Sonic Youth

December 18, 2005|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

HILARY HAHN REMEMBERS THE long-ago concert at Zion Lutheran Church the way you might recall details of your first big day at school: It was her maiden voyage to the Planet of Public Performance.

She was 6 years old. And she had a fever of 102.

"I thought I might as well go on and play the concert, and when I finished, the fever was gone," she recalls. "That was the first time I realized that when adrenaline kicks in, it can start the healing process and help you recover faster."

She also discovered, as she was playing, that her eyes instinctively sought out the bow area of her instrument -- the place that would become her concert focal point.

Nineteen years later, the internationally acclaimed artist will return to the church again -- this time to perform a benefit concert of chamber music. Hahn appears Dec. 22 with soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme, violinist Qing Li and other BSO musicians on a program that includes several works by J.S. Bach. All will donate their services.

The concert marks the finale of Zion Lutheran's 250th anniversary celebration -- the church still holds services in German as well as English -- and will raise money to restore the organ.

"I grew up going to that church," Hahn says. "It didn't have a large congregation, it was more of a specialty church. But it's really historic and it's important for Baltimore to take care of its history."

The benefit concert also underscores the violinist's role as a cultural link, attracting diverse audiences to experience art music in venues that range from Carnegie Hall to a Florida saloon. Now 26, the former Baltimorean has become known as an artist who freshens up the image of classical music without sacrificing a note of its integrity.

This fall, for instance, Hahn became perhaps the first classical musician to go on a recital tour of American cities via an Airstream bus. Her record company, Deutsche Grammophon, helped pay for the giant wrap-around graphic bearing her portrait, a photo of her new CD of Mozart sonatas and Web site information.

Earlier this year, she broadened her audience by performing a waltz on Worlds Apart, the latest CD by ... and you will know us by the trail of dead, the alternative rock band based in Austin, Texas.

In 2004, she was featured as a soloist on the Oscar-nominated soundtrack of M. Night Shyamalan's film The Village.

Counter-cultural

The violinist easily bridges generations and mindsets. When her Mozart album made its debut in October, Hahn ranked No. 44 on the iTunes list. The only classical album to make the Top 100, she was wedged snugly between The Best of Snoop Dogg and Get Behind Me Satan by the White Stripes. (So far, 26 percent of the CD's sales have been digital, according to Universal Music Group. Usually, a classical CD's digital sales represent no more than 10 percent.)

On her recent recital tour, the violinist estimates that half of her audiences were under the age of 30 -- as were roughly 90 percent of the folks at her popular CD signings.

"Maybe I'm being naive, or maybe I'm just tired of hearing the same thing over and over, but I think classical music's perception of itself is a little off," Hahn says. "Growing up as a classical musician, you're taught a lot about outreach and about how people aren't being taught music in school. But you don't have to study music to like it. And a lot of the music that people like -- be it jazz or rock or opera -- is stuff they haven't studied."

Hahn suspects that going to classical concerts is becoming almost counter-cultural.

"As more people get into indie bands and alternative music, they're also getting more into other genres that fit those categories, like jazz and classical. It's becoming more rebellious to go to a classical concert. You're getting the younger art house crowd and regular students as well as those who are just curious."

The blossoming of new concert halls and venues for art music, as well as an increased number of festivals, suggest that the imagined demise of classical music is greatly exaggerated, she says.

Peabody roots

Originally trained at Peabody Preparatory Department, Hahn made her orchestral debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra when she was 12. By then, she was the youngest student enrolled in Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. She received her bachelor's degree when she was 19 -- several years after making her debut at Carnegie Hall and cutting her first solo album, a performance of the music of Bach.

Time magazine named her "America's Best" young classical musician in 2001, also the year that she added a Grammy to her shelf of awards. Two years later, her recording of Bach concertos sold 115,000 copies, making her one of the world's most popular young classical artists.

Hahn is one of a handful of classical musicians -- including Yo-Yo Ma, Cecilia Bartoli, Joshua Bell and Renee Fleming -- whose CDs regularly sell in the six digits, according to a spokesperson for Universal Music Group.

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