The World on a STRING

Evolution of an ARTIST

VIOLINIST HILARY HAHN -- from marvel to mature musician, from Rodgers Forge to the world.

Cover Story

February 20, 2000|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff

ST. LOUIS -- Hilary Hahn stands on the stage of the ornately gilded concert hall wearing clunky high-heeled loafers, black bell-bottom pants and a dark tank top. Her glorious waves of copper-colored hair pinned back, her antique violin in hand, she gazes fondly at her fellow musicians as if this rehearsal were actually a Welcome Home party.

It could be -- especially when the honored guest is Beethoven. This morning the young soloist and the members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra are rehearsing one of the most famous violin concertos in the repertoire: Beethoven's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major.

This young woman, barely out of her teens, has received a Grammy nomination for recording it with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. As she rehearses here in the former St. Louis movie palace, she bends gracefully across the composer's emotions like the ballet student she once was at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

During a break, concertmaster David Halen asks Hahn to play his violin: He wants to hear how it sings in her hands. He stands midway back in the empty hall listening raptly, the first of several orchestra members to request this favor. It's like watching Gelsey Kirkland dance in your pointe shoes, John Updike use your word processor: Some of the magic might rub off.

"I feel my violin is being played in a way that is in its purest form," Halen says later. "It's the purest sound with very little technical idiosyncrasy."

Accepting the notion of such mastery with such youth is challenging, but not nearly as much as it used to be.

"When she was 13, 14, you'd close your eyes and think you were listening to someone 50 years old with a lifetime of experience," says concert violinist Jaime Laredo. "And you'd open your eyes and there would be this little girl, a child who would bake cookies and bring them to class."

The child is now 20.

This past year, Hahn recorded her third CD, launched a U.S. and European recital tour, made her debut with the Berlin Philharmonic and performed at Lincoln Center. Along the way, she also soloed with a number of orchestras, appeared at chamber music festivals and even visited "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."

Next month, after she returns from Europe and her first tour of Scandinavia, Hahn will perform in Maryland, close to her childhood home in Rodgers Forge. And she will no doubt record the experience in her Internet journal. For the past year, the violinist has written a travelogue, illustrated with digital photos, on a Web site provided for her by Sony, her recording company. She has described visits to more than 40 cities, reflecting on topics such as concert hall acoustics, recording sessions and how to order pizza in Italy: " 'Pepperoni' refers to 'bell peppers' and 'salami' (picante) to what we Americans call 'pepperoni.' "

"Touring is a more varied and interesting existence than I would have imagined," she says, in a break between practicing and rehearsing. "If you'd have asked me 10 years ago, I would have thought this life would be far more isolated. ... But I'm not separated from family, and I see people who I would normally keep up with only through letters. I get to work with a lot of great musicians -- many I wouldn't have expected to work with -- and see how they form their lives around their music and how they approach it."

This young woman with the marble-smooth skin, blue-green eyes and turned-up nose is not easily categorized. Her politeness and enthusiasm remind you of a college kid interviewing for a summer job. But she is also very firm about how much time she can spare to talk about herself; her career has progressed rapidly, and seamlessly, by maintaining a disciplined approach to her schedule.

Teachers also mention Hahn's extraordinary ability to concentrate and her drive for perfection, a trait that also impressed Sony recording producer Tom Frost.

Frost, who has produced all three of Hahn's CDs, first worked with her when she was 16. They were using the acoustically sublime Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in Albany, N.Y., to record the teen-ager's debut album, a solo performance of the music of Bach. The project was a tall order for the most seasoned of musicians, Frost recalls, and in this instance, the weather was no friend. Summer sessions in the hall, which was not air-conditioned, were hellishly hot. The March recordings, done without heat because of the noise of the system, were frigid.

Recording at night to lessen the interference of traffic sounds, Hahn seemed oblivious to temperature extremes as well as to the clock. She reluctantly ended one session at 5 in the morning, Frost remembers, only so she could pack and catch the plane for her next concert engagement.

"She kept on playing for hours and hours, almost without stopping. She never complained, she just kept on going," he says. "She was the least tired of any of us -- because of the energy the music gives her."

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