Celebrating Hilary Hahn's tenure as the CSO's Artist-in-Residence

Hilary Hahn has served as the CSO's first Artist-in-Residence for three seasons

Dana van Leeuwen/Decca

Show don’t tell. Soloists want conductors who actually support them during a performance and don’t just offer assurances ahead of time.

“You can say it all you want, but once we get on stage, we know in 10 seconds if you have us or not,” said Grammy Award–winning violinist Hilary Hahn, who will a complete three-year artist residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the end of the 2023–24 season.

That pithy observation was among dozens that she offered on the little-discussed art of orchestral accompaniment during a masterclass she led in March with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and three emerging conductors — Kyle Dickson, Micah Gleason and Nicholas Koo.

It was exactly the kind of unusual and innovative initiative that has long distinguished Hahn as anything but a conventional soloist and has brought enormous variety and novelty to her time in Chicago.

“I’m always curious about a lot of things,” she said, “I like to explore things, and I like to have a community. So, a lot of what I do is about community-building.”

“I’m always curious about a lot of things . . . I like to explore things, and I like to have a community. So, a lot of what I do is about community-building.”

Most of the time, violinists, singers, pianists and other soloists spend a week or so with the CSO in rehearsals and performances and have few other interactions with the musicians or the rest of the community.

But in June 2021, in a bid for a deeper such relationship, Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti appointed Hahn as the CSO’s inaugural Artist-in-Residence, with an initial term of two years, beginning with the 2021–22 season, that was later extended.

The violinist, who has taken part in past residencies at such venues as the Konzerthaus in Vienna and is also a 2023–24 artist-in-residence at the New York Philharmonic, enjoys such collaborations because they give her a sense of having a musical home. She likes her regular itinerant solo appearances. “But it’s also nice to feel like you belong somewhere,” she said, “and you are part of something.”

In each of the three seasons, she has made several visits to Chicago, each centered on a set of concerts with the CSO or a recital on the Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music series like a March 19, 2023, program of selected J.S. Bach solo sonatas and partitas as part of the Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music series. 

“Whenever I get to play a solo Bach recital in a great venue,” she said, “I feel a connection to the venue that I didn’t have before. I don’t feel like anymore that I’m trying to read the room. Once I do that, I feel like it’s part of me and I’m part of it. So, that was really special.”

Highlights of her appearances with the CSO have included December 9-11, 2021, performances of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto marking the 130th anniversary of the U.S. premiere by the CSO, and Dec. 7-9, 2023, concerts with Brahms’ Violin Concerto. The latter was her first opportunity to work in the United States with Mikko Franck, a familiar conductor with whom she recorded a 2021 album titled Paris.

The orchestra has a strong, well-established identity, she said, but she discovered during her residency that it can also be flexible and adaptable. “When they know you as a soloist,” she said, “and when they adopt you sort of into their world, they will move with you. They come to you, and you can go to them.”

While such concerts have been among the most visible facets of her residency, they represent just a portion of her Chicago projects. Working with the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute, the violinist has also taken part in an array of community and educational outreach activities. “The Negaunee Institute is gold,” she said. “I wasn’t so aware of their work before, and I have such admiration for everything they do.”

“The Negaunee Institute is gold . .  I wasn’t so aware of their work before, and I have such admiration for everything they do.”

In some cases, she has plugged into existing programs like Notes for Peace, which the Negaunee Institute began in 2018 in partnership with the support group, Purpose Over Pain, and the British-based Irene Taylor Trust. Members of the Civic Orchestra and others lead songwriting sessions for families who have lost a loved one to gun violence, and the resulting works are performed at community concerts and preserved on high quality recordings.

As part of her participation, for example, Hahn was part of a team that wrote a song devoted to Marquise Richardson. She performed it alongside vocalist Leah Dexter at a March 2024 Notes for Peace Celebration, in which 12 such songs were performed and their dedicatees memorialized.

“It’s very special to be part of that,” Hahn said of Notes for Peace, “because it’s such a huge issue and there is no way you can possibly encompass every single person’s life who has been taken. But at least for a few people, you can bring people together around the music, and the music is very concretely serving a purpose.”

The violinist has also initiated her own projects, such as Bring Your Own Baby, a continuation of a series of informal one-hour concerts she has undertaken elsewhere for parents and guardians with babies 11 months and younger. Her Chicago installment took place in March 2023 in Symphony Center’s Buntrock Hall. 

As a mother of two children, Hahn discovered that her “recharge places,” like museums, ballets, and concerts, were too often off-limits to babies. So, she decided to create an environment where adults could get the musical refreshment they sought while not giving up their caregiving responsibilities.

“What you see is that the children actually pick up on the fact that the parents are comfortable and no one is worried, so that they act totally normally,” Hahn said. “They usually just nap. If they cry, it’s just for a short time.”  And if they do cry, she is unconcerned. “Because I have two kids, I can play through anything. It’s not a problem for me,” she said.

In April 2023, she traveled to the Chicago High School for the Arts in the Humboldt Park neighborhood for the violinist called a “big experiment. She spent time with about 30 art students, exploring how the emotions and physicality of music could impact their work.

Other activities have included coaching chamber groups at Northside College Preparatory High School and leading a masterclass for the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, which provides support for promising BIPOC musicians.

And, of course, there was that March masterclass on orchestral accompaniment. “I don’t really have a plan, but I have a goal,” she said at the time, unabashedly acknowledging that she had never tried anything like it before.

She shared her experiences and offered tips. She wanted the young conductors to anticipate her moves as a soloist, but she also wanted them to exert their musical ideas and not just follow her. “That’s part of the dance,” she said.

Mentoring, performing, collaborating, experimenting and sharing. That’s what Hahn’s three-year odyssey with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been all about.  

The Artist-in-Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is made possible through a generous gift from James and Brenda Grusecki.