life and career, it's several times harder for Hahn, who has to achieve it while constantly traveling. She wishes there were some kind of unofficial organization of itinerant soloists, conductors, and singers, to offer each other advice and facilitate social interactions on the road.
"It's so hard to find artistic mindspace," she said of life in hotel rooms, "to really think about the work I do. I feel like when you graduate, often you have to find out who exactly you are as an artist and who you are as a person outside of the school structure."
But the challenges can also be much more concrete.
"I never thought," Hahn said, laughing, "about how to eat three meals a day when you're not at home."
"For me," she said, "with the online stuff, I'm trying to provide a resource. I'm not doing it for career purposes so much as to have a resource for young musicians to find out what it's like to have this kind of career."