On December 9, 2021, Hilary Hahn strode onstage with her 1865 Vuillaume violin, wearing a Carolina Herrera gown with a red, orange, violet-blue, and lavender skirt, and publicly launched her two-year term as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Artist-in-Residence with a quadruple-stop downbow. She played Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A Minor with verve and fire, whipsawing from aching lyricism to virtuosic technical passages, spun out with a passion that belied their difficulty. During rests in the solo part, she kept her posture engaged with the Orchestra, leaning into phrases and feeling the articulation, almost as if she were the conductor and not Andrés Orozco-Estrada. After the concerto, the near-capacity audience tried to match her powerful performance with applause, and she graciously rewarded us with the Largo movement from Bach’s Sonata No. 3 for solo violin, played with a contemplative intimacy that held the audience rapt.
The subscription concert marked Hahn’s first local appearance since the June announcement of her appointment as the CSO’s Artist-in-Residence. She is the first person on whom the Orchestra has ever bestowed the title, and while she holds it, she will make multiple visits per year to Chicago for music making and community building. “Music is bonding,” Hahn says. “It’s healing. Every one of us has something in common beyond being in the hall at the same place, at the same time, listening to the same piece.” Hahn continued, “I think the common connections of humanity and music are really deep, and that’s what I like to explore in a residency.”
During her December visit, organized by the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute, Hahn spent a school-day morning at Northside College Preparatory High School. For a session in the Cedric L. Hampton Center for the Performing Arts, she coached four young players on Grażyna Bacewicz’s Quartet for Four Violins, in what Hahn said was her first-ever coaching of a chamber group. After the quartet played through the piece and a gentle insistence that the shy group bow for applause, she asked, surprisingly, “Have you listened to much organ music?” She talked about how the theme of the piece should pop out of the texture because of its distinctive character, something that’s easy to do on a pipe organ by changing the registration. She took the players through a series of experiments — “try it drier,” “close your eyes,” “find the space inside the sound” — and wrapped up with compliments and more applause.
She then coached a string quartet on Waiting in the Misty Woodland, a piece newly composed by the quartet’s violist, Ellen Campbell. The piece jumped mercurially among the gamut of string articulations, from pizzicatos to long bowings. After the playthrough, Hahn waxed poetic about the opportunity offered when a musician works with a living composer, something she knows quite a bit about, prominently from her album In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, a collection of twenty-seven encore-length commissions (Hahn said learning the music was “for me, the equivalent of twenty-seven violin concertos”).
“The composer can plant inspirational or aspirational ideas for the sound-world of the piece in the minds of the players, and the performers’ job is to inhabit it,” Hahn said. “The more rewarding it is to inhabit, the better,” she added. Campbell described the essence of the piece as the experience of traveling for Thanksgiving, seeing autumnal scenes through the car window, and finally arriving at the end. Hahn had the quartet play some passages again with this scheme of images in mind, committing to conveying mood over accuracy and setting up a dynamic effect like a cinematic scene break at the end. One of the violinists hit their stand with the bow, swept up in the attempt. “Don’t worry—that shows commitment,” Hahn said, with twinkling warmth.
The following morning in Buntrock Hall at Symphony Center, Hahn led a master class of students from the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, a nonprofit organization that removes barriers for young BIPOC musicians on their way to top-tier conservatory or university music programs and a partner of the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute. Hahn coaxed a bolder, brighter soloistic tone out of a thirteen-year-old playing Bruch’s Concerto in G minor. In an already polished interpretation of Korngold’s Violin Concerto, she answered a request from a 16-year-old to help her find more precise articulations. And for another 16-year-old bravely presenting the very same concerto by Dvořák that Hahn was playing with the CSO that week-end, she helped him find a more fiery tone in some difficult passages.
Later this season, Hahn returns to perform a mixed chamber program on April 1 with cellist Seth Parker Woods and pianist Andreas Haefliger as part the Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music series. Hahn and Woods will play a duo by Zoltán Kodály, she and Haefliger will play Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10, and the trio will play be still and know by Carlos Simon, the current composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The title of Simon’s piece comes from a quote from Oprah Winfrey, referring to the experience of mindfully feeling presence within calm. For Hahn, the idea resonates with her philosophy of music as a vehicle for human connection.
“Being a performer and being still in moments onstage, I do have a sense of enormous overlapping layers of presence,” she says. “History, composers who have gone before me, the thousands of hours of great performances that have left some sort of mark in the space, or, more immediately, the audience — the presence of all of us together is really powerful.”
Future residencies will include more concert appearances, master classes, community engagement, and hopefully extensions of some of her own projects, such as the Bring Your Own Baby concerts, where she plays complex, ear-stimulating, un-stressful music such as solo Bach for caregivers to the smallest and squalliest audience members, in a setting where their noises and biological necessities are welcome.
Her greatest contribution to Chicago during her term, though, may be the chance for all of us to be exposed to her particular approach to music and music making: clear-eyed but not simplistic, cerebral but not sterile, self-aware but not self-serious. As she said in response to a questioner at Northside who asked how she came to the violin (the questioner herself came to it directly from watching Hahn play Mendelssohn’s E minor concerto on YouTube). “I didn’t have a moment where I said, ‘Can I please play violin?’ I was lucky to have stumbled across it,” said Hahn. “I love the physical feel of playing it, of activating my voice, that it is somehow talking. It’s also close to the heart.” She paused. “It sounds hokey, but it’s also physically true.”
Beauty is truth, Keats told us, in half his famous inversion. It’s also intelligence, humor and joy.