What nature gave, a 12-year-old hones with discipline

December 15, 1991|By Linell Smith

Across a wide plain of Oriental carpet, a child in pink corduroy pants and candy cane turtleneck plays the violin. She plays the sort of music that leaves people momentarily helpless, that makes them remember things they once swore never to forget.

Her 84-year-old teacher bends toward her, the lining of his camel hair jacket dangling, his hand trembling slightly.

"Hold that beat longer, darling, enjoy it," he says in a voice flavored by the warm, sheltering accents of Russian. Later: "Could you make bigger crescendo if I gave you a quarter?"

Hilary Hahn polishes the third movement of the Saint-Saens concerto she will perform next Saturday with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The 12-year-old from Rodgers Forge is the youngest soloist to appear with the orchestra in recent memory, say BSO officials.

Hilary travels to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia twice a week to build her skills and her repertoire, to fuse her extraordinary gifts with extraordinary music. She receives not only the wisdom of her teacher Jascha Brodsky -- one of the world's most renowned violin instructors -- but also the wisdom of his teachers: Eugene Ysaye, the 19th century Franco-Belgian violinist, and Russian Efrem Zimbalist, the icon on whose former carpet she now stands.

There's always more to learn. As her violin produces ribbons of sound that seem to flame, she stands straight as a pencil, ponytail barely flicking.

"I wish you would move a little more, darling," Mr. Brodsky says. "People have eyes as well as ears."

She bends gracefully into the next passage. Steve Hahn, Hilary's father, sits to the side, recording Mr. Brodsky's comments and absorbing one of the most exclusive music scenes in the world. It's his daughter's second year at Curtis, the school of Leonard Bernstein, Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Gary Graffman, Richard Goode, Eugene Istomin and Anna Moffo. Because the conservatory's charter stipulates that tuition is free for all who attend, international competition is fierce for its roughly 160 spots.

Youngest in school

When Hilary was accepted into the conservatory's bachelor's degree program -- Curtis has no preparatory department -- she was the youngest in the school.

She still is.

The violinist, who turned 12 last month, is 4 feet 8 inches, 75 pounds and strong -- she works at improving her upper body strength every other day with chin-ups and sessions on a rowing machine.

She has a high forehead, skin like cool marble, a sprinkling of freckles. Her long curly hair has the subtle browns of winter landscapes. Her eyes are somewhere between green and blue. "Aqua," she insists.

Her fingers are long, tapered, supple, like her father's. The pinky finger on her left hand is about a quarter-inch longer than the one on her right hand; Steve Hahn calls this finger a violinist's dream.

Recently, Hilary began to use a full-sized violin, an 18th-century Viennese instrument on loan from Curtis, although she still uses a three-quarters-size bow.

She practices four to five hours a day -- about the same amount of time many 12-year-olds spend watching television.

"Sometimes I like practicing, sometimes I don't," she says. "But I like the result. . . . I hardly ever get discouraged. Maybe right when it's very hard to get something done correctly, but then the idea flashes through of how to fix it. And I get encouraged. And other ideas flow."

At Rodgers Forge Elementary School, which she attended through fifth grade, Hilary got straight A's. She's done almost as well with Calvert School's Home Instruction Department, the tutoring system she has used for two years. As an eighth-grade student, she's writing dialogue, studying about the Mormons and the Gold Rush, working fractions and learning global wind patterns.

She misses art teacher

What she misses most from regular school, she says, is her art teacher. Hilary paints, cross-stitches, designs wall hangings and has some good ideas about Popsicle sticks. She also talks about ballet and swimming, her 18-year-old cat Naomi, her friend Ann Donahoo, a PBS show about otters (the Hahns bought a television set only this summer) and her books -- especially fairy tales and anything by Madeleine L'Engle.

"Hilary likes everything," her father explains. "Performing is what she likes best, and the violin is her vehicle."

No one guessed she was musically remarkable at first. Hilary exhibited none of the popularized symptoms of musical precocity: no infant arias, no tuneful obsessions with xylophones, no inspired cutlery thumping. But she clearly was unusual.

"As a baby, we could always take Hilary to restaurants," her mother, Anne Hahn, says. "She would sit in the high chair and become totally absorbed with something like a piece of parsley. As a young child she had no trouble concentrating for long periods of time."

"She was 5 when I met her," says Klara Berkovich, the violin teacher whom the Hahns call Hilary's "musical mother."

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