Hilary Hahn channels her own inner child

What happens when a musical prodigy grows up? Look to American violinist Hilary Hahn, the international concert artist and three-time Grammy winner who has come on board this season as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first-ever Artist-in-Residence, with a focus on strengthening the CSO’s connections with the larger Chicago community.

Her initial appearance in her new role comes during performances of Dvořák's Violin Concerto with the CSO under Andrés Orozco-Estrada on Dec. 9-11. The concerto has local historical significance: The newly formed Chicago Symphony gave the Dvořák work its U.S. premiere on Oct. 30 and 31, 1891, at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, with the orchestra’s first concertmaster, Max Bendix, in the solo slot and the orchestra’s founder, Theodore Thomas, at the helm. The Chicago Symphony’s first concert ever had occurred just two weeks before the Dvořák event, and thus the orchestra was altogether brand-new in that moment 130 years ago.

Hahn’s residency activities for this season also may include a project involving some of the city’s newest listeners in her signature “Bring Your Own Baby" concerts. The idea is that infants and their parents will experience music played in a very casual and spontaneous environment as Hahn, who’s a mother of two herself, ambles among the wriggling guests. (Here’s a clip of Hahn in Lyon, France, performing among little ones who were clearly intrigued.)

Indeed, Hahn is an indefatigable music ambassador who still channels her own inner child: She recently played Paganini for a live audience while simultaneously Hula-Hooping on a dare! More on that episode later, but first, a quick trip through the violinist’s beginnings: when not yet 4 years old, Hahn started playing the violin in group Suzuki classes in Baltimore. Acquiring the language of music at that age can seem as natural as acquiring English itself.

Here she is, poised at age 10, about the time she was admitted to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, a private conservatory for exceptionally gifted musicians, who receive full scholarships:

At age 14, while still studying at Curtis, Hahn made her New York Philharmonic debut, stepping in for Midori, another prodigy (though eight years her senior). Hahn was also 14 at her Boston Symphony debut, led by Leonard Bernstein, when she kept her cool with improvised fingerings to compensate for two broken strings. At 15, the young artist made her German debut with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Here’s the Bach Gigue in D Minor that she played as an encore while charmed musicians watched. 

In her maturity, Hahn has focused increasingly on broadening classical music’s reach to younger audiences, student musicians and people not necessarily raised on classical music. Recent posts on her Instagram account @violincase include tips for overcoming collapsing pinkies, whistling E-strings and stage fright, along with her own diary-style shots of hotel rooms, airports, backstages, master classes and food. And at her Instagram account #100daysofpractice, the contributions of her young colleagues prevail, with all sorts of tips for warming up, double-stops and staying frisky as they compete with one other in their practice marathon that aims for 100 unbroken days in a row.

Hahn is always reaching out for collaborators who challenge her in new ways. On April 1, Hahn will perform in an SCP Chamber Music recital at Orchestra Hall, with cutting-edge American cellist Seth Parker Woods (whose solo debut album from London's Confront Recordings is asinglewordisnotenough), and German-born Swiss pianist Andreas Haefliger (a Cliburn Competition juror who believes that kung-fu can provide useful training in his artistic quests).

As for hula-hooping Paganini on a dare, the challengers were the Australian violinists TwoSetViolin, who maintain a YouTube site with 3.4 million page views. Hahn is a popular and frequent guest on their channel; the Paganini Caprice No. 24 performed while Hula-Hooping — in which the three compete to outlast the others — is an all-time favorite episode.

Hahn loses the challenge, collapsing in giggles as the Hula-Hoop falls to her feet, but the playing is outrageously good, considering. There are plenty of other challenges, such as performing a famously difficult piece with the fiddle in the wrong hand. The thing is, though, she actually nails most of these tests. They’re impossible, but the impossible remains in Hilary Hahn's comfort zone.