The careful nurturing of Hilary Hahn Prodigy: The violinist shows maturity beyond her 18 years when it comes to taking on some of the music world's most challenging compositions.

June 04, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Because Hilary Hahn is only 18 and because she is about to play the most beautiful and musically profound work in the violin-and-orchestra repertory, the first question seems inevitable.

Is it intimidating to perform Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D?

"Always exciting, but not really scary," says the Baltimore-bred teen-ager, whose tumbling, golden brown ringlets, ivory skin and soul-penetrating eyes make her resemble a taller, prettier Sarah Jessica Parker.

"I learned it [the Beethoven] when I was 14, I made my German debut with it when I was 15 and I've played it a lot since," says Hahn, who performs the Beethoven with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday in Meyerhoff Hall.

This is, after all, the same young woman who made her first recordings at 16 and 17, performing the last three solo sonatas and partitas of Bach (Sony Classical SK 62793) -- perhaps the greatest music ever written for her instrument -- with startling freshness and majestic poise. Anyone comfortable at the Himalayan altitudes of Bach's Partita in D minor need have nothing to fear from the Beethoven concerto. Hahn's magisterial command on that recording made it sound as if she had been playing the music almost all her life.

"I have been playing it almost all my life," she says with a smile.

"Of course," says the red-faced interviewer. "You've been playing those pieces since you were a kid."

"I still am a kid," Hahn gently corrects him.

That's Hilary Hahn in a nutshell. She combines musical maturity way beyond her years with a charming sense of composure. She's the teen-ager from heaven; a miracle of centeredness. Of all the brilliant female violin prodigies of the last 20 years -- Anne-Sophie Mutter, Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, Midori and Sarah Chang, among them -- Hahn seems to be the one who has best managed the perilous balance between chronological innocence and musical experience.

You can hear it in the way she performs the huge and famously difficult chaconne that concludes the Bach D minor partita. Although this music has been recorded by almost every great violinist since the dawn of recorded sound, Hahn approaches it with utter fearlessness. She plays it more slowly than any violinist in history, yet her performance never sounds slow; it unfolds majestically and with heretofore unimagined gravitas.

It's hard to imagine how such an interpretation was arrived at by a violinist so young -- even one who has been playing Bach since she was 5.

"There are so many moods in that piece and I discover something new in it every time I play it," she says.

In many ways, Hahn's upbringing sounds like that of any other prodigy. She began playing the violin before her 4th birthday and at 5 became a student of Klara Berkovich at the Peabody Conservatory. When she was 10, the astonished David Zinman heard her. By the time she made her debut with the BSO a year later, she was a full-time student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

She studied there for 6 1/2 years with Jascha Brodsky. He was the last surviving student of the great Belgian Eugene Ysaye and Brodsky's lineage (through his other teacher, Efrem Zimbalist) extended to the Leopold Auer school of imperial St. Petersburg.

Despite a pedigree that synthesizes the best of the two dominant schools of violin playing -- Franco-Belgian and Russian jTC -- Hahn might be the girl-next-door. She was raised carefully -- and not just musically.

Her parents, Stephen and Anne Hahn, recognized early that raising any child is a tough job and that raising a prodigiously gifted one is even harder. Hilary was home-educated. When she matriculated as a college student at Curtis at age 12, Mr. Hahn rented an apartment in Philadelphia so that for five days a week -- they returned to Baltimore every weekend -- his daughter could have a semblance of a normal home life. Her mother is the head of tax research at Baltimore Gas & Electric; her father, Hilary says, "does a little bit of everything."

In other words, her father, who did graduate work in theology and was working as a journalist when Hilary was born, has largely devoted his life to his daughter.

Instead of exploding from the gate, her career has been kept to a deliberate pace. After her debut with the BSO in 1991, she slowly made appearances with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony. Two weeks ago, she made her Vienna debut with Lorin Maazel conducting the Bavarian State Orchestra in the Beethoven concerto.

That she has been loved wisely and well is something that Hahn, who is close to her parents, recognizes and appreciates. She also knows that she's been lucky in her mentoring -- first by Berkovich, then by Zinman and Maazel, and, most of all, by her beloved teacher Brodsky, who died in March 1997 and to whose memory her Bach album is dedicated.

"He was a sweet and wonderful man," Hahn says.

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